In The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France author Eric Jager provides a fascinating account of a feud that erupted in the late 1370s between two friends and culminated some years later, in December of 1386, in the disputants' trial by combat, the last judicial combat ever to be sanctioned by the Parlement of Paris. The bad blood between Jean de Carrouges and Jacque Le Gris began with jealousy, as Carrouges--painted here as a greedy and contentious man--watched his friend Le Gris, the godfather of Carrouges's first-born son, become the favorite of the Count whom both men served as chamberlains. Le Gris was Carrouges's social inferior, descended from a less distinguished family, and it rankled that he rather than Carrouges was the more successful at court. Further insults followed. The Count gave Le Gris a valuable parcel of land as a gift (land Carrouges felt should have been his), but bestowed a position Carrouges expected to receive, a captaincy held by Carrouges's recently deceased father, on another man. Carrouges's attempts to recover through legal means what he thought rightfully his failed, rendering him increasingly hostile to Le Gris, whom he suspected of plotting against him.
The final straw, the crime that led the principals in this story to seek one another's death before thousands of spectators and King Charles VI himself, was Le Gris's alleged rape of Carrouges's wife. Marguerite de Carrouges maintained that Le Gris and another man had attacked her while her husband was away in Paris, during the brief window of opportunity that presented itself when her mother-in-law and the rest of the household had ridden off to a nearby town. Marguerite reported the incident to her husband upon his return, despite the vast difficulties she faced in doing so (given societal attitudes toward raped women), and she demanded that he seek vengeance. The events of that morning--whatever happened to Marguerite in fact--led inexorably to a walled-in jousting field, some 240 feet long by 60 feet wide, on which the two combatants stabbed and hacked and beat one another viciously until one of them lay dead.
Jager does a simply excellent job in this book. He builds the story of Carrouges and Le Gris slowly and carefully, describing the causes for complaint between the two men and the progress of their feud as well as its historical and social context. We learn in the process about the history of judicial combat and the surprising particulars of the battle itself. The event was not, as one might suppose, an occasion for revelry, with rowdy, drunken onlookers yelling insults or encouragement at the fighters. It was instead a solemn event, and impossibly harsh strictures were laid on the spectators to guarantee their good behavior: anyone who rose from his seat during the fight was to be penalized by the loss of a hand; coughing was punishable by death. Most of us would probably quail at the prospect of merely attending such an event, let alone participating in it.
But Jager's account is not only informative, it is downright riveting. Because the author has so carefully described the antecedents to the fight and the harsh consequences for the combatants--and for Marguerite herself--riding on the battle's outcome, readers will have their emotions and intellect invested in the story by the time they arrive at Jager's blow-by-blow account of the fight: I defy anyone to put the book down during its penultimate chapter.
Whether Le Gris was guilty or innocent is a question that has been debated for centuries, and convincing arguments can be made in support of either position. Jager makes his own opinion about the matter clear, but to his credit he does not obscure the ambiguity inherent in the case, leaving plenty of room for readers to debate for themselves this most fascinating piece of legal history. That is perhaps the book's greatest strength.
Reviewed by Debra Hamel, author of Trying Neaira: The True Story of a Courtesan's Scandalous Life in Ancient Greece