Part One of this article examined the famous judicial duel between Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris, which was held in Paris in 1386. As it turns out, the description of the event in Eric Jager’s book The Last Duel is rather different from the five surviving medieval accounts of the fight. Part Two will use the medieval sources to reconstruct what really happened in the combat, using HEMA knowledge to interpret the texts.
Anatomy of a Duel
The final showdown between Carrouges and Le Gris was preceded by lengthy ceremonies, which were themselves preceded by months of legal manoeuvres. When the combatants entered the lists at last, they were on horseback. However, the only source to mention jousting is Jean Froissart, who was not present. (Jager actually quotes Froissart’s account of a completely different event, the jousts at Saint-Inglevert in 1390, to enliven this scene.)
The Monk of Saint-Denis uses an ambiguous word to describe what the knights did to their horses at the beginning of the fight. Abigerunt may be a medieval spelling of the less common Latin word abegerunt, “they drove away,” or the more common abiecerunt, “they threw away, abandoned” (Bellaguet, p. 464). At least one translator has interpreted this word to mean that they spurred their mounts toward one another (Muhlberger, p. 55), but since Le Gris’ own lawyer Jean Le Coq wrote that Le Gris attacked his adversary on foot even though he could have done it on horseback, I think it more likely that both knights simply dismounted.
Le Coq provides a reason for this decision: some people thought the lists were too small for lance combat. While he mentions that two other knights, Guy de la Trémoille and Peter Courtenay, had held a joust there three years before, it turns out to have been a very brief affair. Froissart says that this event was halted after a single course, while the later chronicler Jean Juvénal des Ursins claims that bad weather prevented it from happening at all (Muhlberger, p. 174).
In any event, it would have been more difficult for Le Gris to wound Carrouges in his thigh if it was protected by his armour on one side and his saddle on the other. A thigh wound would also have been more immediately evident to the audience if Carrouges were on foot.
The sudden appearance of blood posed a problem for the king and marshal. In the fourteenth century, most judicial duels ended without injury. The two parties were permitted to have just a few exchanges of blows before the presiding authorities halted the battle and imposed a settlement on their lawsuit. However, once the scales had tipped in one fighter’s favour, no one could stop the fight without the appearance of partiality.
Another question concerns the type of swords the knights were using. Jager envisions a combat with shields and single-handed cutting and thrusting swords, which he rather confusingly refers to as estocs (p. 174). (According to his version, the shields apparently somehow regenerated after lance heads were buried in them during the joust and they were hacked at in an apocryphal equestrian axe battle.)
However, by 1386, longsword combat was a very real possibility for a pair of fully armoured duellists. It would not have been impossible for Carrouges to close range with Le Gris and grapple him with a left hand encumbered by a shield, but the operation would have been more natural if he were half-swording with a longsword. Half-swording contests tend to be fought at closer range and lend themselves more readily to the kind of grappling and throwing that the Monk of Saint-Denis describes.
Once down, Le Gris stayed down. For a HEMA audience, it scarcely bears repeating that the weight of plate armour does not in itself prevent you from getting up after falling. It therefore seems likely that he was injured in his fall. The throw described by the Monk of Saint-Denis, which involved grabbing his helm, pulling him off balance, and hurling him face-down, may well have caused a neck injury or a concussion. Either of these effects would have made it much harder for Le Gris to move in his armour.
At this point, the Monk states that Carrouges drew his sword, which is somewhat confusing, since the knight had already been fighting with it moments before. Possibly this weapon was a second sword. Legal documents from a very similar duel, held in Brittany just nine days before the battle of Carrouges and Le Gris, state that each man was entitled to two swords, a longer one and a shorter one (Lobineau, p. 672).
If the two knights fenced with longswords, the shorter sword would have remained on Carrouges’ hip until he drew it. A dagger would seem like a better choice for a coup de grâce, but perhaps he was not carrying one or did not want to risk rolling on the ground with his adversary. He had probably heard of the duel of Sir John Annesley, who had thrown down an opponent in London six years before. Annesley had been blinded by sweat in his visor when he went to fling himself on top of his downed adversary, and had ended up falling next to him instead. That battle ended in the sad spectacle of two winded men floundering on the ground together until one expired of heat exhaustion (Walsingham, pp. 433–434). Whatever Carrouges’ reasons, the chroniclers agree that he stabbed Le Gris with a sword.
Nevertheless, Le Gris, apparently still lying prostrate, would not have been easy to kill in his armour. Harness in this period all but encased its wearer in steel plates, under which he wore a mail haubergeon for extra security. The latest armour covered even the spine, which had previously been a vulnerability. Le Gris’ neck too would have been protected by his aventail, forcing Carrouges either to try to crush it by blunt force, or to crouch, hold the mail aside with one hand, and stab awkwardly without his body structure behind the sword.
Alternatively, since Le Gris was wearing harness suitable for horseback riding, his most exposed target would have been the unarmoured seat of his braies and the back of his thighs. This possibility raises the image of a horrific act of parallelism, in which Carrouges avenged the crime of rape by sodomizing Le Gris with a sword.
What can be said with certainty is that none of these alternatives would have been swift or graceful. According to both the Monk of Saint-Denis and the chronicler Juvénal des Ursins, Carrouges had time to demand that Le Gris tell the truth about his crime, and Le Gris had time to deny his guilt. The conclusion of this combat bore little resemblance to the chivalric battles of romance. This may be the reason why the Parlement of Paris never authorized another judicial duel.
In the end, the case of Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris demonstrates just how difficult it is to study the history of medieval martial arts from descriptive sources. This is an unusually well chronicled combat, yet one struggles at times to identify the weapons used, let alone the techniques.
Nevertheless, the HEMA community has something to offer the broader discipline of history when scenes of violence such as this one are under consideration. A firm grounding in historical martial arts can help us separate plausible interpretations from implausible ones and spot actions implied but not described. It belongs in the toolkit of every historian of violence, next to languages, prosopography and research skills.
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Fleming, M. Jr. (2015, July 15). Studio 8 Sets Shaun Grant to Adapt ‘The Last Duel’ for ‘Hunger Games’ Helmer Francis Lawrence. Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved from http://deadline.com/2015/07/the-last-duel-shaun-grant-francis-lawrence-studio-8-1201473556/. Accessed on February 25, 2016.
Froissart, J. (1871). Œuvres de Froissart. J.M.B.C. Kervyn de Lettenhove (Ed.). (Vol. 12). Brussels: Victor Devaux & Co.
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Jager, E. (2004). The Last Duel. New York: Broadway Books.
Le Coq, J. (1944). Questiones Johannis Galli. M. Boulet (Ed.). Paris: Éditions de Boccard.
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Muhlberger, S. (2005). Deeds of Arms: Formal Combats in the Late Fourteenth Century. Wheaton, IL: Freelance Press.
Walsingham, Thomas de. (1857). Historia Anglicana. (Vol. 1) London: HMSO.