Martin Guerre and the End of the Individual

The story of Martin Guerre is one of the most fascinating in early modern history. Perhaps that is why it is so well documented, both in chronicles and legal writing at the time and more recently, where it has served as the subject of films in French, German and English, and books, including one by Natalie Zemon Davis, which I recently had the pleasure to read.

It tells of a French peasant who simply disappears, and Davis describes how his wife and family adapt to this abrupt change in their lives. Eventually, a man appears in the village of Artigat claiming to be Martin Guerre, and – though not without reservations – he is accepted as such, despite his not resembling the man the villagers remembered in every aspect. Through the force of his personality, however, he is taken at his word, and he enters into a relationship both with the wife of the man whose place he has taken and with the rest of his community.

Eventually, though, things come to a head. Though the new Martin Guerre is exceptionally confident and even comfortable in his new role, he is not entirely attuned to local customs. When he seeks to challenge his uncle, Pierre, for control of the family land and their shared commercial interests, this situation changes. Now he is denounced as an imposter, arrested, and put on trial.

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Before the story, filmic as it is, can proceed, however, a little context is necessary.

The Guerre family was not itself a local one, with strongly embedded ties of blood and the accumulation of long-standing loyalties which categorise fairly homogenous communities. Their family name was originally Daguerre, before it was changed to reflect local traditions in Languedoc rather than the Basque customs Martin Guerre’s parents originally observed; they resided in a place called Hendaye. Despite this change of name, the family retained strong Basque ties, including linguistic idiosyncrasies and the like. The fact that the new Martin Guerre did not know the Basque words and phrases the family used, and which he would have heard in youth if he had been who he said he was, came to be a point of evidence against his later claims in court.

In Artigat, the new home of the Daguerre family, the rich were able to enjoy all that the outside world offered, both in material and social terms. They could do business far and wide; they could attain education and status; and they could serve as representatives of the region’s rulers, a position which would also involve a degree of local leadership.

At the other end of the scale, however, the historian encounters

Bernard Bertrand and his wife, who have an inadequate sixteen setérées of land to support themselves and six children; the shepherd Jehannot Drot, who has to borrow wine and grains when times are hard; and the Faure brothers, sharecroppers who are so behind on their payments that they are brought to court by their proprietor.

The lesson is clear: status mattered, wealth mattered, and those who could acquire both could live comfortably and happily.

This state of affairs was coupled with strong local independence, which included a marked freedom from outside influence and legal interference. The village was not beholden to much external intervention, and this meant that local officials had a great deal of sway over their own affairs. In this instance in particular, this legal reality may have been important in the situation which unfolded. As Davis writes, ‘[t]he case of Martin Guerre might never have run its course if a resident seignior or his agents had the authority to intervene’. As things stood, however, Artigatois made use of ‘gossip and the pressure of their peers’.

These local traditions matter, especially with regard to governance. For all its surface homogeneity, the place had a fluid, mixed identity; and ‘[t]he men of Artigat might move across several boundaries in the course of their activities as farmers, shepherds, litigants and Christians, and people called them different things; Gascons, “Foixiens,” Languedociens’.

Because the Daguerre family was none of those final three things – at least not at first – it changed its name to ‘Guerre’, a more acceptable local variant. Though written communication was more common in Artigat than Hendaye, they could likely neither read nor write.

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The family gained acceptance and status, and in 1538 – just eleven years after they arrived in the village – one of their number, Martin, was married to Bertrande de Rols, who came from an affluent family. Martin Guerre was fourteen; his bride was a similar age.

The wedding represented something of a favourable alliance, but things did not go well. Beset by impotence, Martin Guerre’s marriage was not a pleasing one; and the obligations expected of him were great. Though the union did eventually produce a son, the shame of impotence still loomed large over the household; it was likened to a curse, and it most likely felt like that to those living under it. Meanwhile, Davis shows, Martin Guerre was unhappy in his limited setting, and wanted to travel outside of his rural situation.

