Arrest Memorable du Parlement de Toulouse (1560)
In the second place, there were witnesses who formerly made contracts with the said du Tilh or were present at his contracts as secondary witnesses, and the documents were produced. As for the third kind, all these witnesses were almost in agreement that Martin Guerre was taller and darker, a man thin in body and legs, a little bent, carrying his head between his shoulders, the chin cleft and a little thrust forward, whose lower lip drooped a little, having small teeth, a large and flattened nose, an ulcer on his face, and a scar on the right eyebrow: whereas, the prisoner, however, is short, thick-set and strong of body, having a heavy leg, does not have a flat nose, nor is bent, nor has any of the said scars.
Thirdly, the greater part of the witnesses reported marks and made invincible presumptions—to wit, that Martin Guerre had two broken teeth in his lower jaw, a scar on his forehead, an ingrown nail on a forefinger, three warts on the right hand and one on the little finger, and a drop of blood in the left eye, which marks have all been found on the prisoner.
As for the marks and scars imprinted on the eyes, forehead, hands, and nails of the said du Tilh, prisoner, and formerly recognized on the body of Martin Guerre, it will be answered that a part of these marks, like the warts on the hands, the drop of blood in the eye, the ingrown nail, are proven by only one witness each, and by this they are individual witnesses, far from being a thousand, each one testifying to his own fact.
As for the other marks, such as the broken teeth, and similar ones, it is no new thing that two people should resemble each other, not only in features and characteristics of the face, but also in some specific bodily marks.
After delivering a verdict on this case, Jean de Coras considered it so peculiar that he published his own account of the proceedings and description of the parties in his book Arrest Memorable. The judges had a tough time deliberating a case of identity fraud in a time where personal details were remembered rather than transcribed. The court has no drawings or portraits of the young Guerre, nor do they have any idea of his whereabouts – and the same goes for Arnauld du Tihl’s background. Coras had to decide on a man’s life based solely off witness testimony. In the film, the first time Martin is brought to trial by his uncle, Coras settled the dispute by dividing the village to his left and right side. The most untrustworthy of these testimonies are the villagers who try to remember the bumps and marks on the young Guerre and compare it to the body of the defendant. There does not exist one distinct feature that multiple witnesses attest to, and they end up guessing at the positions of bruises and warts that any peasant might get.
If it were not for the fortuitous arrival of the real Martin Guerre, Jean de Coras would have released Arnauld and he would have most likely lived the rest of his days as Martin Guerre. Because of the lack of personal information, Arnauld could simply persuade the jurists with words that he is the Martin Guerre. His case became even more plausible when he called to the floor three “mercenaries” from the jury who confessed to accepting payment from Pierre Guerre to kill Arnaud: and he could easily justify the case of a greedy uncle seeking to bully him out of his rightful profits during his absence. In medieval and early modern society, a peasant’s identity could only be confirmed by witnesses: the judges had to decide how much weight to give to the testimonies from the Guerre family that affirm the identity of the impostor as Martin, and those testimonies from the villagers of Tihl who identify the man as “Pansette” - the belly.
De Coras, Jean. “A Memorable Decision of the High Court of Toulouse.” Translated by Jeannette K. Ringold. Triquarterly 55, (1982): 86-103. https://www.triquarterly.org/issue-viewer#/133861#1