Medieval trial by combat: the real history behind The Last Duel

In 1386, two Frenchmen fought a duel in a field outside Paris, each seeking to bury his blade in the other’s body. One combatant had been accused of raping the other’s wife, a charge he denied vehemently. After an initial verdict of innocence was returned, the accuser demanded a trial by combat. The judgment was now God’s alone… who would be chosen to die? | By Hannah Skoda

A 14th-century illustration shows two bishops watching men fight to the death in a trial by combat.

In the winter of 1386, a French noblewoman by the name of Marguerite de Carrouges found herself at the centre of a criminal case that electrified Paris, captivated the king and culminated in blood being spilled before an enormous crowd in a field just outside the French capital.

Earlier that year, Marguerite’s husband, the knight Jean de Carrouges, had accused his former friend Jacques le Gris of raping Marguerite. After failing to get justice at the court of the Count of Alençon in Normandy, Jean beseeched the king for justice. He made a formal process of “appeal” or challenge against Jacques le Gris and requested the right to prove the justice of his cause in combat. This was the famous “trial by combat”, sometimes known as a judicial battle.

After an investigation, the parlement (the French sovereign appeal court) granted this right to de Carrouges, and he met le Gris in specially constructed lists, a space for tournaments, at Saint-Martin-des-Champs just outside Paris. The crowd was huge, and included King Charles VI himself. De Carrouges and le Gris took special oaths before the king, including a promise that they didn’t have an unfair or magical advantage. Each man “placed his sole reliance on the justice of his cause, his body, his horse, and his arms”.

The fight itself was brutal. The two men charged at one another with their lances, butchered each other’s war-horses and took to the ground in bitter and bloody combat. They were quite literally fighting for their lives. If de Carrouges won, he would apparently prove the justice of his cause, and le Gris would be found guilty and hanged. But if de Carrouges lost, le Gris’ protestations of innocence would be proven true, and de Carrouges would be guilty of perjury, a capital offence.

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Jodie Comer plays Marguerite de Carrouges in the upcoming film 'The Last Duel',

But the eyes of the crowd were not only on the two men, but on Marguerite herself, the beautiful survivor at the centre of the matter. The story is told in a wonderful book, The Last Duel, by Eric Jager, and has now been re-imagined in a big-budget Hollywood film, starring Jodie Comer, Matt Damon and Adam Driver. [Spoiler alert: the climax of the duel is revealed in the final two paragraphs of this feature].

Jager describes Marguerite as the “cause” of the trial by combat and the whole affair. But, of course, she wasn’t: the rapist caused the whole unhappy saga. Marguerite stands out in the historical record for her steadfastness and immense courage. If her husband lost the trial by combat, Marguerite would also be found guilty of perjury. Her grisly fate? To be burned alive.

The combat itself, with its elaborate ritual and public spectacle, was of course a magnificent opportunity for de Carrouges to avenge himself publicly and restore his honour and that of his wife. The ethos driving this event was one of chivalric and noble honour and pride. What’s more, le Gris was an enemy of de Carrouges – the hatred between the two was palpable.

A 1540s illustration of the trial by combat between Marshal Wilhelm von Dornsberg and Theodor Haschenacker in 1409
A 1540s illustration of the trial by combat between Marshal Wilhelm von Dornsberg and Theodor Haschenacker in 1409. Duels were public spectacles drawing crowds thirsty for grisly entertainment. (Image by Alamy)

But trial by combat was also a specific legal mechanism. It had a long history, a particular logic, and had always generated a good deal of scepticism. This was not the same as the chivalric duel, rather it was a judicial process.

Trial by combat was a form of ordeal – the idea was that the case would be decided by judicie Dei, the judgment of God. Jean de Carrouges was not satisfied with the initial court verdict, and was requesting the opportunity to put the case before God. In this sense, trial by combat was related to other forms of medieval trial by ordeal: by water, by fire, by hot iron and so on. Rather than earthly proof, God would apparently make manifest innocence and guilt by protecting the innocent.

David and Goliath

Trial by combat has ancient origins. Indeed, medieval people often referred to the story of David and Goliath, in which God worked a miracle and the righteousness of David’s cause was proven by his incredible victory over the giant.

In medieval Europe, trial by combat resurfaced in Germanic law. The first reference comes in a Burgundian decree by King Gundobad in AD 502. This code explained that most judgments were to be made following an oath by the accused party, but that “if the party to whom the oath has been offered does not wish to receive it, but says that his adversary’s pledge of truth can be proven by arms, and the other party will not give up, let permission for combat not be denied”.

The practice spread fairly widely from this Burgundian centre. It is most well known as a judicial resort in France, and seems to have come to Britain with the Norman conquest. Most of these trials date from the mid-11th to mid-14th centuries.

Trial by combat could be used for both civil and criminal cases: property disputes could be resolved this way, as well as heinous crimes of homicide, arson and rape.

Saint William of York apparently worked a miracle to restore the eyes and testicles of a man who had been unjustly accused

Who fought in these combats? The most famous examples involve prominent noblemen. However, combats were theoretically a possibility for anyone: townsmen, peasants, Jews, women. What really concerned authorities was that there should not be an unfair advantage. Women generally resorted to appointing a champion to represent them: in 1280, one Jeanne de la Valete accused two knights of arson, and appointed a champion to fight for her.

Labourers would not be pitted against a well-armed nobleman. The French legist Philippe de Beaumanoir explained that a knight could not accuse and challenge a commoner and then fight in full armour.

