In 1548, Basque peasant Martin Guerre disappeared from his village in southwest France, abandoning his wife and child. Eight years later, he returned. Life improved; he was a better husband, father, and member of his community. But Guerre’s uncle brought a lawsuit against him claiming this peasant wasn’t the real Martin Guerre, but a similar-looking imposter! The case went to trial and was about to be decided in Guerre’s favor when a one-legged man arrived, claiming that he was the real Martin Guerre. The case still has cultural relevance in France today – the 1982 film Le Retour de Martin Guerre starred Gérard Depardieu! – and the case is a terrific RPG adventure hook!
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The Guerres were a Basque family who crossed the border from Spain to settle in the French village of Artigat when Martin Guerre was a little kid. They learned the local languages (Gascon and Langue d’Oc) and generally integrated with their new non-Basque neighbors. They did well for themselves. To cement a partnership with another well-off landed peasant family, Martin was married off when he was but fourteen and his wife, Bertrande de Rols, might have been as young as nine. Martin and Bertrande weren’t happy. Martin couldn’t get it up with Bertrande and the marriage went unconsummated for years – possibly the result of trauma from both partners being married too young. It took them many years to find a wise woman who could lift the spell they though afflicted Martin’s penis. Also, Martin’s father exercised greater authority over his son than the younger man was comfortable with. This was a Basque practice that might have grated on a young man raised in a culturally French village. In 1548 – after a serious argument with his father and not long after Martin’s and Bertrande’s first child was born – Martin Guerre left Artigat.
No one knew where Martin had gone or what had become of him. Bertrande and her son moved in with her parents. She couldn’t remarry. The French church wouldn’t declare Martin dead without proof, divorce was not available to her, and bigamy was punishable by death. For eight years Bertrande had neither the economic and sexual benefits of a husband nor the high social status of widowhood. It was an awkward and unpleasant time made no better by incessant and malicious gossip about whether Bertrande’s abandonment was her own fault. Despite it all, Bertrande maintained a life her neighbors saw as virtuous and honorable.
Then in 1556, Martin Guerre returned! Maybe he looked a little different: a little wider, a little shorter, a little paler. But most people in Artigat recognized him, Bertrande especially, and everyone knows people’s appearances can change in eight years. Maybe he couldn’t speak Basque any more, but he’d been away for almost a decade and surely had few opportunities to practice. Most importantly, his memory of events in Artigat before his departure was impeccable. He told people about conversations they’d had together, even reminded them of what they’d been wearing at the time. And nobody wanted to press the issue anyway, since the years had made Martin Guerre a better man. He was a hard worker, an honest businessman, a good partner to Bertrande, and an excellent lover. Martin and Bertrande soon welcomed a daughter. All was well.
I am sad to tell you that – as you’ve guessed – this new arrival was not the original Martin. He was born Arnaud du Tilh, and he bore a startling resemblance to Martin Guerre. Arnaud was not Basque. He was the black sheep of a family in a village a few dozen miles from Artigat. He had a gift for languages, a memory so good he was suspected of witchcraft, and a constitutional inability to do an honest day’s work. He spent his time drinking, swearing, and screwing. So Arnaud made the smart choice and left home to become a soldier. He spent a few years in the armies of France before slowly migrating home towards the Pyrenees. It may have been during this time when a passerby first confused him for Martin Guerre – for they really did look very similar. From these accidents, Arnaud may have heard the story of the well-off peasant, presumed dead, heir to some decent fields and vineyards, and a beautiful wife left all alone.
Arnaud took his time. He didn’t rush straightaway to Artigat. He sought out distant acquaintances of Martin from whom he could learn more details. As he moved closer to the village, he leveraged his limited knowledge as proof of his Martinian identity so he could learn more from closer acquaintances. This was the most dangerous phase of his plan and he was discovered a few times, though never by anyone too near Artigat. Word of Martin’s return reached Bertrande, who left the village to see her husband. We don’t know whether Arnaud fooled Bertrande on their first meeting. It seems unlikely he could have maintained the charade when Bertrande took him to bed. Later events suggest Bertrande coached him in what to say and whom to say it to so he could pass as Martin back in the village.
