When Martin Guerre, a French peasant of the 16th century, was about fourteen, he married Bertrande de Rols, the 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 disappeared in 1548. In the summer of 1556, a man arrived claiming to be Martin Guerre. By his similar looks and detailed knowledge of Guerre’s life, he convinced most of the villagers, including Martin’s uncle, Martin’s four sisters, as well as his wife, Bertrande.
The ‘new’ Martin Guerre lived for three years with Bertrande and her son. They had two children together. ‘Martin’ claimed the inheritance of Guerre’s father, who had died, and he sued Guerre’s paternal uncle, Pierre Guerre, for part of that inheritance.
Pierre Guerre and his wife tried to convince Bertrande that the ‘Martin’ was an impostor. In 1559, the villagers accused ‘Martin’ of impersonating the real Martin Guerre, but with Bertrande remaining on his side, he was acquitted in 1560. Later that year, the case was retried in Rieux-Volvestre. Bertrande now testified that at first, she had honestly believed the man to be her husband, but that she had since realised that he was a fraud.
The man claiming to be 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 from more than 150 witnesses, with many testifying they recognised ‘Martin’ (including his four sisters), many others testifying that he was an impostor, and others refusing to take a side, the accused was convicted and sentenced to death by beheading.
The condemned man immediately appealed to the Parliament in Toulouse. Officials arrested Bertrande and Pierre on charges of possible false accusation. ‘Martin’ eloquently argued his case, and the judges in Toulouse tended to believe his version of the story.
Then, dramatically, during the trial, a man appeared in Toulouse, with a wooden leg, claiming to be the true Martin Guerre. When asked about the married couple’s past, the man had forgotten some details and was not able to answer questions as well as the alleged impostor. However, when the two men were both presented to the Guerre family, the case was closed. Pierre, Bertrande and Martin’s four sisters all agreed that the newly arrived man was the true Martin Guerre.
The impostor was convicted and sentenced to death for adultery and fraud. He was hanged in front of Martin Guerre’s house four days later.
This sensational story was dramatised in the excellent 1982 film, The Return of Martin Guerre, starring Gerard Depardieu and Nathalie Baye. This has become a cult movie, particularly in the United States. Parts of it were filmed in Rieux-Volvestre, Saint Laurent’s nearby medieval village.
My thanks to Sally Henry for pointing all this out to us during her recent visit to Saint Laurent for our Piano Holiday.