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Lady Bertrande’s Lover: The Scandal that Shook 1550s Languedoc, Presented by a Prestigious Jurist

Guerre

By Panagiotis Georgakakis |

The Bibliotheque Municipale in Rouen, one of our PWRB partners, is the home of the only surviving copy of a book about Arnauld du Tilh, the impostor who stole the identity of Martin Guerre in the most famous case of identity theft in the early modern period.

The story of Martin Guerre well-known thanks to the efforts of the historian Natalie Zemon Davis. In The Return of Martin Guerre, Zemon Davis reconstructs the lives of ordinary men and women in the southern regions of France and the problems with identity that they encountered during the sixteenth century.

 The Return of Martin Guerre
Natalie Zemon Davis’ The Return of Martin Guerre (Harvard University Press, 1983).

In 1548, Martin Guerre, a peasant who lived in Artigat in Languedoc, vanished. He had abandoned both his wife Bertrande and a young child. No one knew anything about Guerre, where he was or what he did, until the summer of 1556, when a man arrived in Artigat claiming to be Martin Guerre himself. He knew so many details about the previous life of Martin Guerre that his wife, his sisters and his uncle recognised him as the real Martin Guerre, even though some doubts remained. The ‘new’ Martin Guerre lived with Bertrande and her son peacefully for three years. Bertrande gave birth to two children, with one daughter surviving. But these peaceful times were soon shattered. The ‘new’ Martin claimed the inheritance of his father who had died some years ago; this assertion came against Pierre Guerre, the uncle of Martin Guerre, who had married Bertrande’s mother. With his estate at stake, Pierre tried to reveal the real identity of the ‘new’ Martin. Soon he found out some evidence that showed that the ‘new’ Martin was, in fact, an impostor named Arnauld du Tilh. At first, Pierre and his wife struggled in their attempts to persuade Bertrande about the impostor but eventually, after a substantial amount of pressure, she endorsed the accusation.

In 1560, the case appeared in front of the court in Rieux. Both sides had compelling witnesses. Arnauld used Martin Guerre’s four sisters, who recognised him immediately. Moreover, he managed to answer all the questions about his past with Bertrande, who had also testified that, at first, she had believed that Arnauld was Martin. The court, after a prolonged discussion, convicted the impostor and sentenced him to death by beheading.

But this was not the end of the story. Arnauld appealed to a higher court, the Parlement of Toulouse. There, in front of more experienced judges, the ‘new’ Martin managed to defend himself successfully. Just as he was about to be released, a man with a wooden leg swaggered into the room claiming that he was the real Martin Guerre. Finally, Arnauld du Tilh admitted his guilt and was hanged in Artigat, in front of Martin Guerre’s house on 16 September 1560.

Arrest Memorable du Parlement de Toulouse
Jean de Coras’s Arrest Memorable du Parlement de Toulouse. Image courtesy of Gallica, BnF F-F420 USTC 228.

This astonishing story was followed by a number of famous scholars of that time, including Michel de Montaigne, who followed the trial procedures in person. However, the sincere interest of one of the judges, the prestigious Jean de Coras, was the reason that this story survived until today. Jean de Coras held notes from the trial and the investigations, and he published this story under the title Arrest Memorable du Parlement de Toulouse. The first edition of this work was published in 1561 by Symphorien Barbier and Antoine Vincent in Lyon [USTC 45364]. Copies of this first edition appear in a number of libraries, not only in France, but around the world [USTC: 228]. Jean de Coras’s interests, however, were not just limited to the events of the trial. He also looked further into the life of the impostor Arnauld du Tilh and he eventually wrote another book that exclusively focused on him. The title of this book is Histoire Admirable d’un nommé Arnauld Tilye and it was published in Lyon by Benoît Rigaud in 1570. On the contrary with Arrest Memorable, only one copy of the Histoire Admirable has survived and it can be found in The Bibliotheque Municipale in Rouen [USTC: 5156, Rés: U 3640 (2)]. It is only thirty-eight pages long. Arnauld du Tilh or ‘Pansette’, as he was known, was a man with a poor reputation; he lived in Tilh, a small village in the region of Sajas. Remarkably, he had first learnt about Martin Guerre’s disappearance when two men had mistaken him for the missing individual. Sensing an opportunity, Arnauld decided to take the place of the missing Martin Guerre, with the help of the two men who gave details about Guerre’s life.

Jean de Coras seemed to show sympathy to Bertrande and he understood in some point why she stood next to Arnauld all these years. Living in a Catholic environment, Bertrande was unable to divorce her missing husband, as no one knew what had happened to him. Roman Catholic canon law did not allow an abandoned wife to remarry. Instead, Bertrande had to live alone with her child, waiting for her husband, whilst gossip swirled around from the villagers. Jean de Coras, a Protestant convert, felt this injustice, as Huguenots would have permitted such a remarriage.

Jean de Coras, who was also known as Corasius was an esteemed member of the Parlement of Toulouse. He studied law in Toulouse, Cahors and Orleans, and he soon became famous for his legal knowledge. In 1562 he tried unsuccessfully to deliver the city of Toulouse to the Huguenots, but he was saved from any punishment because of his reputation and his connections to the French court. But this close brush with the authorities did not stop De Coras from assisting the Huguenot cause further. In 1568, he was convicted and sentenced to death for serving the Protestant Prince of Condé during the French Wars of Religion. His life came to an end when he was murdered in prison following the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572. Both Arnauld du Tilh and Jean de Coras were executed over issues of identity. The former had faked his, whilst the latter had fought to defend his own.


Panagiotis Georgakakis is a PhD student at the University of St Andrews. His research focuses on the French-language gazettes which were published in the Dutch Republic from 1677 to 1714. His interests are grounded in the history of identities and the transfer of political ideas and propaganda throughout 17th-century Europe. You can follow him on Twitter @Pangeorg08.


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BnF image is available from the Gallica under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence. Copyright of Gallica. Featured image from the promotional materials for the 1982 film, Le Retour de Martin Guerre, via IMDb.