After being accused of theft from his father, Martin simply took off and left; he ‘left his patrimony, his parents, his son, his wife – and no one would hear from him for many years’.

After some time travelling, he found himself in the service of Francisco de Mendoza, a cardinal of the Catholic Church, in Burgos in Castile. After a time as a lackey in the employ of the cardinal, he became a servant of Francisco’s brother, Pedro, whereupon he joined the Spanish army in his employer’s entourage.

War attracted many men at the time, rootless or not. And initially, it seems, Martin Guerre had a good time of it. Though he was in the service of a foreign king he may not have exhibited much internal strife over this conflict of loyalties. War was a different situation – a foreign one – and it represented a decisive change from his previous life. This seeming good luck was not to last, however. While at war he lost his leg after being hit by a shot from an arquebus.

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At home, things were less simple; war, after all, is categorised by brute realities. His wife, at least as Davis portrays her, was an upright woman forced into a difficult situation. Her husband had left, abandoning his responsibilities and social status, but she could not escape the gossip and rumour. Davis suggests, not without reason, that she would have felt terribly lonely; this presents some justification for what came next.

Bretrande dreamed of a husband and lover who would come back, and be different. Then in the summer of 1556, a man presented himself to her as the long-lost Martin Guerre. Previously he had been known as Arnaud du Tilh, alias Pansette.

In some ways this stranger represented something of a deliverance. He could be the husband Bertrande had longed for; and he was a gifted speaker, sufficiently silver-tongued to make people want to believe his fantastical stories. That he did not look exactly the same as the departed man did not matter; his prodigious memory for small details was enough to simulate familiarity. And he was a presence where before there had been only absence; that was more than enough for many.

This man, du Tilh, ‘grew up in a family of boys, with whom he got on well’ – unlike Martin Guerre, whose family life had been female-dominated.

He was rather short and stocky, and not especially adept at the village sports. But he was wonderfully fluent of tongue and had a memory an actor would envy. He was the kind of lad whom the vicars of Sajas, almost the only people in the village who could sign their names, would have identified as a potential priest and sent off to school.

His nickname – ‘Pansette’ – meant ‘the belly’, derived from his outsized appetites. Like Martin Guerre, he too went off to fight – this time not for Spain but for the King of France, Henri II.

Returning from war, and bearing a resemblance to the vanished man, Pansette ‘encountered two friends of Martin, Master Dominique Pujol and the hotelkeeper Pierre de Guilhet, who took him for the missing man from Artigat’. For a gifted actor such as du Tilh, the temptation must have proven impossible to resist.

At this point the trickster in Pansette snapped to attention. He informed himself as cunningly as he could about Martin Guerre, his situation, his family, and the things he used to say and do. He worked through Pujol, Guilhet, and ‘other familiar friends and neighbors’ of the Guerres, and the first two may actually have become his accomplices.

He informed himself about his chosen target through networks of friends and by using ordinary gossip to learn more about the daily life of the man he was to impersonate. He was aided to an extent by the fact that the world moved suitably slowly to allow him enough space to formulate this trick. This required a degree of thoroughness and – if the word is appropriate – dedication which seems remarkable, even today. It took ‘many months’, Davis says, for Pansette to ‘prepare his role’.

Du Tilh, this time as ‘Martin’, announced his arrival and bade people bury their doubts by accurately recalling details of the life he assumed; some of these details were from many years earlier. Even those with initial objections were won over. Because there was no handwriting on record to be compared; because the villagers had no way of comparing this and that visage; and because, in their heart of hearts, many of them wanted to believe him – because of all this, Pansette was accepted into this community as Martin Guerre.

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One of the most interesting aspects of Davis’ book is her discussion of Bertrande Guerre. In Davis’ estimation, she was a woman in a world dominated by men, but she was also someone who knew how to exploit her place in the system of life as it was then lived. And therefore, Davis argues, she made a conscious decision to accept the new Martin, despite most likely knowing that he and her husband were different people.