And why shouldn’t she? Here was her husband’s doppelgänger with a mind sharp enough to pass for the real thing. He was her ticket out of the awkward state of being neither wife nor widow. And he was a good dude! Something changed in Arnaud du Tilh between when he left his home village and when he moved in with Bertrande. Maybe it was the war. Maybe it was the fresh start. But the lazy wastrel he had been was gone. All our sources from this affair point to a universal agreement among the villagers that Bertrande and the pseudo-Martin had a warm and loving marriage and few people had an unkind word to say about him – except for all the stuff about impersonating another man to sleep with his wife.
There’s one other small detail here too: religion. Protestantism was starting to catch on in southwest France, and Arnaud and Bertrande were both sympathetic to it. The biggest obstacle to their marriage was the Catholic Church. If they’d lived in Basel, the (Calvinist) Reformed Church would have dissolved Bertrande’s marriage years ago, and she’d have been free to marry Arnaud. So why not live together as man and wife?
All went well for Arnaud and Bertrande until the pseudo-Martin gave someone a reason to voice doubts. The real Martin’s father had died; the head of the Guerre family was now Martin’s father’s brother, Pierre. Pierre Guerre was also Bertrande’s stepfather; when her own father had died, Pierre married Bertrande’s widowed mother. This reinforced the strong bond between the two well-off peasant families. In Martin’s absence, Pierre had grown the family’s wealth. A few years after his ‘return’, Arnaud-as-Martin asked Pierre if he could examine the family’s account books, presumably to verify that Arnaud had received everything due Martin in Martin’s father’s will. Pierre bristled at this. Like some others in the village, he’d never entirely bought that the new Martin was the same as the old one. But his stepdaughter was happy, she had a new daughter with this guy, and his ‘nephew’ was a productive family member. So Pierre kept his thoughts to himself. But this business with the account books crossed the line. Maybe Pierre really was keeping something from Arnaud. Maybe he was just offended that Arnaud thought he might be. When Arnaud sued Pierre for access to the account books, Pierre was certainly offended then!
Pierre pressed his family to see that this new Martin was an imposter. Why had he forgotten almost all of the Basque language? Why did he no longer embrace the old Martin’s hobbies of acrobatics and fencing? Why did he look a little bit different? Why had his shoe size changed? Pierre scoured the countryside and found a few of the people who’d detected Arnaud’s imposture when he was still learning the role. From these witnesses, Pierre learned the real name of Arnaud du Tilh. Pierre even found a soldier who claimed he’d served with the real (missing) Martin Guerre in the army of Spain (!!) and that Martin now had a wooden leg. Pierre convinced about half the family that Arnaud was a fake. The other half stood steadfastly beside their reappeared relative. Pierre urged his daughter-in-law to bring a lawsuit against the man pretending to be her husband, but she totally refused. When the family dispute spilled over into violence, she interposed her body between that of Arnaud and the men beating him with clubs.
The way Pierre went about handling the problem did a lot to undermine his own case. He asked a friend to pay for an assassin who could have Arnaud-as-Martin killed. (The appalled friend refused.) And when he ultimately brought the case to court, he didn’t have standing to bring a charge of impersonation, so he pretended to be acting as the authorized representative of Bertrande, his daughter-in-law. When it came out in court that he was lying (Bertrande didn’t want the lawsuit), the judges found the case so bizarre that they proceeded with the trial anyway. Arnaud-as-Martin was thrown in prison as a flight risk until the trial was over. But Pierre was deemed so unreliable that he was thrown in prison too, lest he extralegally influence the outcome. And since Bertrande was a possible conspirator of Arnaud’s, she too was thrown in jail.
The first trial wasn’t terribly important. Pierre won, but the case was so odd that Arnaud was granted an appeal before the high court in Toulouse. It is from evidence presented in the second trial that most of our reliable sources for this affair come. Arnaud and Bertrande were quizzed extensively and separately to see whether their memories aligned – and they did. The two probably saw this coming and practiced before they were arrested.
The question at issue was this: how do you prove identity in a largely illiterate world? The village cobbler claimed that Martin’s feet had changed size considerably, but he had no documentation to prove it. Various witnesses were brought in to testify to marks on the body of the original Martin: a wart on his second finger (or was it his third?), a scar on his forehead (or was it his chin?). Some of these attested marks were consistent with the body of the defendant and some not, but all disagreed with one another. And since nobody had written anything down about Martin’s appearance before he disappeared, there was no way to know whose recollections were accurate. A handwriting analysis could be performed if the defendant were literate – but it didn’t matter if he was, since no samples of the handwriting of Martin Guerre or Arnaud du Tilh could be found predating the ‘return’ of Arnaud-as-Martin.
