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. They were called Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris, and the cause of their dispute was the oldest: a woman.
This woman was the wife of Carrouges, Marguerite, who earlier that same year accused Le Gris of breaking into her marital home when she was alone, of making offers to her, of cornering her, to stick a glove in her mouth to silence her and rape her. .
In The Last Duel, British director Ridley Scott’s latest film, starring Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer and Ben Affleck, released today, this gruesome scene is played out over and over again, from rotating perspectives. The same is true of the armed confrontation he led, which is widely regarded as the last official combat trial in French history.
Despite its gruesome details, in 1386 the real case confused the highest courts in France. Judges up to and including King Charles VI, aged 18, were unwilling to condemn Le Gris, despite Marguerite’s powerful testimony against him. Le Gris hired a superstar lawyer, Jean Le Coq, who (like his much later close namesake Johnny Cochran) specialized in dropping out of the rich and famous. Although Le Coq found Le Gris to be a hard worker and highly doubtful of his innocence, it was not difficult for this skillful lawyer to suggest that “his word against his” was a thin basis for a lawsuit.
And so, after several 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 to appeal to God for help. ‘Ancient. Carrouges and Le Gris would fight to the death. The Lord would decide the winner. If it was Carrouges, Le Gris would be both tried and punished with one stroke. If Le Gris won, he would be cleared of the rape and Carrouges, his false accuser, would conveniently be dead. Marguerite, for her part, would be burned alive for perjury. The stakes were high and the swords were sharp. It only remained to fight.