As I’ve discussed in previous blogs, the best part of working in criminal law may be the stories. They are what got me in the business to begin with. In May, I related the tale of Joan of Arc, a peasant girl from the 15th Century. From a time when we know primarily about the lives of kings and queens, hers is a well-documented story of a common girl’s life. The record exists because she went to court and the trial’s notes have been preserved.
Another commoner who might have forgotten but for the trial record is Martin Guerre. Born Martin Daguerre in approximately 1524, his family moved from the Basque region to the village of Artigat in the Pyrenees Mountains. (They changed their name to Guerre.) At 14, he married Bertrande de Rols, the daughter of a local, successful family. They remained childless until a priest broke an evil spirit’s curse of impotence. After eight years of marriage, she bore him a son.
In 1548, Martin Guerre disappeared. He left Artigat rather than face his father’s wrath after stealing some family wheat. He abandoned his wife and child. Under canon law, his wife could not remarry because of abandonment. French law at the time had a place for females as wives or widows but no provision for de Rols’ situation. This, not surprisingly, placed an economic hardship on her.
In 1556, Martin Guerre returned to Artigat. Or did he? The returned man looked like Martin Guerre and possessed an uncanny knowledge of Guerre’s life prior to departure. Most people in the village, including wife, Bertrande, his four sisters as well as his uncle declared the man to be Martin Guerre. Some villagers, however, expressed doubts.
Martin resumed living with Bertrande. Together, they had two more children. Martin claimed his dead father’s inheritance. Martin sued his uncle to recover the money and property. Uncle Pierre became suspicious of the new Martin. He and his sons attacked the new Martin. A soldier passing through town claimed Martin was an imposter and that the real Martin had lost a leg fighting in the Spanish war. A bartender from another village claimed the man was Arnaud du Tilh.
Pierre, the uncle, sued Martin claiming fraud. Bertrande testified that she originally believed this man to be Martin but had since changed her mind. Yet, he knew intimate details of their lives together from before his departure. In the words of the court record, he described “the secret acts of marriage. Much easier to understand than it is proper to speak of or write.” The Martin Guerre on trial agreed to be executed if she would swear he was not who he claimed. Bertrande refused to do so. His four sisters testified that this was Martin Guerre. Others testified to the contrary. The court after much struggle, convicted him of being an imposter and sentenced him to death.
The defendant appealed to the Parlement of Toulouse. Officials took Pierre and Bertrande into custody on charges that Pierre had conspired to encourage perjury. Guerre argued persuasively against the condemning evidence. He contended that Bertrande had been pressured by her uncle to testify falsely. He demonstrated ample proof of Uncle Pierre’s motivations to shade the evidence. The accused answered many questions satisfactorily about his past.
The record of the proceedings was maintained by Jean de Coras, one of the judges. He includes a recitation of the forensic evidence of the day. A cobbler testified that he had made shoes for Martin Guerre and although he fitted Guerre at twelve places, this man only fit at nine.
The court reviewed all of the evidence, both for and against the alleged Martin Guerre. Just as it appeared that the Parlementary justices were about to reverse the lower court, a man hobbled into Toulouse on a wooden leg. In the words of de Coras:
but the good and all-powerful God, showing that he always wishes to help justice and that such a prodigious matter should not remain hidden and unpunished, at the moment when the court was about to pronounce judgment, made the true Martin Guerre appear as if by miracle.
Although the new guy could not answer the background questions as well as the man on trial, when both were presented to witnesses, Pierre, Bertrande and all four sisters agreed that the one-legged man was indeed the real Martin Guerre.
Arnaud du Tilh was convicted and on September 12th, 1560 sentenced to death. In his waning moments, he confessed fully and admitted to learning the details of Guerre’s life. He assumed the role and, in the shadow of the executioner, apologized to all. To again quote de Coras, “he confessed having been a rascal in many ways.” On September 16th, du Tilh was hanged for adultery and fraud.
The court found that Bertrande had been innocently deceived. She was not punished although Guerre maintained that she should have known better.
Guerre after leaving Artigat, had fought under the Spanish flag and been wounded. After the war, he had lived in a monastery. Why he chose this precipitous time to return is unknown to history.
The story presents a fascinating tale of love, greed, scandal and mixed identity. The tale has been the subject of books, musicals and movies. We know most of the facts because of the detailed notes left behind by trial participants, most notably judge Jean de Coras.
The case raises real questions about eyewitness identification, the reliability of memory, identity theft, the limits of forensics and the motivations behind human actions, all issues courts still grapple with in the 21st Century. Martin Guerre’s trial provides for a seemingly great fictional account set within an actual trial, a trial concluded in September 1560. This makes it my trial of the month.