With the precision of a journalist investigation, Eric Jager, professor of medieval literature at the University of California, retraces in his book, The Last Duel, a court decision from the end of the Middle Ages giving this history book the air of a medieval thriller. It thus plunges us into the heart of medieval society and its functioning.
The story of a news item
The story takes place in the Norman gentry at the end of the 14th centurye century. Jean de Carrouges, Norman lord from an old and respected family, accuses Jacques Le Gris, of more modest and unrecognized origins, of having premeditated and raped his wife, Marguerite de Carrouges. No judicial court having been able to decide their difference, the Parliament of Paris accepts, at the request of the accuser, the organization of a judicial duel, that is to say a fight to the death between the two protagonists so that divine justice delivers its verdict. This is a decision with serious consequences because in the event of defeat, Jean de Carrouges would result in his death, his wife, condemned for perjury at the stake.
However, the story that Eric Jager tells us is much more complex than that of a simple rape. Initially, the two lords, about the same age, dedicate a strong friendship. However, this friendship turns into a deadly rivalry as Jacques the Gray manages to curry favor with their common overlord, the Count of Alençon, to the detriment of Carrouges. The latter, feeling aggrieved and wounded in his honor vainly engages in multiple judicial battles which will only have the effect of isolating him further at the court of the count. Taking up the cause for Carrouges, the author tells us in detail the story of this quarrel leading to the last legal duel authorized in the kingdom of France.
The first pages of this book let fear the worst with multiple historical approximations. Indeed, the author, to introduce his story, must return to the historical context of the time, not escaping a rather caricatural vision of the Middle Ages. The first paragraph of the first chapter evokes, for example, Christian Europe, narrowly escaping Muslim conquest by pushing it back to Tours - reference to the controversial battle of Poitiers -. The following pages summarizing the Hundred Years War also have their share of historical shortcuts and other medieval clichés where the Duke of Burgundy, Philippe le Bold merges with his descendant Charles the Bold to give Philippe le Bold.
Fortunately, these historical errors - let us remember that the author is not a professional historian - only last for the time of the introduction of the work. Very quickly, the reader is taken in by a fascinating story that resembles a Hollywood film. And behind the historical facts that Eric Jager was able to discover and analyze, it is a plunge into the customs and habits of the Middle Ages that he tells us: from the rivalries within the Norman nobility to the functioning of the judicial system of the time . We could just regret that the author does not detail more the history of medieval law and in what way, it is about the last legal duel authorized. However, he managed to captivate us with a story that today would be qualified as news items and that is the main point.
Eric Jager, Le Dernier Duel, Éditions Flammarion, Paris, 2015 (for the French translation).