On this date in 1560, a French peasant was hanged outside the home he had made with another man’s wife in the southwestern French village of Artigat (or Artigues).
A poignant, perplexing tale of identity and social place — and possibly even of love — the story of Martin Guerre is at once exactingly local to its time and place, and timeless in its principals’ humanity.
As told in Natalie Zemon Davis’ captivating social history The Return of Martin Guerre, the restless (or ill-tempered) young titular peasant — impotent with his wife Bertrande, tense living with his father-in-law, chafing in rural Artigat — got out of town in 1548, joined one of the soldiering companies crisscrossing Europe, and was heard of no more.
In the centuries before fingerprints, credit cards, cell phones and Facebook, Guerre just disappeared. Constrained by Catholic law not to remarry without proof of his death, Bertrande just had to wait.
Until “Martin” returned in 1556 simply by reappearing at Artigat — moved in with Bertrande — resumed the vanished man’s name and with it his place in the village. There were suspicions from the first that he wasn’t quite right … but this man had Martin’s stories, and the villagers didn’t have so much as a photograph to test him against.
Martin was accepted in Artigat for three-plus years, fathered two children with Bertrande, and managed the estate as head of household. In Davis’s telling, he appears much the better husband and father than the pre-1548 version, and this bolsters her case that Bertrande must have been complicit in the fraud that unraveled in 1560.
Property and inheritance conflicts with Martin Guerre’s uncle (now married to Bertrande’s widowed mother) brought to the courts the novel case: was this man really Martin Guerre?
The inconclusive tools for establishing identity and a deft defense by “Martin” must have made for a riveting legal drama (French link) — with villagers taking up competing sides and the man put to the test of his memory of Martin’s life, which he impressively aced. So thoroughly did the man command the role that
the gesture, deportment, air, and mode of speaking of the prisoner were cool, consistent, and steady; while those who appeared in the cause of truth were embarrassed, hesitating, confused, and on certain points contradictory in their evidence. (Source)
On the point, perhaps, of acquittal, the case was resolved like any legal potboiler should be: with the dramatic reappearance of the real Martin — for so all the conflicting witnesses quickly agreed him to be, and so confessed the imposter husband, Arnaud du Tilh (or Arnaud du Tilb), a peasant from a nearby village also nicknamed “Pansette”. A onetime army buddy of Guerre’s, the enterprising du Tilh had been mistaken for Guerre, and had pieced together enough of the absconded husband’s life that by dint of total recall and superhuman audacity, he made for his own the place in the world that Martin Guerre disdained.
The sentence of the court was that
make amende honorable in the marketplace of Artigat, in his shirt, his head and feet being bare, a halter about his neck, and holding in his hands a lighted torch; to beg pardon of God, the king, and the justice of the nation; of the said Martin Guerre, and de Rols his wife; and this being done, the said du Tilh shall be delivered into the hands of the executioner, who after making him pass through the streets, and other public places in the said town of Artigat, with a rope about his neck, at last shall bring him before the house of the said Martin Guerre, where, on a gallows set up for that purpose, he shall be hanged and strangled, and afterwards his body shall be burnt. (Source of the translation, slightly tidied up based on the French version here)
Arnaud du Tilh, and Martin Guerre with him, passed thereupon into the historical memory, for in assigning names to bodies, had the court really sorted out who was who? What does it mean to drop out of one’s society … and what rights can one expect to command upon returning? What did it mean to be Martin Guerre but to live in the house of Martin Guerre and manage the affairs of Martin Guerre? And the characters: Arnaud with his mysterious spark of bravado; Martin and his sudden and unexplained reappearance; the two of them as if cast for one another’s roles in life and crossed up by the gods.
And the mysterious Bertrande — what did she do, and what did she want?
A bit of Rorschach history, then, which accounts for the still-robust liveliness the tale enjoys four and a half centuries later. And let’s admit: a bit of wistfulness for the time you could start on a clean sheet just by changing your name. (Although illiterate 16th century peasants had achieved TSA-quality security protocols in this respect.)
Natalie Zemon Davis, whose own account has been criticized for overclaiming Bertrande’s role and motivations, also consulted as she was writing it for a Gerard Depardieu film of the same title.
The same story transplanted to the Civil War United States yielded the 1993 film Sommersby:
And if you must, you can see Martin Guerre in show tunes.