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A PEASANT AND HIS IMPOSTER: THE STORY OF MARTIN GUERRE

by Lady Isabelle de Foix

 

The story of Martin Guerre, a sixteenth-century French Basque peasant, is one of the most compelling stories to come down to us from the distant past. It has inspired a play, two novels, an operetta, and two movies. Part of the attraction to this story is the fact that it is a true story, and illustrates perfectly the old maxim that "truth is stranger than fiction". Only a master storyteller could have made this one up.

Martin Guerre was born Martin Daguerre in the e village of Hendaye, in the French Basque country, in 1525. Two years later his father, Sanxi, moved the family--his wife, his unmarried younger brother, Betrsantz (the name is the Basque version of "Peter"), and two-year-old Martin--to the village of Artigat, a village in the Pyrenees under the jurisdiction of Languedoc. Since Sanxi was the heir to this father’s house and lands, it is not clear why he left his ancestral village of Hendaye. Basque custom forbade the sale of any part of an heir’s patrimony, and the oldest son inherited all of the father’s property after the father died. Martin was next in line to inherit the family property after his father, since he was the only son in the family. He had four sisters, all of them born after the relocation to Artigat. This custom was in stark contrast to the French custom of dividing up inheritances among all of the sons, no matter how many there were.

The Daguerres tried their best to adapt to the ways of their new neighbors. They changed their family name to Guerre, and Betrisantz changed his name to Pierre. They learned the local dialect of the traditional language of southern France, Occitan (frequently referred to as Provencal) which was still the everyday language of much of southern France. Occitan was banned by the French government in 1539 in the interests of linguistic unity, but it was still being spoken in isolated areas in the Pyrenees in the nineteenth century. Eleven years after the move to Artigat, Martin Guerre was married to a girl from another well-to-do peasant family, Bertrande de Rols. Bertrande brought a dowry of cash, a vineyard, a bed with a feather pillows, sheets of linen and wool, and a bed cover, among other items of value. The young couple followed Basque custom by moving in with Martin’s father--the young lord of the household always lived with the elder lord and was subordinate to him. Martin and his bride were a few months short of their fourteenth birthdays and were not mature enough to make their own decisions in any case.

Alas, it turned out that Martin was impotent and could not comsumate his marriage. The Guerre family kept hoping that this unfortunate state of affairs could somehow be changed. Meanwhile Martin was growing up to be a very athletic and active young man, adept in swordplay and acrobatics. Since an unconsummated marriage could be dissolved after three years according to Catholic canon law, Bertrande’s family pressed for a separation. Bertrande later claimed that she and Martin had been under the spell of a sorceress which prevented them from consummating the marriage. After eight years of consulting village "wise women", an old woman told them how to break the alleged spell. They had four masses sung by the local priests, took the Eucharist, or communion, and ate special cakes. After this, we are told, Bertrande finally conceived their first child. The baby was a boy and was named Sanxi after his paternal grandfather.

This didn’t end Martin’s problems. He hated Artigat. He hated being a young landlord under an old landlord. He tired of the old routines of peasant life, the confines of fields of crops, property, and marriage. He began to think of excuses to leave Artigat. He seriously thought of going off to join the king’s army, but Sanxi Guerre would not hear of it. Then a drastic situation developed. In 1548, shortly after the birth of his son, Martin took some grain belonging to his father without asking his permission. This probably had something to do with the tension between the two heirs. In Basque society, no crime was more grave than theft, especially if it was carried out within the family. Martin fled Artigat, leaving his patrimony, his parents, his wife, and his son. He went to Spain, learned Castillian, and served as a lackey in a Cardinal’s palace before becoming a soldier in the army of France’s enemy, Spain. He saw action in a Spanish siege on the city of Saint-Quentin in Picardy, a region in northern France. On St. Lawrence’s day, 1557, the Spanish army routed the French. Martin was hit in the leg by a French arquebus, and the leg had to be amputated. No more acrobatics for Martin Guerre.

