Martin Guerre: A Much Celebrated Historic Tale of Stolen Identity
On the 16th of September 1560, in the small rural French town of Artigat, a man named Arnaud du Tilh was put to death by hanging for a most unusual crime: for over three years, he had assumed an identity that was not his own, living as Martin Guerre, a native of Artigat who had been missing for eight years. Arnaud stepped into the village and into Martin’s life, welcomed with open arms by the Guerre family and by Martin’s wife, Bertrande, who took Arnaud as her long-lost husband and lived with him as a married couple, even giving birth to two of his children of whom one survived.
This story may seem like the eccentric plot to a Hollywood film, and indeed the case was made into two films ( The Return of Martin Guerre and Sommersby), but court records from Toulouse contain irrefutable evidence that this strange case of stolen identity was real. So, who was Arnaud du Tilh, and why did he choose to live as an impostor in someone else’s life? Perhaps more importantly, why did no-one realize he was a fraud until the dramatic return of the real Martin Guerre? Read on to discover the bizarre details of what the Toulouse court recorder pronounced to be “the prodigious story of our time.”
The arrest memo written about the Martin Guerre imposter scandal by Hubert Goltz, published in 1860, the same year the imposter was hung. ( Public domain )
The Return of Martin Guerre
Martin Guerre was born in French Basque country , near the border of Spain, but his family left the region when he was only two years old and eventually settled in Artigat. He grew up as a member of the town community but was unpopular with his peers despite the Guerre family being somewhat well-off, as his father, Sanxi, had been heir to the family fortune. When Martin was about fourteen, he was married to Bertrande de Rols, who was only nine or ten years old at the time, from the wealthy Rols family on the other side of the Lèze valley.
For the next eight years or more, the marriage of Martin and Bertrande proved fruitless due to Martin’s impotence. It was claimed that the couple were under an evil spell, although the more likely explanation is that the couple were simply too young to consummate the marriage, and her family pressed her to dissolve the marriage and end her humiliation. Bertrande was loyal however, and she stayed with Martin until in 1548, the couple were rewarded with the birth of their first child, a son they named Sanxi.
Their joy was not to last. Only seven months later, Martin stole a small quantity of grain from his father and out of both shame and fear for the consequences, Martin fled town leaving his wife and family behind. They did not hear from him for more than eight years until the day a man arrived in town, claiming to be the long-lost Martin Guerre. At first, Bertrande was unsure whether to accept the man’s claims that he was her husband, until he recounted to her the words they had spoken to each other on the night of their marriage and reminded her of a pair of white hosen (pants) he had left in a coffer on the day of his departure.
Similarly, when “Martin” was reunited with his family and the other villagers, many were hesitant to accept him although he greeted each person by name without introduction. He won their trust by recounting to each of them details of shared memories from the past, things they had done together or places they had been, and conversations that had occurred between them. How could this man not be Martin? He was welcomed with open arms and took his place in the family and village life, living as Martin Guerre for more than three happy years.
A drawing of Arnaud du Tilh or Pansette, who had impersonated Martin Guerre for three years. ( National Geographic )
The Deception of Pansette Finally Becomes Exposed
In January 1559, Bertrande de Rols presented herself as a plaintiff before the judge at Rieux, claiming that the man with whom she had been living as her husband for the past three years was in fact not Martin Guerre, but a man called Arnaud du Tilh, who was also known as “Pansette.” The case was not brought by Bertrande of her own volition, she had been pressured into it by Pierre Guerre, patriarch of the Guerre family and Martin’s uncle who was also married to Bertrande’s mother.
The relationship between “Martin” and his uncle had broken down when the impostor demanded his share of the family business for the years of Martin’s absence and when he threatened to sue his uncle, Pierre then tried to kill him. Pierre and his sons-in-law had beaten Bertrande’s husband within an inch of his life and only Bertrande throwing herself across his body to absorb the blows saved him from death.
So began the arduous trial that would culminate in the decision of the court of Toulouse on the 12th of September 1560: the man calling himself Martin Guerre was in fact an impostor, and in reparation for his crimes he was condemned to death and his body afterwards to be burned. The conundrum presented by this trial, however, was the question of how to establish a person’s true identity in an era before facial recognition software could even have been imagined. How could someone prove that they were in fact themself?
On the 16th of September 1560, Arnaud du Tilh was led through the streets of Artigat with a noose around his neck, before being taken to the house of Martin Guerre where a gallows had been built for the execution. On the very steps of his gallows, Pansette revealed his deception: returning from Picardie seven years earlier, some close friends of Martin Guerre had mistaken Arnaud for Martin and so, having somewhat of a reputation as a trickster and being himself in great personal debt, Arnaud decided to play along and deceived the men, obtaining information from them about Martin’s life which he used to assume his identity.
Possessing someone’s knowledge and memories does not equate to possessing their identity though, nor does physical appearance necessarily prove identity, as this incidence of mistaken identity proves. The evidence given during the trial however, centers around these aspects of Martin’s (and Arnaud’s) identity. So, what was the deciding factor that brought about the undoing of the deception of Pansette?
Identity in medieval peasant life was a flexible notion as the Martin Guerre case clearly demonstrates. And stealing children was also a way to create imposters and it was not unusual for children to go missing but still live on under another name. Philip Calderon’s 1859 painting entitled "French Peasants Finding Their Stolen Child." (Philip Hermogenes Calderon / Public domain )
The Identity of Peasants
During the trial of Arnaud du Tilh, many witnesses were called upon to testify to the defendant’s identity and there was great division between them. Various evidence was given, most of it based on physical attributes, such as his resemblance to the sisters of Martin Guerre and his son, Sanxi, or how well they knew and remembered the accused. Witnesses who had known Arnaud as a child or had made business arrangements with him swore that the accused was he, but still others who had known Martin from childhood and drunk or eaten together often were convinced the accused was truly Martin.
