This article contains spoilers for The Last Duel.
The Last Duel, which is out this weekend and stars Matt Damon, Adam Driver, and Jodie Comer, offers a gorgeous, vibrant, and devastatingly dark rendering of an actual trial by combat in Paris in 1386. While this wasn’t actually the “last duel” in history, or even technically a duel at all (rather, a “judicial combat”), it is a true late-medieval story that’s preserved from multiple perspectives in both legal documents and narrative accounts. The movie brings to life the ways that patriarchy, as it existed in medieval Christian Europe, was bad for men, and worse for women. In this case, two men are driven to resolve years of feuding with a brutal fight to the death, in front of a massive crowd of spectators.
But in fact, medieval European patriarchy and its laws weren’t as simple as the movie suggests. Medieval women were neither quite as objectified or oppressed as the movie portrays them nor were they modernized women seeking a “Me Too” moment. The film effectively depicts the violence embedded in medieval ideas of elite masculinity while taking historical liberties when it comes to the real nature and function of trials by combat, or how rape accusations worked in medieval Europe, including the consequences women who came forward faced. The Last Duel also makes many changes in the representation of medieval ideas about sex and pregnancy, and in the circumstances of this one woman in particular, Marguerite de Thibouville (played by Comer).
Here’s what we know about the actual historical events from the medieval sources (chronicles, some of the actual litigation and other court records and legal documents, and a sort of legal memo from one of the lawyers involved, writing after the fact). In 1386, in Normandy, a knight and nobleman named Jean de Carrouges (played by Damon) accused the squire Jacques Le Gris (Driver), his frenemy, of having raped Carrouges’ wife while she had been left alone at Carrouges’ mother’s home. At the time, Carrouges had been in Paris seeking to collect money he appears to have been in rather great need of, especially after a recent failed military expedition. Le Gris denied the accusation, claiming that he had only ever seen Marguerite de Carrouges once in his life, and that he had several noble witnesses who could provide an alibi. He further claimed that Carrouges hated him because he had obtained lands and titles that once belonged to Carrouges’ father and father-in-law that Carrouges considered his by right; Le Gris charged that Carrouges had also tried to get his first wife to agree to make a false rape accusation. Carrouges demanded of King Charles VI that he be permitted to prove his claim was just, via trial by combat. They fought, Carrouges won, and he spent the 10 or so remaining years of his life as something of a celebrity among the companions of the king (who was by then subject to frequent and debilitating symptoms of mental illness). Carrouges was also a leader of several military expeditions abroad and very well rewarded for his services.
The Last Duel really shines in its representations of the way medieval ideas about masculinity encouraged and enabled men to do terrible things to one another and to those in their power. The drives to improve or maintain social status, to be regarded as courageous and honorable, to have a wife of spotless reputation, to be the father of as many children as possible, to never permit disrespect—all of these could indeed come together at the elite levels of society to create the potential for violence. In the film, the moral but intolerant Jean de Carrouges, who disdains anyone less courageous and steadfastly loyal than he is (never mind his frequent acts of defiance to his own lord), seeks to confine and dominate his wife, bully his onetime friend, and fight his way to fame, fortune, and higher status. Meanwhile, the libertine, literate Jacques Le Gris, seducing women and extorting money, makes use of his training in Ovid and the art of making love to dominate women, and to impress his lord. These are both types of masculinity that appear often in history and in the literature of the time.
Marguerite de Thibouville
We know that the historical Marguerite de Thibouville was the heiress of a venerable noble family of Normandy, was probably young when she became Carrouges’ second wife, and was, after the fact, enriched by her husband’s fame and fortune in his role as celebrated hero of the “last duel.” She had at least three children with Carrouges, before he died on one of his many military excursions in 1396; she herself most likely died between 1417 and 1419. That’s fairly thin material, on which the movie constructs a fully fleshed out character, necessarily fictionalized due to the lack of sources.
