“Once the actual combat began, the chivalry is dead.”The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France, Eric Jager
October 15th, 2021 marks the release of Ridley Scott’s historical film, The Last Duel, based on true events of the last recorded trial by combat in Medieval France. A historical account researched and written by Medieval Literature professor Eric Jager, The Last Duel tells a tale of a legally permitted duel so primeval that changed the legal systems of the Middle Ages. The novel illustrates a riveting page turner of true crime, scandal, and a story so ludicrous and frustrating, readers can feel a familiarity to victims’ accounts in our current period.
IF YOU DID NOT READ OR WATCH THE MOVIE, SPOILER ALERT
The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and trial by Combat in Medieval France sets its frame in the 12th century. The Hundred Years’ War was a time of immense suffering and dread; France and Britain drenched in blood and violence. After his return from Scotland, Norman knight Jean de Carrouges learns his wife, Marguerite de Carrouges, accuses squire Jacques Le Gris of rape, during his absence. The accusation was then taken to the royal courts, ruled by teenage King Charles VI, who reluctantly adjudges to a trial by combat between Carrouges and Le Gris. The verdict relies on whoever is defeated first or died in combat. if Carrouges dies, then Marguerite will be burned at the stake for her lie.
From an interview with Christian Science Monitor, Professor Eric Jager argues duels and combat were polarizing; Duels were perceived as a fight for honor, while combat was for justice. The difference was duels were more private, to protect one’s reputation, similar to disorganized fights outside school grounds after hours. Trial by combat must be permitted by the royal court, who controlled all legal affairs. To command a combat, the crime must be horrendous, charges affiliated with murder, treason, or rape. The king was already feeling skeptical in regards to duels becoming the ultimatum to solve legal conflicts.
The duel between Carrouges and Le Gris might appear heroic, considering Carrouges fighting for his life for the justice of his wife Marguerite. The nuance of the supposed justice is deeper than I thought; the first half of the book traces the begrudged history between Carrouges and Le Gris. Thus, Carrouges’ justice for his wife is flawed. The romanticization of the duel appears to overlook Carrouges’ resentment towards Le Gris, and the rape was an attempt to fulfill his vengeance. Although the combat was well documented, the issue with the records is there are no other accounts from Marguerite, the true victim of the crime. Rather than justice to fulfill Carrouges’ honor, this was a justice to satisfy Carrouges’ thirst for some sort of retribution.
Although the story is non-fiction, Jager doesn’t need to dramatize the tale of the last recorded duel, because the events indeed occurred. I can’t seem to wrap my mind around that this actually happened, because despite both parties (Carrouges and Le Gris) were formally arranged by the represented legal system in France, no one seems to care about Marguerite. Granted, her husband brought the accusations to the court and a trial by combat was ensued, but her life and pursue for legal action relied on her husband.
After Marguerite recounted her accusation against Le Gris, she was only mentioned a couple times. The lack of her records fails to demonstrate Marguerite’s perspective, even the court historian did think to talk to Marguerite after the trial. I do not blame Jager for this, but the evidence display the oppressive nature of the Middle Ages against victims of sexual violence is unfortunately a reflection of our legal system today towards rape trials.
Ridley Scott’s film will be able all narrate all parties’ truths, along with Marguerite’s emotional re-cant of her sexual trauma. I have yet to watch the film; by the time I’ve finished this post, I probably have seen and will update with a reflection of the movie later.
Overall, Jager’s novel is a gripping historical epic that glues readers every page; a surprising feat for Jager to write an important novel that not only examines how crazy Medieval justice was, but he projected a voice for a victim of sexual assault, where only twelve cases were recorded between 1314 and 1399. In his own words, he would have not embarked on this book if he did not believe Marguerite.
This was a wild ride to say the least; and with such irony that I reflect on this book near Christmas, which the crime occurred around the winter time as well.
I bid you all farewell and happy holidays. Until then, open your mind to old and new worlds, and Ad Astra Per Libras.