The cobbler who made shoes for Martin testified that the defendant was fitted for shoes three sizes smaller, another witness also testified that the accused seemed to have no skill in or understanding of fencing despite Martin being adept at the art. There was also general agreement among the witnesses that Martin Guerre was both taller and darker than the defendant, thinner in build where the accused was stocky, with a flatter nose and a scar on his right eyebrow that the accused did not have. Perhaps even more compellingly, two soldiers declared the accused to be a fraud, as they had fought at St Quentin with Martin Guerre where he had lost his leg to a cannonball and had it replaced with a wooden one.
Even though the evidence of his physical appearance was disregarded by the court due to conflicting witness testimonies, surely the other evidence against him would be sufficient to convict the accused as an impostor. Yet the court was initially convinced that the accused impostor was in fact Martin Guerre and imprisoned Bertrande for falsely accusing him of imposture. This is difficult to believe without understanding the key difference in the way self-identity was defined in the 16th century: unlike in the 21st century, identity was not a fixed concept, but sense of self was flexible and permeable, created and manipulated by the relationship between internal thoughts and external relationships.
By the late Middle Ages , most ordinary Europeans were living in rural farming settlements dependent on an agrarian economy. Town life involved collective responsibilities, such as taxes or craft guilds, that defined social status and inclusion and created a sense of community, as well as providing mechanisms for legal and moral governance. Participation in community institutions and rituals, such as eating and drinking together at the local tavern, constituted an individual’s role and identity within the town, and maintaining relationships with other members of the community was vital to how an individual defined their sense of self.
Late medieval society relied upon a foundation of trust fostered by daily interaction and expectations of others. Europeans in the Middle Ages feared and dreaded the unknown, and the strength of the trust that existed within a community was vital to its survival. The concept of trust was divided into “thin” trust, which applied to strangers and outsiders, and “thick” trust, which applied to people you know. It was this “thick” trust that essentially allowed Arnaud du Tilh to slip into Martin Guerre’s skin for three years, as he won the trust of the Artigat villagers and the Guerre family by reminding them of Martin’s place within their community and the relationships he had shared with each of them, for it was these things that defined identity in the 16th century more so than shoe size or having a wooden leg.
It would seem that Bertrande was entirely innocent of the deception and helped the imposter unknowingly, or that she had fallen in love with the father of two of her children. We will likely never know the final truth of this unusual and much celebrated tale. ( Screen Slate )
The Honor of Bertrande
The question that has plagued modern historians about the case however, is just how much did Bertrande know of her husband’s true identity? Was she, as some suspect, completely duped by the impostor along with the rest of her family, or was she actually complicit in his fraud? When the real Martin Guerre appeared before his wife in court and she tearfully begged his forgiveness for her error in falling for the lies and trickery of the impostor, he rebuked her imprudence with the proverb “there is no mistaking the touch of the man on the woman.” But did Bertrande make a mistake?
The truth may be a little muddier than the historical record suggests. Although there is no direct evidence that Bertrande was anything other than a dupe, there are certainly some aspects of the case that do not add up neatly. Arnaud confesses that he extracted information about Martin’s life from the two friends he met seven years earlier, but this does not explain how he was able to recognize the Artigat villagers on sight and knew personal details of their lives without having ever met them. Did Bertrande help Arnaud by giving him this information?
There is also the testimony of Arnaud, in which he was able to provide intimate details of Martin and Bertrande’s marriage and which perfectly matched the testimony given by Bertrande in separate interrogations. The only explanation for Arnaud’s knowledge of these facts is that Bertrande herself told him, suggesting that she in fact knew he was not her husband and conspired with him to plan the deception, perhaps in fear for the consequences to their lives and reputation if Arnaud’s imposture were to be revealed.
It is entirely possible that Bertrande knew from the very beginning that the man calling himself Martin was not her husband. As an abandoned wife with a young son to raise, the return of her husband after so many years would have been nothing short of a miracle. To protect her family and her honor, Bertrande may have chosen to help Arnaud become Martin. She fiercely defended his identity as her husband, proclaiming that if anyone were “so mad as to say the contrary, she would have him killed.” Of course, this conflicts with the fact Bertrande brought the case against Arnaud, but it is fairly evident she only did so under coercion from Pierre Guerre and the threat of losing her home and family. Her manner in court, frightened, hesitant, tearful, clearly shows her lack of conviction, and she stubbornly refused to take an oath in court that the impostor was not her husband.
The other possibility is that Bertrande had grown to love Arnaud. By all accounts, the impostor had been a good husband and family man, living “with no offence” in peace and prosperity. There is no hard evidence that Arnaud and Bertrande loved one another, but Arnaud’s insistence at his execution that Bertrande had not participated in his deception could perhaps suggest that he cared for her and wanted to protect her honor. We may never know the full story of Martin, Arnaud, and Bertrande. So many doubts have surrounded the case from the very beginning and continue to plague historians today. Almost 450 years later, the search for the truth continues.
Top image: The screen poster for the 1982 film The Return of Martin Guerre. Source: Erogers148 / CC BY-SA 4.0
By Meagan Dickerson
Davis, Natalie Zemon. 1988. On the lame . The American Historical Review
Davis, Natalie Zemon. 1983. The Return of Martin Guerre . Harvard University Press
De Coras, Jean. A memorable decision of the High Court of Toulouse . TriQuarterly
Finlay, Robert. 1988. The Refashioning of Martin Guerre . The American Historical Review