The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat In Medieval France
On December 29, 1386, a knight and a squire faced each other on a
field of battle outside a Paris monastery. They would fight to the
death to prove which man's cause was in accordance with God's will.
A crowd of eager spectators looked on, including King Charles VI
and other royal courtiers. The accuser was Jean de Carrouges, a
knight from a distinguished Norman family, whose volatile
temperament had more than once found him involved in legal
disputes. The accused was Jacques LeGris, a squire of lesser birth
but with great political savvy, who was charged with raping
Carrouges's wife, Marguerite.
In the Prologue, Eric Jager masterfully sets the scene on the
battlefield to convey exactly how high the stakes were for the two
noblemen --- and for Lady Marguerite de Carrouges, who would be
burned at the stake as a false accuser if her husband were to lose.
Jager then goes back in time to trace the sequence of events that
found Carrouges and LeGris facing each other in combat. The crime
against Lady Marguerite had taken place eleven months earlier, but
the duel was the culmination of years of bitterness and rivalry
between the two men, who had once been friends.
Jager, who first came across a reference to the Carrouges-LeGris
duel a decade ago, draws on legal records, chronicles, and other
historical documents to unfold the story. By putting the duel in
the context of the time period, he also provides a fascinating
account of life in fourteenth-century France. He describes a
tumultuous era --- the volatile relationship between the French and
the English, played out in numerous battles; crime and punishment,
often delivered in harsh methods; religious beliefs and practices,
and how they impacted medieval laws; the hierarchy of the regional
and central powers in France, and the importance of land in
securing one's standing; and customs, politics, and intrigues of
the royal court.
The relationship between Jean and Marguerite de Carrouges also
allows for a look at feudal matrimony and the rights, or lack
thereof, of women during this time. Lady Marguerite, who emerges as
one of the most interesting figures in the book, could not accuse
LeGris directly of raping her. She had to seek her husband's
championship on her behalf, as she was considered his property and
so the crime was technically committed against him. Marguerite, who
endured a public pregnancy in the months leading up to the duel,
stood to lose her life if her husband failed on the battlefield. It
would have been much easier for Marguerite to keep silent about the
attack by LeGris, which occurred while her husband was on business
in Paris, and Jager leaves no doubt that it took a tremendous
amount of courage for her to speak out in favor of justice.
Jager also charts the surprisingly complex medieval legal system
and the judicial process that ultimately resulted in the
sanctioning of the duel by the French Parlement and King Charles
VI. Through the different phases of the court proceedings and
leading up to the duel, Jager draws out the suspense to the point
where it's almost unbearable. The temptation to turn ahead will be
overwhelming. Resist at all costs. Jager takes great care not to
give away any details that would reveal the outcome of the duel,
and to turn the pages too quickly will mean that you lose much of
what this book has to offer.
Eric Jager is a professor of English at UCLA, where he specializes
in medieval literature. If THE LAST DUEL is any indication of his
skill in the classroom, he must be the best kind of instructor ---
you learn something and have fun doing it.
Reviewed by Shannon McKenna on December 30, 2010