Martin Guerre

For those who have every watched Somersby with Jody Foster, it is mostly unknown that the film is based on a true story.

Here is that story...

Le Retour de Martin Guerre.
Martin Guerre, a French peasant of the 16th Century, was at the center of a famous case of imposture. Several years after he had left his family, a man claiming to be Guerre took his name and lived with Guerre's wife and son for three years. After a trial, during which the real Martin Guerre returned, the imposter Arnaud du Tilh was discovered and executed. The case continues to be studied and dramatized to this day.

Historical account
Life before leaving his wife. He was born as Martin Daguerre around 1524 in the Basque town of Hendaye. In 1527 his family moved to the Pyrenean village Artigat in southwestern France, where they changed their name to Guerre. When he was about fourteen years old, Martin was married to Bertrande de Rols, daughter of a well-off family. The marriage was childless for eight years until a son was born. Accused of stealing grain from his father, Martin abruptly disappeared in1548. The Catholic law governing France did not allow his abandoned wife to remarry (unlike that of the protestants,
French Wars of Religion).

The "New Martin" appears
In the summer of1556, a man appeared in Artigat, claiming to be Martin Guerre. By his similar looks and detailed knowledge of Martin Guerre's life, he convinced most of the villagers. Martin Guerre's uncle and four sisters as well as Bertrande believed that he was indeed Martin Guerre, although doubts remained. The “new” Martin lived for three years with Bertrande and her son; they had two children together, with one daughter surviving. “Martin” claimed the inheritance of Guerre's father, who had since died, and even sued Guerre's uncle, Pierre Guerre, for part of the inheritance.

Pierre Guerre, who had earlier married Bertrande's widowed mother during Martin Guerre's absence, then became suspicious again. He and his wife tried to convince Bertrande that the new Martin was an impostor. A soldier who passed through Artigat claimed that the new Martin Guerre was a fraud: the real one had lost a leg in the war. Pierre and his sons-in-law beat the new Martin with a club, but Bertrande intervened. In 1559, the new Martin was accused of arson and also of impersonating Martin Guerre; Bertrande remained on his side, and he was acquitted in 1560.

Trial in Rieux
In the meantime, Pierre Guerre had asked around and believed to have found the true identity of the impostor: Arnaud du Tilh, nicknamed "Pansette", a man with a poor reputation from the nearby village Sajas. Pierre then initiated a new case against the man by falsely claiming to act in Bertrande's name. He and his wife, Bertrande's mother, pressured Bertrande to support the charge, and eventually she obliged.

In 1560, the case was tried in Rieux . Bertrande testified that at first she had honestly believed the man to be her husband, but that she had since realized that he was a fraud. Both Bertrande and the accused independently related an identical story about their intimate life from before 1548. The new Martin then challenged her: if she would swear that he was not her husband, he would gladly agree to be executed – Bertrande remained silent. After hearing more than 150 witnesses, with many recognizing Martin Guerre (including his four sisters), many recognizing Arnaud du Tilh and many refusing to take a side, the accused impostor was sentenced to death.

Appeal in Toulouse, Martin reappears.
He immediately appealed to the parliament in Toulouse. Bertrande and Pierre were arrested: for possible false accusation and, in the case of Pierre, soliciting perjury. The new Martin eloquently argued his case, and the judges in Toulouse tended to believe his version of the story: that Bertrande was pressured to perjury by the greedy Pierre Guerre. The accused had to undergo detailed questioning about his past; his statements were double checked and no contradictions were found. But then dramatically the true Martin Guerre appeared during the very trial, with a wooden leg. When asked about their past, the new Martin was able to answer some questions better than the "old" one, who had forgotten several details. But when the two were presented to the Guerre family, the case was closed: Pierre, Bertrande, and Martin's four sisters all agreed that the old one was the true one.

The impostor, who maintained his innocence, was convicted and sentenced to death for adultery and fraud; the public sentencing on September 12, 1560 was attended by the young Montagne. Afterwards, Arnaud du Tilh confessed: he had learned about Guerre's life after two men confused him with Guerre, and he had then decided to take Guerre's place, with two conspirators helping him with the details. He apologized to all involved, including Bertrande, for having deceived them, and was hanged in front of Martin Guerre's house in Artigat four days later.

Martin's story
During the absence from his family, the real Martin Guerre had moved to Spain, served for a Cardinal, and then later in the army of Pedro de Mendoza. As part of the Spanish army, he was eventually sent to Flanders and participated in the Spanish Attack on St Quentin on August 10, 1557. There he was wounded and his leg had to be amputated. He then lived in a monastery before returning to his wife. The reason for his returning at the very time of the trial remains unknown. Initially, he rejected his wife's apologies, maintaining that she should have known better than to take another man.

Natalie Zemon Davis, The Return of Martin Guerre, Harvard University Press, 1983, ISBN 0-674-76691-

Le Retour de Martin Guerre, 1982 film, staring Gerard Depardieu, here


Dieu le Roi,

de Brantigny

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