According to the website Deadline Hollywood, Studio 8 has hired a screenwriter to turn Eric Jager’s book The Last Duel into a script for a Hollywood movie (Fleming, 2015). This tale, published as nonfiction, is an account of the judicial duel in 1386 between Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris over the accusation that Le Gris raped Carrouges’ wife.
For most critics and viewers, the film’s relevance to our own time will come from its story of a woman whose rape is hushed up until a man advocates for her. However, the Historical European Martial Arts community will be watching it with a second issue in mind: does it portray late medieval combat accurately? As it turns out, the two subjects are not entirely unrelated.
A Death in Paris
The Carrouges-Le Gris case was the last trial by battle in the jurisdiction of the Parlement of Paris. It is unique among judicial duels because there are five different contemporary, or very roughly contemporary, accounts of the combat. This is exceptional in medieval HEMA history. While there are many treatises and legal customals that tell us what a judicial duel should look like, we have few sources that describe what really happened when people stepped into the lists.
Four of these five texts were written by chroniclers, while the fifth source comes from the notes of Le Gris’ own lawyer. Two sources, including the lawyer’s account, are probably eyewitness testimony. Most other judicial duels are documented only in court records, which note the outcome of the lawsuit, but tell us nothing about the fighting itself, if there was any.
In Jager’s book, the account of the combat covers thirteen pages and forms the climax of the plot (pp. 166–180). On the first reading, it seems very exciting and well-researched. However, martial artists need to tread carefully if they want to use this version as a source of information about HEMA. As Jager himself says in the author’s note, “Where the historical record is silent, I use my own invention to fill in some of the gaps.” To this statement I would add that he sometimes overwrites the historical record entirely.
Did the battle begin with a strenuous joust that caused each man to be “bent almost backward on the crupper of his horse” (p. 170)? Was there an axe fight? Did the knights kill each other's horses? Did the duel end in ground fighting with daggers? Did Carrouges raise Le Gris’ visor and stab him in the face? The medieval sources tell a different story.
Here are all the texts that mention how the Carrouges-Le Gris duel was fought. I have kept the translations as faithful to the originals as was practical, sometimes at the expense of some elegance in the English.
Chronicle of the Monk of Saint-Denis
This chronicle was written by an anonymous monk, now identified as Michel Pintoin, from the abbey of Saint-Denis just outside the medieval walls of Paris (Grevy-Pons and Ornato, p. 100). He acted as the official historian of King Charles VI and was often to be found at his royal employer’s side. The account is contemporary with the duel and it is possible that the chronicler witnessed the event personally, since the king was also present. Even if Pintoin did not see the fight himself, he would have been able to interview other eyewitnesses soon after it happened, since he had many connections at the royal court.
Therefore, with a ring of innumerable crowds standing by, and also the king and princes ranged about according to custom, with the contested lawsuit before them, and both men having entered the agreed place for the upcoming battle, next to the walls of Saint-Martin-des-Champs, they were about to test a questionable martyr.
For as soon as the marshal gave the signal for mutual attack, the two men abandoned (abigerunt) their horses and, with threatening swords lowered, advanced in slow steps and engaged one another bravely and boldly. In this first attack, the other man [Le Gris] pierced Lord Jean’s thigh with his sword. This blow would have served him well if he had pressed it into the lord’s wound; but, having drawn it out right away, blood arose, a spectacle for the crowd.
Although Jean was wounded, it increased his courage rather than his confusion. At this point, a great horror stifled the audience. With hope favouring neither one man nor the other, voices and spirits were muffled.
Then Jean, marshaling his soul into his strength, stepped in closer and exclaimed “Our quarrel is judged this day!” With his left hand, he seized the peak of Jacques’ helmet and drew the man to himself. Stepping back a little, he threw him alone to the ground, prostrate and weighed down by heavy armour. Having done that, he drew his sword and killed his enemy with great difficulty, because he was encased in armour.
Even though the vanquished man had not renounced his claim when the victor threw him down and commanded him many times to admit the truth, it was adjudged that he [Le Gris] be dragged to the gibbet, as was the custom for duels. (Bellaguet, pp. 464–466).
Jean Le Coq
Jean Le Coq was the lawyer for the defendant, Jacques Le Gris. He would almost certainly have been an eyewitness to the duel, and he recorded his observations about the case in a personal notebook, the text of which has survived. In its pages, he listed his arguments in favour of his client, but also expressed private doubts about Le Gris’ innocence.
Furthermore, note that the lists were made by the Great Council in the likeness of those in Gisors, which are two hundred years old, but it was said that regard should not have been paid to those ones, because they had been made for two men who fought on foot and not on horses. However, the lists of Saint Martin were of a measure distinct from those lists at Gisors, because they were previously enlarged before the deed of arms which is thought to have occurred between the Lord de la Trémoille, lord of Sulliac, and a certain Englishman named Lord Peter de Courtenay.
