On a cold December day in 1386, two knights met at the field at Saint-Martin-Des-Champs in Paris to face each other in a duel. This may seem like your average duel for entertainment to any outsider, but this was a duel to the death to determine who was telling the truth when it came to a sinister crime. A Norman knight, Jean de Carrouges, accused a squire, Jacques Le Gris, of raping his wife, Marguerite. It was a truly heinous crime, but what was it true, and why did these accusations lead to a duel to the death? Eric Jager explores this specific event and the factors that led to this clash in his nonfiction book, “The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat.”
I became interested in this book when I heard that it was being turned into a movie. I talked to the Five Minute Medievalist Daniele Cybulskie on Twitter about the film, and she mentioned this book. I wanted to read this book before I watched the movie to compare the two interpretations of the tale.
During this duel, France was in the midst of the Hundred Years’ War with England. It was a time of tension when loyalty, chivalry, and honor meant a great deal to knights and members of the nobility. Teen King Charles VI ruled France with the help of his uncles and men who were as loyal, such as the wealthy Count Pierre of Alencon and his knights, including Jean de Carrourges. Jean de Carrouges’ family was known for their loyalty and landholding, which Jean IV hoped would continue during his time as head of the family. However, this was not to be. Unlike his predecessor Count Robert of Perche, Count Pierre did not favor the de Carrouges family, but instead to a squire named Jacques Le Gris.
Jacques Le Gris and Jean de Carrouges were old friends, but when Count Pierre gave property that de Carrouges believed would pass onto him as part of the inheritance to Le Gris, a feud began between the two. The feud hit a fever pitch after Jean de Carrouges married his second wife, Marguerite, the daughter of Robert de Thibouville, who betrayed the French king twice and still kept his head. Although he married a traitor’s daughter, de Carrouges stayed loyal to Count Pierre and ventured to Scotland to fight for King Charles VI, which proved disastrous.
Broke and in poor health, de Carrouges pleaded with Count Pierre for financial help, but he insulted Le Gris. This was the final straw for Le Gris, and he decided to attack de Carrouges, where it would hurt, by attacking his innocent wife. Naturally, de Carrourges was upset and took his case against Le Gris to the Parlement of Paris, where he declared that he wanted to face Le Gris in a duel, an ancient trial by combat where the victor would be declared innocent. If de Carrouges lost the fight, he would not only be risking his soul to damnation, but his wife would be burned alive.
Jager brings to life a story from the past full of drama and intrigue that will capture modern readers’ attention. The amount of details that he includes in this nonfiction book makes it feel like a historical fiction novel. Jager spent ten years researching this one story, and it shows. It was such a gripping story, especially the duel itself, that I was a little sad when it ended. If you want a gripping tale of love, revenge, and justice, you must read “The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat” by Eric Jager.