In the 16th century a Frenchman named Martin Guerre from the Pyrenees region of Southern France suddenly left his wife and children and disappeared. This sparked the most infamous incident of imposture, when one person tries to slip into another’s life, in recorded history. The story has been retold and sensationalized in fiction since it happened, from Alexandre Dumas’ stories, to “Mad Men,” to “The Simpsons.”
In exhaustive research on the origions of this impostor story, Natalie Zemon Davis referenced contemporary reports from relatives and locals indicating Guerre left to ultimately join the Army of Pedro de Mendoza where he participated in the attack St. Quentin during the Italian War of 1551-1559.
Guerre, a peasant, married the daughter of a local landowner, Bertrand, when both were 14 in the year 1527. They had a child eight years later. In 1548, Guerre disappeared after being accused of stealing grain from his father.
In 1556, a man claiming to be Martin Guerre appeared in the village. He had similar features and knew much of Guerre’s life and that was good enough for his wife and most of the townsfolk. For three years the new Martin Guerre lived with his wife. They had two more children and Martin would claim the inheritance of his father, much to his Uncle’s Pierre’s chagrin.
Pierre tried to convince Bertrand, Martin’s wife, that the new Martin wasn’t Martin at all, but an impostor. A soldier passing through the village claimed the new Martin couldn’t be the real Martin because the real one lost his leg in battle. Uncle Pierre and his sons attacked the would-be impostor with clubs, but Bertrande intervened on his behalf. The new Martin was put on trial for falsely claiming the identity of Martin, but with Bertrande on his side he was found innocent.
Pierre wasn’t finished. He launched a full-scale investigation and found the impostor was really Arnaud du Tilh, a drifter with a terrible reputation from a nearby village.
At a new trial, Bertrande accused the new Martin of being an imposter. But then Martin shared an intimate story from their relationship before Martin disappeared. Bertrande confirmed to the court that the story was accurate. Despite her corroborating the memory, 150 witnesses testified that the new Martin was really Arnaud du Tilh. The man was sentenced to death by beheading.
Tilh appealed his case to a Parliament in Toulouse and Bertrande and Pierre were arrested for perjury and bearing false witness. The judges in the new trial tended to believe the New Martin’s story more than seemingly-greedy Pierre’s.
That’s when the real Martin Guerre showed up at the trial. He had a wooden leg and was positively identified by Pierre, Bertrande, and his own four sisters. Arnaud was sentenced to death for adultery and fraud.
After he had left his family in 1548, the real Martin had joined a Spanish militia, guarded a cardinal, and then entered Mendoza’s army. That’s when he went to St. Quentin, a city on the French border with modern-day Belgium.
After the Battle of St. Quentin Guerre spent years living in a monastery before returning to his wife. Guerre did not initially accept Bertrande’s apologies, because he believed she shouldn’t have been with another man.
The night before his execution, Arnaud du Tilh confessed he learned about Guerre and his life after two men confused him with Guerre. He was hanged in front of the real Martin Guerre’s house days later. Bertrande, Davis hypothesizes, agreed to the fraud because she needed a husband and was unable to remarry in a strictly Catholic society.