The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France is a well-researched, thorough, fascinating look at the practice of judicial duels in medieval France. It revolves around the rivalry between two knights, whose petty squabbles eventually turned to serious crime, and took the two men into Paris, before their king, to petition for a trial by combat.
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I can’t possibly give it a more compelling summary than this excerpt from the book’s prologue:
On a cold morning a few days after Christmas in 1386, thousands of people packed a large open space behind a monastery in Paris to watch two knights fight a duel to the death. The rectangular field of battle was enclosed by a high wooden wall, and the wall was surrounded by guards armed with spears. Charles VI, the eighteen-year-old king of France, sat with his court in colorful viewing stands along one side, while the huge throng of spectators crowded all around the field.
The two combatants, in full armor, swords and daggers at their belts, sat facing each other across the length of the field on thronelike chairs placed just outside the heavy gates at either end. Attendants held a stamping warhorse ready by each gate, as priests hurriedly cleared the field of the altar and crucifix on which the two enemies had just sworn their oaths.
At the marshal’s signal, the knights would mount their horses, seize their lances, and charge onto the field. The guards would then slam the gates shut, imprisoning the two men inside the heavy stockade. There they would fight without quarter, and without any chance of escape, until one killed the other, thus proving his charges and revealing God’s verdict on their quarrel.
In the course of unraveling the tale from its beginning, Jager takes the reader on a fascinating tour of war-torn medieval Europe, setting the scene of the Hundred Years’ War and the ongoing Crusades, while also examining the microcosm of feuding squires Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris and their daily lives and power struggles.
For writers of historical fiction and fantasy, this book is an absolutely indispensable gold mine of the kinds of small details that add invaluable depth to your story. Court politics, travel by horse, foreign campaigning, the criminal code and justice system, combat and chivalry, all come to life in a true historical narrative you won’t be able to put down. The climactic clash is drawn in vivid detail, and the epilogue gives something of a chilling look into the way that history can be rewritten over time.
Jager’s account of the battle, and the ways in which he has, in his own words, “use[d his] own invention to fill in some of the gaps” makes for a story that is perhaps not an entirely accurate representation of events, but still draws a compelling picture of this particular slice of the past, filled with rich details. For further information, including English translations of a number of primary (and also contradictory) sources on the battle itself, this blog post from HROARR provides additional details and speculation about how the duel may truly have gone. In the end, every interpretation relies on a shaky and unreliable historical record, though The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France is perhaps the most detailed and entertaining version of the story you’ll ever find.
Content warning: This book contains graphic descriptions of sexual assault, murder, torture, and extreme violence of all sorts.
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