Arnaud’s extraordinary memory of events he’d ‘witnessed’ stood him in good stead. The witnesses Pierre turned up might have swayed the case more, had they not been provided by a man of such low moral character that he’d try to have his (maybe) nephew murdered and falsely present himself as the representative of his daughter-in-law. Witnesses drawn from the village were evenly split between those who testified that the defendant was Martin Guerre and those who testified he wasn’t – plus a few who weren’t certain enough to swear one way or another. Agents of the court scoured France and Spain for additional witnesses, most of whom also proved inconclusive. They even summoned Arnaud’s real brothers, a violation of a Medieval principle that brothers could not be made to testify against one another. The brothers fled.
In the modern world, study after study conclusive demonstrates that human memory is fallible and changeable – and that how certain we are a memory is accurate doesn’t correspond much with how correct it really is. Yet human memory was all the Toulouse judges had to go on. And even today, most court cases are decided on evidence little stronger than that presented here. Even in a world of DNA and cell phone cameras, we rarely have anything better than “I’m pretty sure the guy I saw looked like my cousin, Martin Guerre.”
The bulk of evidence was mostly split, but leaned a little towards Arnaud-as-Martin being an imposter. But the Toulouse judges were going to spare him. The lead judge (who wrote a book about the case) pointed at an old Roman standard that it’s better to let a guilty man go unpunished than unfairly condemn an innocent. And he also pointed at a Medieval French legal standard that, when the evidence is split, judges should favor the outcome that keeps families together. Whether or not Arnaud was Martin, he and Bertrande had a daughter together. That daughter deserved a father, and Bertrande deserved a spouse.
And then the real Martin arrived. I don’t think he made a dramatic unannounced entrance into the courtroom, wooden leg banging loudly on every other step, shouting “I am the true Martin Guerre, and that man is an imposter!” The texts support the idea that he was taken into custody by the guards of the court and interviewed separately. But man do I wish the former were true. When Arnaud at last came face-to-face with Bertrande’s shitty husband, he went into a rage. “Newcomer! Evildoer! Rascal! This man has been bought for cash and has been instructed by Pierre Guerre.”
When Martin, Arnaud, and Bertrande were interviewed separately, the judges found that Martin actually recalled events less clearly than Arnaud, even on questions not before posed. But he could speak Basque and – critically – every single witness who’d previously identified Arnaud as Martin changed their mind when they saw the one-legged newcomer. Even Bertrande, Arnaud’s fiercest defender, dropped the act when she faced the husband who’d abandoned her and their child. She begged his forgiveness. He did not offer it.
Arnaud du Tilh was hanged on a gibbet erected before the house he’d shared with Bertrande de Rols. Bertrande was judged an innocent victim, not a willful bigamist, so was released without penalty. There is some suggestion in the head judge’s account that the alternative was too terrible to contemplate. Martin Guerre revealed he’d been an attendant for a Spanish bishop, then a soldier in the Spanish army, lost his leg in battle against the French, and been granted a sinecure as a lay brother in a chapter house of an esteemed military order in Spain. Relations with Spain were good at the time, so Martin was pardoned for the treason of carrying arms against his (French) king. He declined to reveal why he’d returned. Most of the players in this story here disappear from the historical record. Historian Natalie Zemon Davis likes to imagine a happy-ish ending for Martin and Bertrande, where they each acknowledged they’d failed the other and were able to coexist amicably. I am not so optimistic. I can only hope that Martin’s ability to beat the wife he saw as unfaithful was hampered by his missing leg.
At your table, don’t feel limited to using this scenario in a Medieval-esque setting. I love the question of how you determine identity in pre-literate world, but Battlestar Galactica showed us that the question of who’s really who works in just about any setting. Your version of the fake, better husband might be a clone, an android, a tulpa, or a corporeal specter. It might not even know it’s fake, though I prefer the original version where the imposter knows he’s fake but also knows he’s a better husband than the genuine article.
I’ve previously written about how making the PCs argue a case can be less fun than it seems. This case is great because the PCs can win it by conducting more traditional RPG activities: combing the countryside for witnesses and evidence. While out there, they can be attacked by monsters or fall into trouble with partisans supporting one side or another. If they cross the border into your Spain-analogue (or wherever your analogue of the real Martin Guerre was hiding), remember that in real history he had powerful friends over there who might cause problems for the party. See this post for more on that line of inquiry, though since it’s older than a year it’s behind a paywall: Legal Disputes and the Black Hills. You can also have this disagreement resolved via a legal process quite different from that of a courtroom drama. See Resolving Disputes the Tiwi Way for more, though again, it’s behind a paywall. (Only $2 a month for my whole searchable, filterable back catalog!)
