“While most Renaissance popes and princes have been forgotten by everyone but the historical specialist, one peasant of the sixteenth century, from a village near Toulouse in the foothills of the Pyrenees, remains well known. Martin Guerre — or rather the imposter who took his wife and his birthright — has entered history.”
— Robert Finlay, “The Refashioning of Martin Guerre”, The American Historical Review 93(3):553-571 (1988)
THE RETURN OF MARTIN GUERRE — THE VERY RARE FIRST EDITION OF THE JUDGE’S FIRST-HAND ACCOUNT OF A SENSATIONAL SIXTEENTH-CENTURY TRIAL FOR IDENTITY THEFT; THE BASIS OF NUMEROUS LITERARY, DRAMATIC, AND CINEMATIC ADAPTATIONS.
This case had everything — an unhappy marriage, a sudden disappearance and a mysterious return, an accusation of impersonation, a possibly complicit wife, a family and a village divided, two dramatic trials, the sudden appearance of a surprise witness at a moment in the second trial when acquittal seemed imminent, a sudden reversal of fortune, the defendant’s conviction, his public apology (declaring the wife to be an innocent victim), and his execution in front of the home of the man he impersonated. It is scarcely surprising that the case has inspired, among other things, an essay by Montaigne and one by Leibniz, a novel by Dumas, a short story by Philip K. Dick, an opera, two fine films (a French one starring Gerard Depardieu and an American one transposing the action to the Civil War, starring Richard Gere and Jodie Foster), at least two musicals, and countless historical novels and radio and television episodes.
In 1548, Martin Guerre, a French peasant living in the village of Artigat in the département of Ariège, stole a small amount of grain and as a result was forced into exile. This turn of events was doubly tragic for Guerre, because he had just conceived a son after eight years of impotence attributed by him and his young wife Bertrande to an evil spell (maléficiez), and he now had to abandon Bertrande and their newborn child. Eight years later, a man arrived in the village claiming to be Martin Guerre, and he was accepted as such by Bertrande and by the other villagers. He took over management of Guerre’s property and had two children with Bertrande, one of whom survived. In fact, the man was one Arnaud du Tilh, who was well-known in his home village as “‘dissolute,’ a youth of ‘bad life,’ ‘absorbed in every vice.’ … He became known as Pansette, ‘the belly,’ a many with big appetites...” (Natalie Zemon Davis, The Return of Martin Guerre, 1983).
Suspicions concerning the returned “Martin Guerre” arose among some villagers, particularly Guerre’s uncle Pierre, although Bertrande insisted that the man she now lived with was her real husband. In 1559 a soldier passed through Artigat and said that “Martin Guerre” was an impostor — the real Martin Guerre had joined the army of Spain and had lost a leg in battle. When a nearby farmhouse mysteriously burned down, its owner filed a complaint accusing “Guerre” of arson and — probably drawing in information provided by Pierre — of impersonation. Although the complaint had to be withdrawn for lack of evidence, and “Guerre,” who had been arrested, was released, the respite was only temporary. Pierre carefully collected additional evidence and launched an inquiry that in due course led to a trial at which “Guerre” — now known to be Arnaud du Tilh, a/k/a Pansette — was convicted in the local court.
Arnaud appealed to the Parlement in Toulouse, where his case was heard by the Criminal Chamber, or LaTournelle. This “was one of the five chambers of the Parlement and made up of a rotating group of ten to eleven judges and two or three presidents. Those who happened to be sitting on it for the appeal of ‘Martin Guerre’ included some of the luminaries of the court, [including] the learned Jean de Coras ….” “The Chamber decided that [Coras] would be the reporter for the proceedings, which meant that he would look closely into the issues and finally prepare a report on all the arguments and make a recommendation for the sentence” (Davis, Return). At a dramatic moment in the proceedings, with the court on the verge of finding for the defendant, a man with a wooden leg appeared and stated that he was Martin Guerre. This development dramatically changed the course of the trial; the defendant was found guilty of impersonation and adultery, and sentenced to deliver a public apology and then to be executed. He was hanged four days later, in Artigat. The court recognized Bertrande as one of the innocent victims of the scam, and Arnaud’s public apology denied any knowledge or responsibility on her part.
“Shortly after the sentencing of Arnaud du Tilh, the Parlement of Toulouse recessed for two months, as it did every September. Jean de Coras did not leave immediately for his country home in Réalmont. Instead he went to his study in Toulouse and began to write [the work offered here] ... By October 1, 1560, he was most of the way through a first draft” (Davis, Return).
Interest in the case was revived in 1983 when historian Natalie Zemon Davis published her influential microhistory The Return of Martin Guerre. Davis had collaborated with the screenwriter and director of the Gerard Depardieu film, but was dissatisfied with the final result because of its “depart[ures] from the historical record.” As she recounts in the preface to her book, “I was prompted to dig deeper into the case, to make historical sense of it.” In writing the book, “I worked like a detective, assessing my sources and the rules for their composition, putting together clues from many places, establishing a conjectural argument that made the best sense, the most plausible sense, of sixteenth-century evidence.” Davis argued that Bertrande knew of and intentionally supported Arnaud’s deception in order to secure and maintain her social status in the community as a wife — actions that Davis interpreted as a shrewd and essentially admirable exercise of agency by a woman in a patriarchal culture. She also reinterpreted Arnaud as someone consciously creating for himself, a la Don Draper, a new and better identity — a process she describes as “self-fashioning.” Davis’s account was challenged by the University of Arkansas historian Robert Finlay, and defended by Davis, in back-to-back articles in a 1988 issue of the American Historical Review.
The work offered here is the first edition of Coras’ account of the trial. Another description of the trial, by one Guillaume Le Sueur, was also published in 1561, but unlike Coras’s, it was the account of a third party rather than a central participant the trial, although Professor Davis suggests that Le Sueur “may have been present in the court in some minor capacity.” This copy is the far rarer of the two states of the first edition; only five copies are known in libraries. It is offered with two copies of The Return of Martin Guerre — one a first printing of the first edition, and the other a third printing of that edition. The latter copy is inscribed by Davis to the late Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun: “For Justice + Mrs. Blackmun (and Nancy too) This sixteenth-century judge;s tale in memory of a happy May 17. Natalie Davis May 1987”. According to Professor Davis (personal communication), the copy was most likely inscribed at a 1987 ceremony at Tufts University, at which both she and Justice Blackmun were awarded honorary degrees.
Note: There are two issues (no priority established) of the first edition: one with pagination of the text (after the preliminaries) from 1-113; one (this copy) from 5-117.
Lyon: Antoine Vincent [Symphorien Barbier], 1561. Small quarto (approx. 8.5 x 5.75 in; 213x147mm), contemporary limp vellum. Light dampstaining to base of title and some early pages; very mild dampstaining to gutter (away from text) of some pages near the end.
EXCEEDINGLY RARE: WE CAN FIND NO RECORDS OF ANY COPY AT AUCTION.
Price: $14,000 .