“His dignity is reduced in that case to the same kind of armour as the defending party has by right,” said de Beaumanoir, “and it would be a very cruel thing if the gentleman appealed against a commoner and he had the advantage of a horse and armour.”

 

Accused and castrated

From the early days of judicial combat, contemporaries seem to have been well aware that mistakes could happen. In AD 724, the Lombard king Liutprand issued a decree that those defeated in judicial combat, but later found innocent, should receive back the compensation money they had paid to the victim.

What happened if both parties died? This was not uncommon, and threw the whole process into doubt. Some surviving miracle stories also demonstrate an awareness that trial by combat did not always yield the correct result. In 1208, Saint William of York apparently worked a miracle to restore the eyes and testicles of a man who had been unjustly accused, and castrated and blinded during his trial by combat.

Part of the anxiety about judicial combat came from a growing rationalisation. The English legist Ranulph de Glanville wrote around 1190 that “the legal institution [of trial by jury] is based above all on equity. Justice, which is seldom arrived at by battle even after many and long delays, is more easily and quickly attained by its use.”

As legal mechanisms became ever more sophisticated, judicial combat came to look out of place

As legal mechanisms became ever more sophisticated and political power more institutionalised, judicial combat came to look increasingly out of place, not least because it potentially undermined royal authority.

The church was also increasingly concerned about the implications of trial by combat. Already in the ninth century, Pope Nicholas I had worried that these trials essentially “tempted God”, which was blasphemous. Churchmen at the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 – a key moment in the growing legalisation of the institutional church – expressed grave concerns about the ordeal, and the church drew back from overseeing the ritual of ordeals. Some of this concern came from a growing legalisation; some of it from sophisticated theological arguments put forward by figures like Peter the Chanter at the University of Paris.

A fox and a wolf battle in armour, in a late 13th-century illustration
A late 13th-century illustration from a collection of Renart the fox fables, Renart le Nouvel. The deceitful fox is challenged to trial by combat by his nemesis, a wolf. (Image by Alamy)

These kinds of anxieties were expressed more amusingly, but equally importantly, in literature. The 12th-century story of Tristan and Isolde demolished the whole logic of the ordeal, albeit not judicial combat precisely. Isolda, needing to demonstrate that she was not an adulteress, dressed Tristan up as a leper and had him carry her across a bog on her shoulders. She was then able to swear on holy relics that she had never had any man between her legs except Tristan. For this kind of story to work and to entertain, audiences must have felt a degree of scepticism about the whole idea of judicium Dei.

The Renart stories, wildly popular throughout the later Middle Ages, told of a wicked little fox who played vicious pranks on all his friends, thieving, brutalising and even raping the wife of his best friend. In one story, he is challenged to a trial by combat by this very friend, Isengrin the Wolf. The fight is bitter, and Renart is castrated and blinded, but springs back to life with a flourish to continue his vile exploits. Audiences here, from court to monastery, were able to laugh at the inconclusiveness of the duel.

 

Half-hearted action

Anxiety about judicial combat produced a series of decrees limiting the practice. Louis VII of France (reigned 1137–80), and his successors Louis VIII and Philip Augustus, all issued edicts restricting the use of duels, particularly with regard to men who wanted to prove their free status. In 1258, Louis IX, a king responsible for numerous judicial reforms, banned judicial combat altogether.

However, these many attempts to limit judicial combat were half-hearted, to say the least. Philip Augustus actively issued charters to some towns permitting duels, and even after Louis IX’s unequivocal edict, the practice continued in France. Nobles in particular saw the practice as their right and fought hard to restore it. Then, in 1307, Philip IV of France restored trial by combat for criminal cases.

The affair between Jean le Carrouges and Jacques le Gris is dramatically called “the last duel” in both book and film, but it wasn’t. In 1409, a French decree ordered the end of judicial duels unless allowed by the parlement of Paris itself, and they did continue, although less frequently, until the 1580s.

It is tempting to see the medieval trial by combat as a prime example of our predecessors’ irrationality and gullibility. But there were a distinctive set of rationales at work here. Some cases simply cannot be proven one way or another. In a society that believed in the power of God over all things, it was surely not unreasonable to put intractable cases to divine judgment. Indeed, in such a religious environment, this was perhaps more logical than belief in the power of human judgment.

More than this, judicial combat could be a useful way for royal power to distance itself from difficult cases, to rid itself of pugnacious undesirables and to avoid taking sides when it was politically dangerous to do so. For the participants, the stakes were appallingly high, but this was a way to enact revenge and satisfy honour in the most public way possible. And for the public, this was a spectacle of the most impressive and terrifying kind.

Jean de Carrouges and Jacques le Gris fought out their case before a vast crowd and a fascinated King Charles VI. The battle was drawn-out, bloody and spectacular. It finished when de Carrouges pulled back the visor of le Gris and fatally stabbed him. Le Gris’ body was dragged from the blood-soaked field and hanged on a gibbet.

De Carrouges was rewarded many times for his courage, vindicating the righteousness of his cause. As for his wife, Marguerite, she stood firm, having risked her reputation and her life in order to speak out and to speak the truth.

Hannah Skoda is a fellow in medieval history at the University of Oxford. Her books include Medieval Violence (OUP, 2013)


Listen: Hannah Skoda delves into the bloody and brutal spectacle of trial by combat in the Middle Ages, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:

This article was first published in the November 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine

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