For Bertrande de Rols Martin’s disappearance was a catastrophe. She no longer fit into the village social structure as a wife or a widow. Under Catholic canon law, which was observed in France during this period, an abandoned wife could not remarry without certain proof of her husband’s death. Then, in the summer of 1556, a man presented himself to her as the long-lost Martin Guerre. At first the villagers believed that this man was actually Martin Guerre, but in reality this man was Arnaud du Tilh from the village of Sajas, in Gascony. He had been nicknamed "Pansette", " the belly" , because of his lifestyle. He frequented the local taverns and perhaps the local brothels. He was also a very clever man with a photographic memory, a born actor who could play anyone he pleased--especially if they owned more than he did. Pansette committed a series of petty thefts, then went to serve in the army of Henry II in Picardy--which was exactly what where Martin Guerre was fighting for Spain. Arnaud left Picardy for home around 1553. Upon arriving in a village near Artigat, he met two friends of Martin Guerre’s, who mistook him for the missing peasant. It is not known where Arnaud lived for the next three years, but it is certain that he spent these three years learning everything he could about Martin, because he meant to establishing himself as the owner of the considerable Guerre holdings. He was formulating a new identity and a new life for himself.

At first, the villagers of Artigat believed that Pansette was indeed Martin Guerre. They wanted the Basque heir, householder, husband and father back in the village. True, he didn’t look exactly like Martin, but these peasants had no pictures of the man eight years departed, and Pansette bore a striking resemblance to Martin Guerre. Arnaud’s theatrical skills had the villagers convinced that this was indeed the peasant who had left them eight years previously--all of them except Bertrande de Rols. Very soon she realized that this man was not her husband, but she was willing to help him "become" her husband. For years she had yearned for another husband, who, unlike Martin Guerre, could make her happy. This situation was her dream come true. With her help, Pansette continued to rehearse the role of Martin Guerre. How long could he perform on this stage?

The "new" Martin started to take commercial advantage of the Guerre holdings, and, contrary to Basque custom, he sold some parcels of the Guerre patrimony. Pierre Guerre was outraged. Then Pansette asked Pierre to give him the accounts he had kept after the death of Martin’s father. Pierre was the administrator of his nephew’s estate in his absence. Pansette suspected that Pierre was withholding some of the inheritance. Pierre refused, whereas Pansette brought suit against him. They eventually settled the dispute, but Pierre still fumed, and he seriously began to wonder if this man was really his long-lost nephew. After all, he had done something no decent Basque would do, sell off some of his inheritance. If he was not a Basque, then, of course, he was not Martin. How could he have forgotten so many Basque expressions? Pansette’s friends argued that Martin had only been two years old when his family left the Basque country and had grown up in Languedoc. He had grown up speaking the local dialect of the ancient language of southern France, Occitan, or Provencal, and eight years was plenty of time to forget a few phrases in a foreign tongue, especially one as notoriously difficult as Basque. This man showed no interest in swordplay or acrobatics, of which Martin had been so fond. Pierre became convinced that Arnaud was an imposter, but Bertrande, who was greatly respected in Artigat for her "virtuous and honorable life", insisted that this man was indeed her husband and refused to separate from him. How could Pierre prove his case? In the summer of 1559, a soldier, passing through Artigat, saw Pansette and told several villagers that he had seen Martin Guerre lose a leg at the siege of Saint-Quentin and therefore the man living with Bertrande was an imposter. However, Pierre had only heard about this by way of a rumor of the meeting which spread around Artigat and its environs, and could not prove it was anything more than hearsay. Shortly thereafter, a barn on the lands of the seigneur of Lanoux burned to the ground and Pansette was charged with the crime. The seneschal of Toulouse threw him into prison. The seigneur, Jean d’Escorneboef, upon prompting from Pierre Guerre, claimed in his complaint that the prisoner "had usurped the marriage bed of another man".

Many residents of Artigat simply would not believe that a woman of Bertrande’s character would lie about something this important. There has been speculation that she was a Huguenot, and the Huguenots were precursors of the Puritans. They also considered Pansette an upstanding householder of the village. They also did not understand the Basque aversion to selling part of one’s patrimony. Consequently they did not understand why Pierre was so upset about Pansette’s sale of part of the Guerre patrimony. Pansette’s impressive dramatic skills attracted many supporters. Nonetheless, the dispute soon had all of Artigat divided between Pensette’s supporters and Pierre Guerre’s supporters. Jean d’Escorneboef’s evidence concerning Pansette’s alleged arson were flimsy and Bertrande was able to secure his release from prison.