Either by explicit or tacit agreement, she helped him become her husband. What Bertrande had with the new Martin was her dream come true, a man she could live with in peace and friendship (to cite sixteenth-century values) and in passion.

Nonetheless, these things rarely end well. The deception was too great, too dramatic in scale. And eventually Bertrande and ‘Martin’ made mistakes. These were to culminate in a remarkable and unprecedented trial in Toulouse, from which most of the knowledge of this case comes.

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 After quarrelling with the uncle of the real Martin Guerre, Pierre, Pansette had created the raw material for his eventual downfall.

A fractious dispute over property escalated into a fully-fledged declaration that ‘Martin Guerre’ was in fact an impostor. Over the course of two trials – one in Rieux and the other in Toulouse – du Tilh exhibited all of his theatrical skill. He rehearsed and practiced, building up his character once more. And his skill in speech transfixed the courts, too. They bore witness to his mental agility, as he evaded questions from those greatly more adept at the law than he.

It was all going well – as well as could be hoped. But then something utterly remarkable happened. The real Martin Guerre came back.

‘Newcomer!’ the defendant is said to have shouted when his confrontation began with the man from Spain, ‘evildoer, rascal! This man has been bought for cash and has been instructed by Pierre Guerre.’

These bullish actions were not simply the result of a reflexive will to self defence. It was more than that; it was the supreme performance, the culmination of the work of many years. As Davis relates, in a perverse way

It was a moment of triumph for the person who had once been called Pansette. It would be a mistake to interpret his behavior that day and in the next few weeks as simply a desperate attempt to stay alive. Live or dead, he was defending the identity he had fashioned for himself against a stranger.

He had acquired more than property and a beautiful wife, with whom he had conceived a daughter. His action was a defence of this, and it was also a defence of his very personhood, which had become forever bound up with the name ‘Martin Guerre’. More than that, however, it was also a defence of his actions, but less from a legal perspective than from an almost posthumous one. Du Tilh seemed almost offended at the idea that his skill in constructing this persona, and in co-opting so many people, was anything other than remarkable. He wanted it to be recognised.

The accused seemed to have an air of magic about him. Trying to take him off guard, President de Mansencal asked him how he had invoked the evil spirit that taught him so much about the people of Artigat. [Jean de] Coras said that he paled and for once hesitated, to the judge a sure sign of guilt. This reaction, I think, may have resulted not only from the defendant’s sense of danger, but also from anger that his natural skills were being so misrepresented.

But eventually, this standoff could not go on forever. Du Tilh was found guilty of ‘imposture and false supposition of name and person and of adultery’. He was sentenced to death.

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Why does this story remain so popular? What is it that appeals to us about this case? When Jean de Coras wrote his account of the trial, Arrest Memorable, he did not do so for entirely commercial reasons, but because he saw something deeper in it. All this interest cannot be put down to its peculiarity, though that is a factor. And nor, I think, can its success be attributed to wish-fulfilment, the notion of simply leaving one’s life and picking up where someone else left off. Instead, I think what appeals to us about the case of Martin Guerre has as much to do with our understanding of identity as anything else. It speaks about much of what makes us individuals, and how this relates to our interactions with others.

When Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie wrote Montaillou, he showed that even the most seemingly insignificant lives can have meaning: personally, intellectually, and historically. People mattered; people matter. Illiterate peasants matter; their lives were not trivial but important, their struggles not insignificant but vital. This story, though it is superficially similar, has a different implication for the same idea. Though we are all important – the heroes of our own stories, if you will – that importance is derived from other factors. That someone else could potentially supplant us, walking into our lives and simply taking over from where we left off, is a remarkable thought, all the more interesting because it is so frightening. This story – the story of Martin Guerre – is so fascinating because it contains the reminder that, in a favourable set of circumstances, we could cease being ourselves, and someone else could very easily assume that mantle.

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