The Impostor

Peter Burke

The story is simple but compelling. Indeed, it may well be called ‘prodigious’, a term which is prominent on the title-page of the account of the case published in 1561. Martin Guerre was a peasant, of Basque origin but settled in the village of Artigat in the French South-West, between Toulouse and Foix. He married a local girl, Bertrande de Rols, when they were in their early teens; ten years later, he disappeared. Eight years after that, a man came to Artigat and announced himself as the long-lost Martin. He was accepted by Bertrande, and, at first, by the Guerres and by the village, but after a time the rumour spread that the real Martin, who had lost a leg in the wars, was elsewhere, and that this one was an impostor whose real name was Arnaud du Tilh. The village split on the issue: when it eventually came to a trial, over thirty witnesses came forward to testify that the man was indeed Martin Guerre, while more than forty said that he was not. The court found against him, but he appealed. At the second trial, at Toulouse, the prisoner seemed to have convinced the court, but just as sentence was about to be pronounced, a man with a wooden leg stumped into court, claiming to be the real Martin Guerre, back from his 12-year odyssey. When his wife and family set eyes on this second claimant, they immediately recognised him as the genuine article. The impostor was executed.

The trial, which took place in 1560, became a cause célèbre. Montaigne, who had attended the proceedings, referred to it in his essay ‘Of the Lame’. Two printed accounts made it known to a wider audience. More recently, the Guerre story has furnished the subject of a play, two novels and an operetta. There is little difficulty in accounting for its appeal: the story has the quality of myth about it. More exactly, it combines the drama of mistaken identity, a comedy – or tragedy – of errors, with the powerful motif of the returning hero who finds that his house and family are not as he left them. The homecoming of Odysseus, the return of the prodigal son, the soldier’s or sailor’s return of the ballads, are variations upon that resonant theme. For good measure, we are given a truly dramatic dénouement, an inversion of the ballad motif of ‘the maid saved from the gallows’ by the arrival of a messenger. It is small wonder that Daniel Vigne was sufficiently attracted by the story to turn it into a film: this has been shown in France and the USA, though it still awaits distribution in Britain. Coincidence dogs Martin’s limping footsteps to the last. Before his film was made, Daniel Vigne discovered that the Princeton historian Natalie Davis was also interested in the drama of the Guerres, and he enlisted her services as an adviser. ‘Watching Gérard Depardieu feel his way into the role of the false Martin Guerre’ made Professor Davis want to tell the story – in her own way, which is that of a social historian.

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[*] The Wife of Martin Guerre by Janet Lewis. Penguin, 93pp., £1.25, 29 March, 0 14 004193 1.