The Last Duel:A True Story of Crime, Scandal and Trial by Combat in Medieval France
also available in paperback: 256 pages, ISBN: 0767914171, $14.00
also available as a digital e-book: see here, $9.95.
On 29 December 1386, two men met in a judicial combat ordered by the Parlement of Paris. This was held in the Parisian lists beside the church of St Martin des Champs under the eyes of the French elite, from King Charles VI down. Jean de Carrouges faced his former friend and associate Jacques LeGris, the man he accused of raping his wife. The victim of the alleged crime was also present. After a brutal combat of fluctuating fortunes, Carrouges killed his adversary, thereby substantiating his claims in the eyes of the law- though doubts remained.
The story behind this encounter is recounted in Eric Jager's book. He explores the background to the duel and the parties; Carrouges, a difficult and quarrelsome man in increasing financial difficulties, married to a much younger wife, had come off second best in a series of confrontations with the upwardly mobile LeGris over land before the alleged rape took place. He looks into the aftermath as well. Carrouges, though wounded in the affair, gained considerable renown and financial benefits from his triumph before dying on the field of Nicopolis. The duel too was to have its modest place in history, picked up by Enlightenment historians in a distorted form which claimed that proof of LeGris’ innocence emerged after the duel and presented as evidence for the irrationality of earlier ages. While Jager is cautious on the substance of the affair, it would seem that he believes LeGris was guilty as charged.
Jager's account is visibly aimed at a non-specialist audience. It is written in a highly coloured style (Jager admits to using his own invention to fill gaps in the sources) and at times reads like the first draft of a presentation to a Hollywood studio. Even the thoroughly inaccurate title seems designed for the follow-up movie since it hardly needs saying that this was far from being the last duel in European history- or even the last judicially approved trial by combat. Jager himself notes that other jurisdictions permitted such trials after 1386 (173) and the offer of trial by battle to resolve political disputes remained part of the armoury of princely propaganda for at least a further century.
The book is narrowly focused on the combat (described literally blow by blow) and its participants. On the other hand the social and political background of the period is painted with a very broad brush and in rather dated colours; so is the history of ordeals and trial by combat into which the Carrouges/LeGris affair was set. Even within this narrow focus, there are some issues which Jager hardly addresses. Having explained that Carrouges faced formidable procedural hurdles in bringing LeGris to battle, he makes no sustained attempt to explain why this particular case was allowed to run its course by the Parlement while other appeals were turned down or diverted into "normal" procedural channels. It may, as Jager hints, simply be that the Parlement, aware that the seventeen year old Charles VI was a jousting obsessive, decided to serve up a quasi-gladiatorial combat for his delectation. The fact that the date was shifted to ensure royal attendance points that way, though a fight between two very minor nobles, neither in their first flush of youth (Carrouges was around fifty, LeGris only slightly younger) and neither famed as a jouster might seem an odd dish to put before him. It is also intriguing that both of these thoroughly obscure men were able to round up the necessary pledges (guarantors that they would appear on the chosen day) from amongst the highest French nobility. Unfortunately Jager makes no attempt to explore the alignments of the pledges in the subsequent faction struggles of the reign or look for any wider resonances which the affair may have had.
Indeed there are a number of factors which make the reviewer suspect that Jager (a historian of literature) may not be entirely at home in the wider socio-political field. Minor typos aside (e.g. Nogent le Retrou for le Rotrou (15)), Jager makes some inaccurate statements (e.g. contrary to Jager’s assertion, Charles the Bad of Navarre never formally claimed the French crown (24)) and employs some odd usages (e.g. Jean de Vienne may have been Admiral of France but he would not normally be referred to as "Admiral Vienne" (40 and passim)).
More worryingly for the membership of this society, Jager's one excursion into military history (his account of Jean de Vienne's 1385 campaign in the Anglo-Scottish Marches in which Carrouges participated) is seriously flawed. He sticks very closely to the confused and Scottophobic account in Froissart and other (mostly French) primary sources and seems unaware of most of the most recent scholarship in this area, notably Alastair MacDonald's work . As a result, his account of the campaign is garbled and confused, missing the main source of friction between Vienne and his Scottish allies (Vienne wished to claim Roxburgh for Charles VI) and wildly overstating the scope of Richard II's counter-invasion of Scotland, which never got anywhere near Aberdeen (43). Since it is important to his version of events that Carrouges' shaky finances were seriously affected by participation in the 1385 expedition, Jager's unconvincing handling of its course raises further doubts about his grasp of the wider context for the Carrouges/LeGris case.
In the end one has a sense of an opportunity missed. It ought surely to have been possible to tell the tale of the Carrouges/LeGris affair in a way which held the attention of the non-specialist while exploring the wider issues which Jager fails to engage with. At least those of a cinematic bent will have the innocent pleasure of trying to guess who will get the leading parts in the "movie of the book".
 Alastair J MacDonald, Border Bloodshed: Scotland, England and France at War 1369-1403 (East Linton, 2000), especially pp. 87-101.