The Story of Martin Guerre

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Title page of Arrest Memorable, an account of the case written by trial judge Jean de Coras in 1560 and published in 1565

While identity theft may seem like a modern problem, it has been going on for centuries. This is one of the most famous cases from the 16th century.

Martin Guerre was born Martin Deguerre in a little town called Hendaye, in Basque country on the border between France and Spain. His family packed up and moved to the town of Arigat when he was just two years old. It was not a close town; the walk would have taken around three weeks. The family changed their name to Guerre, to help them fit in amongst their neighbors.

Marriage to Bertrande de Rols

At about the age of 14, Martin was married to Bertrande de Rols, daughter of a rather wealthy family in Arigat. She would have been around the same age. When eight years passed and the couple still had not had a child, it was decided that Martin was under a curse. They consulted a wise woman, who told them how to lift the curse. Soon after the rituals were complete, Bertrande conceived. The baby was a boy, and they named him Sanxi, after Martin’s dad. When the baby was just a few months old, and Martin was 24, he stole some grain from his father, a grievous offense in Basque culture, and left.

Identity Theft

Two years later, a man showed up at an inn in a nearby town, claiming to be Martin Guerre. Martin’s four sisters went to see him, and then brought Bertrande to see him. At first, Bertrande did not believe that it was really Martin, but he talked with her about details of their life together. Pierre Guerre, Martin’s uncle, also had trouble believing that this man was Martin.

Bertrande eventually fully accepted him as her husband. They had two daughters in three years, but one died. They lived together fully as man and wife. Pierre, however, still had his doubts. When the new Martin decided to sell off a part of the ancestral property in Hendaye, Pierre was sure something was up. He got his wife, Bertrande’s previously widowed mother, to believe the new Martin was a fake, as well. Together, they tried to convince Bertrande.

Arnaud du Tilh

After a soldier passing through remarked tha he had seen Martin Guerre, and he had lost a leg in battle, Pierre did some snooping in nearby towns, and found out who the imposter most likely was: a man from a town called Sajas. His name was Arnaud du Tilh, also known as Pansette, and had a bad reputation. Pierre went to the judge of Rieux, and claimed he was there on behalf of Bertrande. He asked that the new Martin be arrested until the truth could be found out.

Bertrande was finally convinced to go along with the trial against her husband, and went to court to testify. Bertrande, Pierre, Bertrande’s mother, and even many of the villagers of Arigat and other nearby towns were questioned, along with the new Martin. Some of those who showed up to testify had known Arnaud du Tilh, and one was even his uncle. These people swore that was who the man was, others swore he was Martin Guerre. Several townspeople refused to take a side. The new Martin knew many details about the old Martin’s life, as well as details of many of the townspeople and things they had done together. The court found the new Martin guilty, and sentenced him to publicly apologize toBertrande, and pay her a large fine, as well as court fees. He appealed to the Parliament of Toulouse.

Trial and Aftermath

During the proceedings at Toulouse, the new Martin was questioned thoroughly. He answered every question in detail. There was no reason to doubt him. He must be Martin. Then a man showed up at the courthouse; a man who had a wooden leg. He said that he was Martin Guerre. Martin’s sisters were brought in, the two Martins were stood next to each other, and the sisters were asked which as their brother. They picked the man with the wooden leg. Other witnesses did the same. Arnaud du Tilh was sentenced to death, following a public apology. He was hanged in front of the house he had shared with Bertrande.

After Martin had left his family, he had gone to Spain. He served in the army, where he lost his leg. He later moved to a monastery where he worked as a servant, before returning to Arigat. At first, he was angry with Bertrande. He said she should have known it was not he.

Whether Bertrande knew the new Martin was a fraud or not is still a matter of debate. It seems she would have had to. She may have even helped the new Martin out by giving him intimate details of her life with her husband. She needed a man in her life, and the new Martin proved a good husband. Still, she could have been duped as well, Arnaud was a very charming trickster, and she could have explained away differences by his long absence.

Source:

  1. Davis, Natalie Zemon (1984) The Return of Martin Guerre. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
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