The Return of Martin Guerre
The return of Martin Guerrero is a story that continues to capture the imagination of many historians and story tellers to date almost 40 years on. Although there are differing accounts of the story, a huge majority of accounts revolve around the tale of an impostor Arnaud du Tilh who manages to convince a whole village that he is the long lost Martin Guerre returned from war, apparently managing to convince even Bertrand herself ( Martin’s wife), that he is her husband returning after 8 years. However, after three years and a few squabbles with Pierre Guerre Martina’s uncle, villagers begin suspecting Arnaud of being an impostor, suspicions that culminate in his trial. Although Bertrand and Pansette as he had been nicknamed almost convince the court that he is indeed the real Martin Guerre, the arrival of the real man himself spoils the party and actually leads to Arnaud’ conviction and subsequent execution.
Although a majority of historians believe that Arnaud had successfully deceived everyone, Natalie Zemon Davies provides a different controversial angle to the story, instead arguing that Bertrand was a willing accomplice right from the start. Davies provides signs throughout the story and also argues that based on the theory of improbability it was highly unlikely that Bertrand was successfully deceived into believing Arnaud was her husband.
Davies argues that it is highly unlikely that Bertrand could not tell the impostor from her real husband, and must have therefore, made a conscious decision to allow the impostor back into her life, most likely due to the social and economical benefits that would likely accrue from her having a husband, regardless of whether or not it was an impostor. She suggests that one of the signs that Bertrand was being dishonest is the fact that even at the hearing, she willingly participates in Arnaud’s lie despite there not being any record of prior collusion, is a very clear indicator that indeed Bertrand was a willing participant in the deception. This actually helps convince the court that Arnaud is indeed her husband.
Further it is evident from the fact that she is unwilling to or reluctantly participates in the fact finding mission over whether Arnaud is a fraud, points to the conclusion that she was already aware of Arnaud’s Fraudulence and imposture. The manner with which she performs a complete u-turn and pleads innocence to Arnaud’s fraudulent antics is also questionable, as the lack of surprise or even genuine anger at having been deceived for 3 years is testament to the fact that she might actually have been aware of the imposture right from the start.
There is no denying that Bertrand stood to benefit the most from the constructed marriage, as economically, she would essentially have a husband and a bread winner, as well as someone to claim Martin Guerre’s inheritance. In addition, Bertrand stood to also gain from a social standpoint, considering that Roman Catholic canon law did not allow widows or previously married women to remarry. The opportunity Arnaud du Tilh offered Bertrand was therefore, one that must have been worth taking, considering that she had been without a husband for 8 years, and must have lost hope of ever seeing the real Martin Guerre again. Natalie Zemon Davis’ assertion that Bertrand was a willing accomplice, does therefore, in my opinion have merit, as it is the more probable explanation when one compares it with the argument that Bertrand did not know her own husband. The fact that she recoiled upon seeing Arnaud (42) reaffirms the point that she knew Arnaud was not her husband right from the start.
Davis, Natalie. The Return of Martin Guerre. Havard University Press, 1983.