Here follow the [reasons for the] presumptions against Jacques Le Gris, which I and many others had.
… Fourth, because after the pledge of battle was adjudged, he was ill. Fifth, because a little before he entered the field, he was made a knight. Sixth, because, although he was the defendant, he attacked his adversary very cruelly and did it on foot, although he would have had the advantage if he had done it on horseback. Seventh, because, even though Carrouges was weak because of fevers, he himself said they helped him. Eighth, because the wife of Carrouges was always constant in saying that the deed had occurred, both in childbirth and on the day of the duel, to which she was brought in a cart, but swiftly sent back by order of the King. Ninth, because he [Le Gris] spoke weakly to those who were presiding when they were talking to him about an accord. … (Le Coq, pp. 110–111)
Jean Froissart was a contemporary of Carrouges and Le Gris. At the time of the duel, he was about fifty years old and living in the Netherlands. Book Three of his chronicle, which contains this account, was finished in 1390, less than four years after the event occurred. In the meantime, Froissart had spent some time travelling in France. It is not clear where he obtained the information in this passage.
The field’s lists were constructed in the Sainte-Catherine square behind the Temple. And there were so many people there that it was a wonder to contemplate. On one side of the lists was a great scaffold, the better for the lords to see the battle of the two champions, who came to the field and were armed at all points, each as was fitting for him. And each was seated in his chair. …
Then they began, and the two champions were brought before one another, as was proper in such a case. Next they mounted their horses and at first conducted themselves in a very orderly fashion, for they were both familiar with weapons, as men who had been thoroughly trained. There were great lords of France present there in plenty, who had come to see the champions fight. Thus the champions jousted for the first engagement, but nothing was forfeited.
After their jousts, they arranged themselves on foot and in readiness to complete their deed of arms, and fought one another valiantly. And right away Messire Jean de Carrouges was wounded in the thigh, which gave great fright to all those who liked him.
Nevertheless, he comported himself so valiantly that he struck his adversary to the ground. And so he thrust a sword in the body and killed him on the field. Then he asked whether he had done his duty well, and the reply came: Yes. Thus, Jacques Le Gris was delivered to the executioner of Paris, who dragged him to Montfaucon with just one horse, and there he was hanged. (Froissart, pp. 37–38)
Jean Juvénal des Ursins
This chronicler was born in 1388, not long after the duel. His father had been the Provost of Merchants in Paris between 1389 and 1400, and Advocate General of the Parlement of Paris between 1400 and 1413. While Jean the Younger could not have seen the duel himself, he would have grown up with stories about it and likely met some eyewitnesses. His Chronicle of Charles VI dates to 1430, forty-four years after the event.
And so the parties were brought to the field, and cries made in the accustomed form and manner. And it is said that Carrouges had fevers, and that they seized him at this hour, and so these champions fought well and fiercely, one against the other. And finally Jacques Le Gris fell. Then Carrounges climbed on him, sword drawn, and demanded that he speak the truth. And he responded that before God, and on the peril of damnation of his soul, that he had never committed the crime of which he was accused. Nevertheless, Carrouges, who believed his wife, stabbed the sword into the body underneath and made him die, which was a great pity. (Buchon, p. 358)
Chronographia regum Francorum
This chronicle was compiled between 1415 and 1529 by more clerics from the monastery of Saint-Denis. It is thus local to Paris, but it was written a generation after the duel.
On the next feast of Saint Thomas, a duel was undertaken between Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris, who was made a knight upon his entrance to the field, in the square which is behind Saint-Martin-des-Champs. The cause of this duel was because the knight Jean and his wife said that the same Jacques had raped the wife. And Jacques denied this. Nevertheless, Jacques was vanquished, and later hanged from the gibbet of Paris. (Moranvillé, pp. 84-85)
You have to admit, the medieval accounts don’t have quite as much drama as The Last Duel. They’re terse and they contain hardly any dialogue. However, it’s clear that they agree substantially with one another. Where they differ in their details, it’s also possible to see that some versions of the story are more reliable than others. The Monk of Saint-Denis and Jean Le Coq, who were probably eyewitnesses, are the most likely to have recorded accurate information about the fight. Froissart was living in another kingdom at the time and heard the story later from other people. Juvénal des Ursins and the author of the Chronographia documented the way people remembered the event a generation later. Hence, the five accounts do not all have equal weight as evidence.
Furthermore, the polite diction of the chroniclers may be eliding a more graphic finale than even Jager imagined. The second part of this article will walk through the duel as the medieval sources describe it, using HEMA knowledge to interpret the fight.
References follow in Part Two.