Trial by combat: the true story behind Ridley Scott's The Last Duel

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Matt Damon (left) and Adam Driver star in The Last Duel, out October 15 - AP
Matt Damon (left) and Adam Driver star in The Last Duel, out October 15 - AP

One day in the week after Christmas 1386, in the grounds of a monastery just outside the walls of Paris, two French warriors met to fight to the death. Their names were Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris, and the cause of their quarrel was the oldest one: a woman.

That woman was Carrouges’s wife, Marguerite, who, earlier the same year, had accused Le Gris of breaking into her marital home while she was alone, propositioning her, pinning her down, shoving a glove in her mouth to silence her, and raping her.

In The Last Duel, the latest film from British director Ridley Scott, starring Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer and Ben Affleck, out today, that gruesome scene is played out again and again, from rotating perspectives. So too is the armed showdown it led to, which is generally believed to be the last official trial by combat in French history.

Notwithstanding its horrifying details, in 1386 the real case confounded the highest courts in France. Judges up to and including the 18-year-old King Charles VI were unwilling to convict Le Gris, despite Marguerite’s powerful testimony against him. Le Gris hired a superstar lawyer, Jean Le Coq, who (like his much later near-namesake Johnny Cochran) specialised in getting rich and famous clients off the hook. Although Le Coq found Le Gris hard work and strongly doubted his innocence, it was not hard for this skilful attorney to suggest that “her word against his” was a thin basis for a prosecution.

And so, after many months of legal wrangling, the courts decided that a woman’s word could not be trusted, and that the only fair way to decide the case was by an old-fashioned appeal to God. Carrouges and Le Gris would fight in mortal combat. The Lord would decide the winner. If it were Carrouges, Le Gris would be both judged and punished at a stroke. If Le Gris won, he would be cleared of rape and Carrouges, his false accuser, would be conveniently dead. Marguerite, meanwhile, would be burned alive for perjury. The stakes were high and the swords were sharp. All there was left to do was fight.

Jodie Comer appears as Marguerite de Carrouges in The Last Duel - AP
Jodie Comer appears as Marguerite de Carrouges in The Last Duel - AP

Scott is not the first storyteller to adapt the case for his own ends; it was first written up by the late medieval Flemish chronicler Jean Froissart. Well-travelled, well-connected and obsessed with chivalry and the ideals of knighthood, Froissart saw plenty to like in l’affair Carrouges. It was old-school. It had knights prepared to die and a damsel in distress. It offered melodrama, a deadly rivalry, a crime that demanded vengeance, and an ultraviolent, cathartic showdown. It was a near-perfect tale.

Froissart devoted a long section in his famous chronicle to the duel, and other writers followed him. None were very sympathetic to Marguerite. Froissart never spoke to her, and said he had no idea whether she thought the duel had been worth the trouble. Others went further, developing the theory that Carrouges and Le Gris were actually both in the right. Sure, Marguerite had been raped, they said. But she had lied about the real culprit: her attacker was not Le Gris. A specious tradition sprung up which held that a third man had confessed to the crime on his deathbed.

That this was nonsense was neither here nor there. Victim-blaming – by the contemporary equivalent of the tabloid press – was alive and well in the fourteenth century. Historians today, drawing on chronicle evidence and de Coq’s trial notes, believe Le Gris raped Marguerite, that she was telling the truth. But did he get what he deserved on that fateful afternoon, when the two men clashed in heavy armour before the king and a crowd of hundreds? After meeting on horseback with lances, then axes, the knights descended into brutal sword fighting at close quarters... you’ll have to see the film to find out who prevailed.

In its new telling, The Last Duel is broadly faithful to the outline of the real medieval case. The screenplay was adapted by Affleck, Damon and Nicole Holofcener from the American literary critic Eric Jager’s 2004 book of the same name. So many of the historical facts are present and correct, even if (among other distortions) the relationship between Jean de Carrouges and Le Gris has been altered for dramatic neatness, the sequence of events that led to Marguerite being home alone has been complicated, details of the long law case are hazy and the climactic moment of the duel itself – the battering open of a metal helmet with a sword-hilt – has been omitted.

Veteran producer-director Ridley Scott attends the film's premiere in Paris - Getty
Veteran producer-director Ridley Scott attends the film's premiere in Paris - Getty

Purists may complain – but that’s showbiz. And the film makes up for its partial command of historical detail in the boldness of its narrative approach. Whereas chroniclers like Froissart assumed that the Carrouges-Le Gris duel was a story about chivalry and male honour, The Last Duel takes a more sophisticated, less certain view. Paying homage to Akira Kurosawa’s classic 1950 film Rashomon – about the murder of a samurai and rape of his wife – it tells in turn “Carrouges's truth”, then “Le Gris’s truth” and finally and most powerfully “Marguerite’s truth”. Needless to say, these truths do not correlate very well at all.

One effect of this approach is to show, with jarring frankness, the hypocrisy of medieval chivalry: a code which pretended to gallantry but which treated women like farm animals to be sold and bred, and assumed crimes against females were matters of the husband’s property and not the wife’s person.

Yet the film's deeper achievement is to hint, without hectoring, that when it comes to men and women’s attitudes to sexual violence, and the problems with prosecuting rape, relatively little has changed in more than six centuries. Two old Hollywood bros like Damon and Affleck writing a medieval #MeToo movie must have seemed like a risky concept. But in The Last Duel, they have found the perfect vehicle to bring the Middle Ages firmly up to date.

Dan Jones’s latest book is Powers and Thrones: A New History of the Middle Ages (Head of Zeus, £25).

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