Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 856:
RETURN OF MARTIN GUERRE

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 856.

Today, a creative con man convinces himself. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

You may've seen the movie, The Return of Martin Guerre. It was about an event 440 years ago in southern France. Court records tell how Martin and Bertrande de Rols were wed as teenagers -- how, after years of little sexual interest in the lovely Bertrande, Martin finally sired a son -- how he then ran off and left them both. Years later a look-alike named Arnaud du Tilh showed up and convinced everyone he was Martin, returned.

Arnaud charmed the villagers and fooled them. He became a responsible citizen, a good father, and a truly loving husband. He gave Bertrande the marriage Martin had never given her.

Recently Richard Gere and Jodie Foster retold the story in the movie Sommersby. The movie was pretty accurate -- although southern France became the American South after the Civil War.

The historical Arnaud was denounced by Martin's uncle, but not until Arnaud tried to take control of Martin's inheritance. The uncle put pressure on Bertrande to accuse Arnaud of deceiving her. She probably contrived her accusation so she'd lose the case and still satisfy her angry in-law.

Arnaud stood up against scores of witnesses through two trials. He was on the edge of winning his case. Then, as if by magic, the real Martin turned up. He'd lost a leg fighting for the King of Spain, who rewarded him with a sinecure post. The game was up; the judge had to condemn Arnaud to death by hanging.

Arnaud died as well as he had lived the last four years of his life. He confessed his deceit and insisted on Bertrande's innocence. He begged Martin not to be harsh with her, for she had truly been deceived. He died saying he still loved her. If the two had been in collusion, he died without betraying her.

And Bertrande? Well, she was condemned to live with the lesser man. For Martin had returned mean-spirited and petulant. The second trial judge was deeply disturbed by the story of Martin Guerre. He sat right down and wrote a book about it. He leaves us with a fine study of moral ambiguity and human complexity. The trial had raised unanswerable questions about the complicity of Bertrande and about the sudden return of Martin. He questioned the rules of evidence. Eye-witnesses had been terribly wrong, while hearsay evidence had been accurate.

But primarily the judge struggled with Arnaud. His deceit had been brilliant theatre from start to finish. It'd been a work of genius, prodigious memory, and cool courage. In the end, he had utterly transformed himself into the very thing he pretended to be. He'd become Martin, enlarged and complete. He'd become that whole person that any of us might well wish to be.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Zemon-Davis, N., The Return of Martin Guerre. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983.

The trial judge's account of the trial is given in: Jean de Coras, Arrest Memorable, du Parlement de Tolose, Contenant une histoire prodigieuse, de nostre temps, avec cent belles, & doctes Annotations, de monsieur Maistre Jean de Coras, Conseiller en ladite Cour, & rapporteur du proces. Prononce es Arrestz Generaule le xii Septembre MDLX. Lyon: Antoine Vincent, 1561. Avec Privilege du Roy. (Quarto.)


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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