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.
LRB 19 April 1984 | PDF Download