Book: The Last Duel by Eric Jager

A nifty idea; less good in practice

Eric Jager
The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France
Broadway Books, 2004
ISBN: 0-7679-1417-1
214 pages (main text)

The idea behind The Last Duel is a nifty one. I doubt that I have the patience to read a proper history of France during the Hundred Years' War, but The Last Duel is a slim volume about a potentially very interesting event during that time and I imagined that it would take in enough historical atmosphere that I'd get some feeling for fourteenth-century France.

It turns out that in the late fourteenth century, Jacques Le Gris and Jean de Carrouges were Norman squires and were good friends as young men. But they grew apart and then fell out in the early 1380s. They publicly made up in 1384. In 1385, after returning from fighting in an unsuccessful campaign in England, Carrouges collected his wife Marguerite from her father's castle where she had been staying, and then left her at his mother's castle while he went to Paris to do some business. On his return from Paris in late January, 1386, his wife told him that Le Gris had raped her when she had been virtually alone in the castle on January 18th. Carrouges accused Le Gris publicly and Le Gris insisted that he was innocent. Other remedies were exhausted and Carrouges challenged Le Gris to a duel to prove who was right. They fought the duel on December 29, 1386.

There's lots that's interesting in the book. The reader does get something of a sense of what life was like for the gentry and minor nobility of late fourteenth-century Normandy. The legal steps leading up to the duel and the elaborate ceremonies surrounding it are interesting and the fight itself is pretty thrilling.

But the book has flaws and they're not trivial. For one, the history is written as a narrative even though the documentary evidence it's based on is pretty scanty. As you'd expect from that, there are lots of probablys and perhapses. Mr Jager dwells on scenery when he can work out what the characters would have seen, but since he can't always do that, it doesn't add much to the immediacy of the narrative when he does. As far as I can tell, Mr Jager is scrupulous about what he knows and what he doesn't. That's a fine thing but, still, statements like:

    When Jean disembarked at Sluys -- or Harfleur, or one
    of the other French ports -- he hastened to
    Fountaine-le-Sorel.... (p. 50)


    Whatever happened at Count Pierre's palace that day....
    (p. 60)

don't make the narrative read smoothly and make me wonder a bit if the decision to write the book as a narrative was really all that wise. In addition, it's not clear how Mr Jager decided which party was right for the purposes of his narration until you get to the appendix. His argument there is pretty convincing, but I spent about half the book wondering how he had decided.

What's narrated is, often enough, not helped by how it's narrated. At times, the prose is repetitive and amateurish. For amateurish, take, for example:

    As he ran, he drew his own estoc, then turned to face
    Carrouges across the pile of expiring horseflesh.
    (p. 174)

Alas, the idea behind the book is better than the book is.

At the end of the last chapter, Mr Jager explains that the fight between Carrouges and Le Gris was not, in fact, the last judicial duel. It wasn't even the last judicial duel in France. It was the last judicial duel that was sanctioned by the Parliament of Paris. I suppose that that would have made a less interesting title.

Posted: Tue - January 31, 2006 at 08:03   Main   Category: