Two aspiring knights stood side by side, one welcoming his first son and heir, the other acting as his godfather—“virtually a family member,” according to historian Eric Jager.
Just over a decade later, however, the two men, Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris, met on a field in Paris for a highly publicized duel to the death. Jager chronicled how the former friends’ relationship devolved—and the woman and rape allegation at the center of the conflict—in the 2004 nonfiction book The Last Duel. Now, the story of the 1386 trial by combat is the subject of a blockbuster film of the same name. Directed by Ridley Scott, the movie stars Matt Damon as Carrouges, Adam Driver as Le Gris and Jodie Comer as Carrouges’ second wife, Marguerite. Ben Affleck co-wrote the script with Damon and Nicole Holofcener and appears as a feudal lord and compatriot of both leading men.
On December 29, 1386, before a crowd presided over by French king Charles VI, Carrouges and Le Gris eyed each other warily. Marguerite, who had accused Le Gris of raping her, watched from the sidelines; clad entirely in black, she was keenly aware that her husband’s defeat would be viewed as proof of perjury, vindicating her attacker and ensuring her execution by burning at the stake for the crime of bearing false witness.
“Lady, on your evidence I am about to hazard my life in combat with Jacques Le Gris,” Carrouges said to Marguerite in the moments leading up to the duel. “You know whether my cause is just and true.” She replied, “My Lord, it is so, and you can fight with confidence, for the cause is just.” And so Le Gris’ trial by combat began.
From the mechanics of trial by combat to the prosecution of sexual violence in medieval society, here’s what you need to know about the true history behind The Last Duel ahead of the film’s October 15 debut. (Spoilers ahead.)
Who’s who in The Last Duel?
A bit of a crash course on medieval France: At the top of society was the king, advised by his high council, the Parlement of Paris. Beneath him were three main ranks of nobility: barons, knights and squires. Barons like Affleck’s character, Count Pierre d’Alencon, owned land and often acted as feudal lords, providing property and protection to vassals—the term for any man sworn to serve another—in exchange for their service. Knights were one step above squires, but men of both ranks often served as vassals to higher-ranking overlords. (Le Gris and Carrouges both started out as squires and vassals to Count Pierre, but Carrouges was knighted for his military service in 1385.) At the bottom of the social ladder were warriors, priests and laborers, who had limited rights and political influence. note: The Voice of Joy 2 Movie and Night Road Movie
Is The Last Duel based on a true story?
In short, yes. The first two chapters of the three-act film, penned by Damon and Affleck, draw heavily on Jager’s research, recounting Marguerite’s rape and the events surrounding it from the perspectives of Carrouges and Le Gris, respectively. (Jager offered feedback on the film’s script, suggesting historically accurate phrasing and other changes.) The third and final section, written by Holofcener, is told from Marguerite’s point of view. As Damon tells the New York Times, this segment “is kind of an original screenplay … because that world of women had to be almost invented and imagined out of whole cloth.”
The film adaptation traces the trio’s relationship from its auspicious beginnings to its bloody end. After Marguerite’s rape, Carrouges petitions the French court to try Le Gris through judicial combat. (Writing for History News Network, Jager explains that “the ferocious logic of the duel implied that proof was already latent in the bodies of the two combatants, and that the duel’s divinely assured outcome would reveal which man had sworn falsely and which had told the truth.”) Marguerite, as chief witness in the case, will be executed if her husband loses the duel, thereby “proving” both of their guilt. note: Night Road Movie And The Voice of Joy 2 Movie
Much like Jager’s book, the film doesn’t offer a sympathetic portrayal of either of its leading men. Carrouges views himself as a chivalrous knight defending his wife’s honor, while Le Gris casts himself as the Lancelot to Marguerite’s Guinevere, rescuing her from an unhappy marriage. Only in the final section of the film, when Marguerite is allowed to speak for herself, does the truth of the men’s personalities emerge: Carrouges—a “jealous and contentious man,” in Jager’s words—is mainly concerned with saving his own pride. Le Gris, “a large and powerful man” with a reputation as a womanizer, is too self-centered to acknowledge the unwanted nature of his advances and too self-assured to believe that, once the deed is done, Marguerite will follow through on her threat of seeking justice.