If you want to kick it up a notch, maybe Arnaud used magic or super-science to complete his disguise. That’s not totally out of line. His memory was so good he was accused of sorcery several times, including by the Toulouse judges. And Artigan is in Cathar country – only 35 miles and 250 years removed from these two blog posts about hidden Cathars in a a remote French village. Swap out Cathars for a sorcerous cult and now you’ve got a real den of snakes for the PCs to inadvertently fall into while investigating this case.
So how do you get the PCs involved in this mess? The simple answer is that they’re asked by the court to round up evidence. A more complicated answer is that your analogue of Arnaud-as-Martin informs them they were named in Martin’s father’s will. If they can work to discredit your Pierre-analogue, they can get the account books and prove that the money they’re owed didn’t run out. But to discredit Pierre, they have to win the trial for Arnaud. You can also treat this case as a mid-campaign twist or complication. Unbeknownst to anyone, an important NPC the PCs already know and like isn’t who he says he is, and he’s suddenly brought to trial for it.
One final wrinkle: if it becomes clear that Bertrande and the real Martin are a bad fit for one another, ought the PCs do something about it? If the party is heavily involved in deciding the case, might they bear a moral responsibility for keeping Betrande out of the hands of the man who abandoned her and their child?
One of my flaws as a GM is that I tend to overprepare. I’m trying to remedy that in the campaign I’m running now. It’s a silly, light-hearted time travel campaign using the FATE rules set. I recently tried a new (to me) technique in the name of low-prep. It went well but my feelings about it are delightfully mixed.
In the first session, I included a fun little object just to see if it would attract the players’ attention. It was a bust (a sculpture of someone’s head) carved out of flowstone: the layered limestone that cave formations are made of. One of the PCs is Stephen Bishop, the enslaved explorer of Mammoth Cave, so I thought it might catch his player’s interest. Another is playing a scholar of figural sculpture, so I thought it might grab hers too. And just for funsies, I gave the bust an element that related it to the session’s MacGuffin. It was obviously out of place and weird.
But I had a terrible secret: I had no idea what the bust’s deal was. I didn’t know what it was doing there, who made it, how it got there, anything. I was trying for low-prep, right?
Naturally, the players made this bust the focus of their attention for the whole session. They had a number of clever hypotheses that I surreptitiously wrote down as possible answers. They came up with clever ways to test their hypotheses and I dutifully provided answers that helped winnow down the possibilities. I then made sure to include another out-of-place flowstone statue in each subsequent adventure. In the fourth, they uncovered the (partial) truth of what was happening. They told me they found the reveal fun and satisfying.
Were I a player, I might not have enjoyed this reveal, and that gives me mixed feelings. As a player, I like for the GM to know in advance the answers to the mysteries I’m investigating. That way, I get to feel clever when I find smart ways to solve the mystery. Part of that is also the risk I may be wrong – without risk, there’s no stakes, right? If the mystery is amorphous and the GM doesn’t have a solution in mind, then the act of solving a mystery becomes no different from any other form of improvisation. It’s fun, but it’s not special.
So I’m not sure how I feel about the success of this mystery. The result was not arbitrary, so that’s good. It was the result of the players’ clever thinking and their clever tests. But there was no chance that they could have been wrong, since I selected the ‘right’ answer from among their unwitting suggestions. Running the mystery was a lot of fun for me and playing it seems to have been a lot of fun for them. So that definitely means it was a success. But there’s a giant ol’ asterisk on that success, which is that it wouldn’t have been fun for every group of players. It might not even have been fun for me, if I’d been a player instead of the GM.
The more I GM for more and different people, the more I keep coming back to this same axiom: know your players. There is no universal advice in RPGs. That which is fun for one player is anathema for another. Learn what your players do and don’t enjoy. Conduct a robust session zero to learn their likes and dislikes. Tailor everything to your specific audience. And ignore what blowhards on the internet think, especially those like me too foolish to say “My players had fun, and I should be glad of it rather than overthinking.”
Source: The Return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zemon Davis (1983)