Real Stories is an ongoing column about the true stories behind movies and TV shows. It’s that simple. This installment focuses on the true story that informed the basis for Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel. CW: the story concerns sexual violence.
The latest movie from the great Ridley Scott releases this October. The Last Duel, inspired by a nonfiction book of the same name, takes place in 14th century France and centers on the country’s last officially sanctioned judicial duel. The screenplay is by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (Good Will Hunting), sharing screenwriting credit with Nicole Holofcener (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), who is also a producer.
Damon also stars in the movie as a knight who fights a squire, played by Adam Driver. Their titular duel is over the charge that the squire raped the knight’s wife, played by Jodie Comer. Affleck has a supporting role as a count, and the cast also includes Succession‘s Harriet Walter and Game of Thrones‘ Michael McElhatton.
As we prepare for the release of Scott’s first film since 2017, here is a look at the true story behind The Last Duel:
Trial By Combat
Before we get to the story of The Last Duel, let’s review some basic definitions. Trial by combat, or judicial duel, was a method used through the Middle Ages to settle disputes. Particularly for those with no witnesses. It’s pretty simple: the accused would fight the accuser, and the local government would officially sanction the fight. According to the US Legal dictionary, “The idea being that God would give victory to the person in the right.”
On January 6, 2021, hours before rioters stormed the US Capitol, Rudy Giuliani, on behalf of then-client President Donald Trump, demanded the election be settled through trial by combat. Unsurprisingly, Giuliani has since had his license to practice law suspended in New York and Washington DC.
Giuliani’s comments inspired a renewed interest in trials by combat, including a brief history of the phrase written by UCLA professor Eric Jager. He’s also the author of the book The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial by Combat in Medieval France, upon which Scott’s new movie is based. Jager writes:
“The fact that trial by combat, also known as ‘the judgment of God,’ traditionally looked to heaven to assure a just and fair verdict only makes the whole thing seem even more preposterous to us today.”
Jager explains that while trials by combat certainly fit the definition of “blood sport,” there was an actual legal thought process behind them, albeit a flawed one. He writes:
“The combat was a public and decisive way to test two opposed and mutually exclusive oaths, just as a jury trial (despite its many flaws) is the usual way today of testing two antagonistic claims, with words rather than swords.”
The origins of The Last Duel begin in January 1368, when Marguerite de Carrouges claimed she was raped by Jacques Le Gris, a squire. When her husband, Sir Jean de Carrouges, heard of the crime, he brought the case to the court. But it was dismissed.
As Jager wrote in a 2020 piece for Lapham’s Quarterly, the story of Marguerite de Carrouges feels particularly pertinent today in the wake of #MeToo:
“Like today, sexual assault and rape often went unpunished and even unreported in the Middle Ages. But a public accusation of rape, at the time a capital offense and often a cause for scandalous rumors endangering the honor of those involved, could have grave consequences for both accuser and accused, especially among the nobility.”
When Carrouges brought the case to the court, the count in charge, a friend of Le Gris, said that Marguerite “must have dreamed it.” In dismissing the charges, he ordered for “no further questions ever be raised about it.”
The Last Duel
Understandably furious, Sir Jean de Carrouges journeyed to Paris and appealed the ruling with King Charles VI. He evoked a “1306 royal decree based on ancient precedent [that] allowed the duel as a last resort for nobles involved in capital cases.” But, as Jager notes, by that time judicial duels were “extremely rare.”
Carrouges’ challenge led to an investigation by Parliament. Only if the Parliament was unable to reach a verdict would the duel be authorized. Jager writes:
“Over the next several months, famous lawyers were hired, witnesses were summoned, and testimony was gathered. Marguerite herself — now pregnant, perhaps as a result of the rape — came to Paris and testified in great detail about the alleged attack by Le Gris and his accomplice.”
A portion of Marguerite’s horrific testimony can be found in Jager’s Lapham’s Quarterly essay.
As you may have already guessed, Parliament did not reach a decision. A duel was ordered to take place and scheduled for December 29th. Here is the super messed up part: if Carrouges won the duel, Marguerite’s story would be proven true. If he lost, Marguerite’s accusation would be considered a false one. And in accordance “with ancient tradition, she would be burned alive as a false accuser.”
The Result of the Last Duel
The event now known as “the last duel” was preceded by pomp and parade. Thousands of people eagerly awaited what Jager describes as “the season’s highlight in the capital.”
Jager recounts the battle drawing on many sources. These include the 14th-century author Jean Froissart, who famously detailed the duel in his work Chronicles. Various pre-duel ceremonies took place, including one making Le Gris a knight so the two could be on equal footing. Then, the duel began as a “joust on horseback, with lances.”
The men then dismounted and fought on swords. Marguerite, Jager writes, “dressed all in black and exposed to the crowd’s stares, anxiously awaited the outcome. The trial by combat would decide whether she had told the truth –thus whether she would live or die.” Eventually, Le Gris wounded Carrouges in the thigh, to which the crowd responded, as Jager writes, quoting Chronicles, “with a great fright.”
Carrouges continued to fight and eventually brought his opponent to the ground. Jager writes that accounts of the moment vary. Some say Le Gris slipped on his opponent’s blood. Froissart writes that Carrouges “felled” Le Gris. Either way, Froissart writes that Carrouges, “thrusting his sword into his body, killed [Le Gris] on the spot.” He won the duel, and in doing so “proved” that Marguerite’s story was true.
In his essay, Jager writes that many theories emerged in the wake of the duel, including among historians:
“Some have suggested that her husband forced the story out of her to avenge himself on Le Gris, his former friend turned rival at court. And some, invoking the most popular theory, acknowledge the rape but say that Marguerite mistakenly accused the wrong man, an ‘honest’ but tragic error that robbed Le Gris of his life, fortune, and good name.”
Jager does not seem to buy the conspiracies. “Despite the claims of naysayers and novelizers,” he writes, “Marguerite’s testimony suggests that she was almost certainly not mistaken about the identity of her attackers.”
I am deeply curious to see how Scott — and Holofcener, Damon, and Affleck — tell this story in The Last Duel. When you look beyond the seemingly outlandish pageantry and brutality of the duel itself, there is potential for a film that uses this story from 14th century France as a means to explore how society can better treat, understand, and believe survivors of sexual violence today.
Jager ends his essay with a reflection on what the story can teach us about how the public responds to such scandals today:
“Historical scandals, much like the contemporary ones filling our tabloids, news sites, and now-ubiquitous Facebook feeds, are built on a widely shared sense of certainty about ‘what really happened’ — a feeling that often belies the elusive truth. While some touched by scandal may resurrect their lives and reputations, others never will: what happened, or is said to have happened, may follow them even through the pages of history.”
The Last Duel opens in theaters on October 15, 2021.