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the last duel

1 february 2023

Eric Jager's The Last Duel is a remarkable book about just that: the last judicial combat fought under the archaic traditions of the French crown, in 1386.

Duels of honor, Jager notes, continued to be fought for centuries afterwards, and the tradition probably continues, in less operatic form, wherever men get into pissing contests. The duel between Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris was something different. It was part of the French justice system. If you swore out a serious criminal complaint against somebody who maintained his innocence, you had the option of challenging him to trial by combat. And this was not just two falls out of three. This was Thunderdome: two men enter, one man leaves.

The idea was that God would not let a liar prevail in battle. If the defendant was killed (thus "proving" his guilt), you might ask why God would have let him commit the crime in the first place. But medievals, despite inventing scholastic logic, did not always think straight.

In fact, they added another wrinkle. Carrouges accused Le Gris of raping his wife, Marguerite. Marguerite herself was the principal witness. If Carrouges was killed – meaning that Marguerite had unjustly accused Le Gris – she would be burned to death for perjury.

Jager doesn't spoil his own story, so I won't either. Part of the excellence of The Last Duel is that it maintains suspense throughout. Unless you are a serious medievalist, you are unlikely to know the outcome. Jager never tips his hand. You have to read the book to find out who survived. Or peek at the end. I didn't, and I'm glad I didn't.

The case, though relatively well-documented, is naturally far sparser of details than a modern legal proceeding would be. Jager fills in the gaps with speculation, but it is not melodramatic speculation, and he is careful to couch it in modal verbs. Things "might have" or "could have" happened in a certain way, and if they could have happened several different ways, Jager will emphasize the options. As Le Gris' defense lawyer, skeptical of his own client's innocence at times, finally had to admit, "No one really knew the truth of the matter" (204). And the definitive result of the duel didn't prove anything, except in the eyes of French law – and possibly to those observers more sanguine about God's justice than we might be in the 21st century.

Jager, Eric. The Last Duel: A true story of crime, scandal, and trial by combat in medieval France. 2004. New York: Broadway [Random House], 2005. KJV 8690 .A82J34