Tuesday, May 4, 2010
The Last Duel. Eric Jager. Arrow (2006)
The remarkable story of the last judicial duel in France, a fight to the death between two knights to prove the innocence of the survivor or the guilt of the dead knight. Saturday 29th December 1386, Jean de Carrouges and Jean Le Gris met in mortal combat after de Carrouges had accused Le Gris of raping his wife. If de Carrouges was killed and Le Gris vindicated, de Carrouges wife would be burnt alive at the stake right away for perjury. This enthralling book tells the extraordinary story of the circumstances that led up to the duel and its aftermath.
Trial by combat, where the two principals in a case fought to the death, subjecting themselves to the Judgement of God, had a long history, it was declining as a process. This duel was the last time it was used as a judicial, legal process in France. Eric Jager explains in vivid and compelling detail the long history that lay behind the case. The rape case is clearly placed in the context of a long history of personal animosity and political friction between a group of Normandy aristocrats.
The risk being run by de Carrouges and his wife Marguerite in pursuing the case to the point of a trial by combat are explored in full by Eric Jager. The twists and turns of the case are fascinating in and of themselves and the likely reasons that this duel was approved when many others had been refused is suggested by the author. The description of the duel itself, drawn from contemporary accounts is horrifyingly tense and dramatic. The details are brutal and sad.
Eric Jager has presented a sliver of history where the personalities of the people involved emerge strongly and clearly, the context for their actions is described with precise economy. This is as gripping as any thriller, superbly well written and thoughtful.