Pierre Guerre was determined to take Pansette to court, and in late 1559, he acquired some new ammunition for his cause. Pansette was recognized as Arnaud du Tilh by an innkeeper from a nearby diocese; he asked the innkeeper to stay silent about this encounter. "Martin Guerre is dead", he told the innkeeper, "and he has given me all of his goods". Someone else in the vicinity called him Pansette; whereupon he fell out of character, giving the man two handkerchiefs and asking him to take them to his brother, Jean du Tilh. Pierre got word of these incidents, and now he could name the imposter: Arnaud du Tilh, a.k.a. Pansette, a man of ill-repute from Gascony. Pierre used a little legal trickery and falsely presented himself to the judge at Rieux as an agent of Bertrande de Rols. In her name he got permission to have a formal inquiry opened about the true identity of the man who called himself Martin Guerre and to have him arrested as a man who was guilty of serious crimes who was likely to flee. No sooner had Bertrande gotten Pansette out of prison in January of 1560 than Pierre and several of his relatives seized him in Bertrande’s name and got him back in prison in Rieux. This started the trial in that town; Pansette was on trial for his identity, and Bertrande was on trial for her honor. They informed the judge that Bertrande was taking action against Arnaud against her will. Pensette, Pierre Guerre, and Bertrande were all interviewed by the judge, who then summoned 150 witnesses from the surrounding two dioceses. These witnesses could only agree on one item; this was that the prisoner greeted them all by name and reminded them of things they had done together years before. Some of these witnesses were members of Arnaud du Tilh’s family; these and others insisted that he was Pansette, or at least not Martin Guerre. Martin’s four sisters, all born in Artigat, insisted that the prisoner was their brother. The case was too confusing to this judge; he decided to declare Arnaud du Tilh guilty of fraud and of abusing Bertrande de Rols, since the accused could appeal to the Parliament of Toulouse. It was up to this Parliament as to who was to win this was of identity and honor.

Jean Coras was the member of the Farliament of Toulouse charged to report the proceedings, prepare a report on all of the arguments, and make a recommendation of the sentence. Coras decided that he trusted blood relatives above any of the other witnesses, but even here he ran into contradiction after contradiction. Legal technicalities kept him from arriving at a decision, and he became more and more frustrated. He rejected Pierre’s argument about the defendant’s ignorance of Basque because Martin had only been two when he left the Basque country, and it was entirely possible that he had never learned his parents’ native tongue. After eight years away from home, it was entirely possible that he had forgotten what he did know. Coras distrusted Pierre Guerre because of Pierre’s admission that he had misrepresented himself as Bertrande’s agent before the judge at Rieux. Pierre also admitted to having participated in an abortive conspiracy to kill Pansette. On the other hand, Coras trusted Pansette because of his perfect recall of everything about Martin Guerre’s life, including the detailed and personal information given to him by Pierre. Then Coras considered the evidence about Bertrande and her character. She had repeatedly insisted that this man was her husband. Furthermore, he considered Martin’s sisters quite trustworthy, and they bore a physical resemblance to the defendant. A principle of Roman law declared "that it was better to leave unpunished a guilty person than to condemn an innocent one". Very well, then, Coras decided, the Rieux verdict should be overturned.

The Criminal Chamber of the Parliament was now ready to the make its final judgment of the case; they had decided to do what Coras recommended and let Pansette go back to Artigat with Bertrande. It was then that a man hobbling on a wooden leg appeared right outside of the building in which the trial was being held. He said that his name was Martin Guerre. And so it was. Why did he decide to come back to France after twelve years in Spain, leaving an enviable position as a lay member of the military Order of Saint John of Jerusalem for his service for Spain? Nobody really knows, but he may have heard about the trial in Toulouse, and the judges had sent investigators to Spain to check Pansette’s testimony about his activities there. The Parliament made the returned peasant prove that he was indeed Martin Guerre. Martin’s sisters recognized their long-lost brother. Finally, Bertrande conceded that the returned man was the one she had been bound in matrimony to. Pansette was sentenced to be hanged for his crimes. Bertrande de Rols was spared the same fate because of her gender. She was forced to witness Pansette’s execution shortly afterwards, and face life with the heartless man who had deserted her.

Source: Natalie Zemon Davis, The Return of Martin Guerre, published by the President and Fellows of Harvard Collage, 1983