The Return of Martin Guerre documents a strange sixteenth-century court case that has fascinated people ever since. A peasant Martin Guerre abandoned his wife and family and disappeared. Years later a man claiming to be Martin Guerre returned and resumed Martin’s life. Later he was accused of being an imposter. On the point of winning his trial the real Martin Guerre appeared. This review analyzes this volumes revelations regarding masculinity, gender and marriage in the sixteenth century.
The Return of Martin Guerre is a tale that has fascinated people for almost five hundred years. It was the subject of a book by one of the principle judges and even merited comment by Montaigne. It has been retold for centuries. In the 1970s it was filmed (in a semi-fictional version) in France as The Return of Martin Guerre (the author of this text worked on the script). With the setting transplanted to the American Civil War it was recently entitled Somersby and filmed by Jody Foster. Its perennial appeal is undeniable.
Contemporary observers described it as miraculous that the imposter was able to fool Martin’s wife, Bertrande and assume a place in her bed. They invoke the supernatural ability to lie and deceive of the perpetrator, his exceptional charm and well spokenness and his remarkable physical resemblance to Martin Guerre. In so doing, and this is particularly true of Jean De Coras account, they denigrate the role of Bertrande. She was deceived by the supernatural evil of the imposter, desperate to resume her proper role in society as a wife, and equipped only with her inferior feminine intelligence when she fell victim to his machinations.
The fact of the matter is that she could not have been deceived and, in fact, was not, deceived. Probably from the very first she did not believe that this man was her former husband, but definitely, at some point, she chose to become his accomplice. The situation could not have arisen without her being cognizant of it and complicit in it.
However, the chroniclers in the sixteenth century seem unwilling, or intellectually unable, to fathom that she may have been both cognizant and complicit. Needless to add, this speaks volumes about their general impression of women. However, the story of Martin Guerre is a wonderfully deep story that repeatedly seems to turn back on itself, and given this it would be unwise to simply offer only this relatively obvious comment on gender. The tale of Martin Guerre also reveals a great deal about sixteenth century perceptions of masculinity (as well as femininity) and marriage.
Masculinity and Marriage
The marriage of Martin Guerre and Bertrande de Rols appeared to have all the makings of a successful match. The Guerre family, although newcomers from the Basque, were well-established and successful farmers and merchants, respected in their new community. The de Rols were members of the local merchant elite. In the sixteenth-century marriage involved complex socio-economic factors and this union appeared to unite two successful families.
Symbolic of the links between fecundity and marriage, that accompanied economic calculation, the newlyweds were brought a resveil on their wedding night to ensure that their union would be fruitful. It was not: “Nothing happened in Bertrande’s marriage bed.”(p. 19). Davis also suggests that Martin might have entered the marriage already regarded as less than ‘manly.’ He was newcomer and Basque was his native tongue. His name was uncommon in his new region and a synonym for an ass. Notwithstanding, newlyweds without a new addition to the family were regarded as strange and unhealthy.
Finally, after eight years Bertrande conceived. (One cannot help but wonder whether Martin was even the father of this child.) However, the remarks about Martin would not have faded after the eight-year absence of a pregnancy. According to Davis a host of circumstances compounded to make life in Artigat impossible for Martin. “His precarious sexuality after years of impotence, his household of sisters who would soon be marrying, his position as heir, now underscored by the arrival of his son Sanxi, he wanted none of it.”(p. 21) Uncomfortable in Artigat, Martin simply disappears one day. Davis concludes he spent his time in Spain, fighting and in the service of a Catholic cleric, losing his leg during the dozen years he wandered.
Approximately a decade after Martin disappears a man reappears in the area and announces that he is Martin Guerre. He is not. According to Davis he is Arnaud du Tilhs. Regardless, his deception is initially successful. He is accepted by Bertrande and the members of his family. However, eventually financial disputes within the family lead to Pierre Guerre accusing him of being an imposter. The trial eventually takes place in the parlement of Toulouse.
There seems to be considerable evidence that the man in question is not Martin Guerre. Witnesses even testified as to who he actually was. However, the situation was confused by Bertrande. On the one hand, she was party to the accusation of fraud; on the other she refused to swear a deposition that this was not her husband, Martin Guerre. However, the opinion of the Court was that this was, in fact, Martin Guerre. Eventually, the appearance of the ‘real’ Martin Guerre, and finally the confession of du Tilhs settle the matter conclusively.
Coras, as noted earlier, attributes the near-error in judgment to the phenomenal persuasive powers of the accused imposter. However, in terms of perceptions of masculinity, there is considerable value in exploring the court’s desire to find that this was the real Martin Guerre not an imposter. Simply put, the Martin Guerre who had disappeared was a failure as a ‘man’ while the Martin Guerre before the court was a former soldier, an energetic merchant, a loving husband and an ‘ideal’ man. He was, in sixteenth century terms, a better Martin Guerre than the original.
Consider, for a moment, the original Martin Guerre’s performance as a husband. Despite his marital and athletic abilities he was not able to consummate the marriage, a fact of religious and economic significance to the new couple and the community at large. Eventually, he abandoned the bonds of marriage, his role in the community, and his responsibilities to his wife, his family and, ultimately in sixteenth century terms, the Church and God. Added to these transgressions was the fact that he was an outsider.
On the other hand, the ‘new’ Martin Guerre was a model citizen. He was penitent about having abandoned his family and all his past transgressions. More importantly, he was becoming a vibrant and dynamic member of the local community. The fact that he was suing a relative was relatively common at the time in that region and merely indicated that he was vigorously pursuing his economic interests. Witnesses testified that he was a loving husband and father. His wife refused to speak against him. Additionally (although for unrelated reasons) it seems the local clergy were unwilling to speak poorly of him although a ringing endorsement was also not forthcoming. In other words, the new Martin Guerre was a better version than the old one in that he expressed traditional and accepted male roles and perceptions of masculinity. In this light The Return of Martin Guerre speaks volumes about perceptions of masculinity and the danger that may befall those who chose to flout these gender conventions.