Identity and Family Life in 16th Century France

A contemporary account of the Martin Guerre case. Courtesy of Bibliorare, French Vernacular Books, 2007, No. 14290

The problem of identity theft is one which has increased significantly over the last several decades; for obvious reasons, it was quite rare in centuries past. This fact makes the story of Martin Guerre all the more remarkable.

Martin Guerre was the son of a man named Sanxi Daguerre (the family later shortened their surname to Guerre), born in the French Basque country in 1525. In 1527, Martin and his parents relocated to the village of Artigat in the County of Foix, less than thirty miles from the border of Spain.[1] Martin’s early years were unremarkable, as he lived a peasant’s life and would have surely faded into obscurity as so many others had if not for a well-documented incident which shaped his adult life. In 1548, Martin stole a quantity of grain from his father. Basque code viewed theft, particularly within one’s own family, as an unforgivable offense, and out of fear Martin Guerre fled from the village, leaving behind his wife Bertrande de Rols and infant son Sanxi.[2]

In the years that followed, Bertrande was forced to raise her son alone, as the laws of the period dictated that a woman was not free to remarry if her spouse was absent, regardless of the length of his absence, unless certain proof of death could be provided. The law required that witnesses verify the death of her husband, proof that Bertrande lacked.[3]

In the summer of 1556, a man arrived at the home of Bertrande Guerre claiming to be her husband. This man, however, was a notorious criminal better known by his real name, Arnaud du Tilh or Pansette.[4] Some villagers questioned the identity of this impostor immediately, while others truly believed Martin Guerre had returned after an eight year absence. Given that there were no known images of Martin Guerre, there was room for doubt. However, this also led many to view Arnaud du Tilh, a man with a similar appearance to Guerre, as the real Martin.[5]

It is not known for certain if Arnaud du Tilh had ever met Martin Guerre before, even in passing, but it is likely that du Tilh had been told by villagers along his journeys that he bore a resemblance to the missing Guerre. Peasants in the sixteenth century only knew of their own appearance from descriptions by others, as mirrors were not present in their households. A surprising feature of the case is the diligence with which du Tilh embraced the details of Martin Guerre’s life, the better to pull off his masquerade. Eventually, Martin’s brother, Pierre, and Bertrande (under pressure from Pierre) brought a case against the impostor. During the initial trial at Rieux, more than 45 witnesses claimed the man was Arnaud du Tilh and not Martin Guerre, while 30 to 40 claimed he was the real Martin, which shows how divided the village was.[6]


Martin’s journey after abandoning his family took him over the Pyrenees into Spain, where he settled in Burgos as a servant of Roman Catholic Cardinal Francisco de Mendoza. Guerre then joined the Spanish army. On 10 August 1557, during an attack in Picardy by the forces of King Philip II of Spain, Martin was struck in the leg by a bullet, forcing an amputation.[7]

Back in Rieux…

The 1560 trial resulted in Arnaud du Tilh being sentenced to death by beheading and quartering, a ruling which the defendant appealed, resulting in a second trial at Toulouse.[8] As the chamber was preparing to make its judgment for the second case, a  man with a wooden leg entered the court and proclaimed that he was Martin Guerre. The court viewed Martin’s presence as sufficient evidence to declare du Tilh guilty and sentence him to make a public apology before being put to death.[9]

The case of Martin Guerre and Arnaud du Tilh provides researchers with an interesting point of view on two important fronts. The first is that it showcases the fragile state of family relations during the sixteenth century, which could be altered by economic issues and questions of identity. Furthermore, the case suggests that despite seeing an individual on a daily basis, it could be difficult for villagers and even family members to identify a man whom they know so well. In contrast to the modern age, when finding information on our family members is so easy, in centuries past it was possible for people to go entire lives without truly knowing basic facts about those with whom they lived.


[1]    Natalie Zemon Davis, The Return of Martin Guerre (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), 6-7.

[2]    Ibid., 24.

[3]    Ibid., 33-34.

[4]    Robert Finlay, “The Return of Martin Guerre: Refashioning Martin Guerre,” AHR Forum, 2001, 554.

[5]    Davis, 38-39.

[6]    Ibid., 67.

[7]    Ibid., 26.

[8]    Ibid., 72.

[9]    Ibid., 86.

About Zachary Garceau

Zachary J. Garceau is a former researcher at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. He joined the research staff after receiving a Master's degree in Historical Studies with a concentration in Public History from the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and a B.A. in history from the University of Rhode Island. He was a member of the Research Services team from 2014 to 2018, and now works as a technical writer. Zachary also works as a freelance writer, specializing in Rhode Island history, sports history, and French Canadian genealogy.

8 thoughts on “Identity and Family Life in 16th Century France

  1. While this is a very minor, unrelated point, I don’t believe there were ever any Cardinals who were not Roman Catholic, especially in Spain.

  2. What? No mention of the 1982 movie “The Return of Martin Guerre” or the 1996 musical “Martin Guerre”? Of course, these were loosely based on the historical evidence. I saw the play at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis several years ago. Impressive. Thanks for some of that evidence.

  3. Fascinating post! Thanks for sharing. It showcases to me the challenges in tracing individuals who were not upper class and thus were less likely to leave a paper trail.

  4. Fascinating! Thank you for this most interesting post and for more “food for thought” in tracing our ancestors.

  5. I thought the lack of mirrors among peasants of the day was interesting. Only the wealthy could afford to admire themselves in the looking-glass, and apparently had the leisure to do so!

  6. Thanks so much for bringing the other side of the ancestral picture to Boston. Both the French and the Roman Catholicism that in fact did form the very essence of European lives and that ancestry which so many of us have inherited without even knowing or even admitting such !

  7. Zack I’m so glad to hear that someone at NEGHS Is specializing in French Canadian ancestry. My mothers family of the Bissonnette Bedard and Broulliard families. I hope you will publish more articles on French-Canadians in the United States. It’s been so much easier to track my father’s family they were descendants of the Puritans of the Winthrop Fleet. Even though my actual ancestors didn’t leave a lot of written information the heads of their towns did. Happily French priests in Canada did a lot of writing or we wouldn’t have much to go on. Thanks.

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