The movie turns the character Marguerite into a modern heroine, trapped in a medieval world, and trapped as well between two awful men. She is forced to contend with a society that required obedience and fecundity, and one that blamed the victim if she made a rape accusation. Viewers are supposed to believe Marguerite and side with her. But there’s no evidence from medieval sources that making the accusation was in fact Marguerite’s idea. We have not even one line of testimony from her. If you were writing this story based only on the documents we have, it’d be not a he said/she said, but a he said/he said, with her voice silenced.
So when Marguerite speaks in the film, she’s either saying something that modern screenwriters invented in their efforts to tell her story or, more troublingly, saying lines that we recognized as coming from the case her historical husband made in his demand for trial by combat. The film, in fact, perpetuates its own kind of silencing, by assuming that she was in agreement with what her husband had said she said. Reading the historical record, we just don’t know that this is true. It’s all too possible that Carrouges forced his wife to take whatever role she took in this trial that resulted in a vicious and dramatic fight to the death.
Trials by combat had a role in medieval French justice but were rare, frequently condemned, and regularly declared illegal. Even when men, and some women, obtained judicial permission to engage in trial by combat, they or their designated champions only rarely actually followed through, finding ways instead to reconcile or to put an end to the proceedings on some judicial pretext. And when they did fight, they even more rarely chose, or were permitted, to fight all the way to the death. In fact, this gap between the letter of the law and what actually happened is a major feature of medieval justice on a broad scale, and knowledge of that gap is vital to our present-day attempt to distinguish between what their laws said and how those laws actually functioned in society. The law often threatened the harshest of punishments, which sound bizarre to modern sensibilities, but only rarely were these carried out.
In the film, not only are the men fighting to the death, but Marguerite’s life is at risk too, because if her husband loses, then the rape accusation will be adjudicated false. And a false rape accusation merits (according to the film) death by burning at the stake. This is actually really unlikely to have happened in medieval France. The closest evidence we have to eyewitness accounts of the duel (from a royal chronicler who was likely there and from Le Gris’ lawyer, who later voiced his doubts about the trial) either does not even mention Marguerite de Thibouville’s presence or claims instead that she was brought to the combat in a cart (perhaps pregnant or recovering from pregnancy) and immediately sent away by the king. And she was not the accuser. It was her husband who had accused Le Gris of rape and who had demanded trial by combat.
There is a medieval source, the chronicler Jean Froissart, who mentions the threat of burning for Marguerite de Thibouville, but he was in Flanders at the time of the combat and did not see it firsthand. Froissart clearly enjoyed dramatization in his storytelling across his many works, and he got many of the other facts about this episode wrong, such as the correct location in Paris where the combat took place. He likely drew from old crusader laws that declared a woman who had sought trial by combat and whose champion lost would be executed at the stake, but there is no evidence that anyone ever implemented this rule. It seems to have been intended primarily as a deterrent, to attempt to limit false or frivolous accusations.
This is not to say that rape was considered trivial. Men convicted of rape could, in fact, be executed or exiled. A woman who made a rape accusation and then admitted she had lied, was, if anything, subject under French custom to whipping or beating. That kind of punishment was, in fact, carried out in a few cases that we know about from surviving court records.
Pregnancy, Sex, and Pleasure
The film invents an infertility problem for Marguerite as a major plot point, presumably in a well-meant effort to explore what sex and pregnancy might have been like for her and to engage with medieval ideas about reproduction. But the way The Last Duel handles these matters is odd. Medieval medical theory did state that women had to feel pleasure to conceive, a theory that could have dangerous application when pregnancy followed an alleged rape. But the movie jumps from this idea about conception into a completely anachronistic depiction of a series of encounters, including an invented interrogation of a kind that would never have occurred at this time but that is very familiar to present-day American viewers of court procedurals, in which Marguerite is asked again and again if she enjoyed sex with her husband.
Here, the writers are applying modern concerns about female frigidity, as if medieval people were worried about whether women enjoyed sex generally. That’s just wrong. The concern embedded in medieval patriarchal culture was, in fact, just the opposite: that women enjoyed sex too much. Women were generally depicted in literary and religious texts as so weak and prone to temptation that they were all too able to feel pleasure, even when they did not consent to sex. There was far greater concern that they would give in to that temptation, that they would not be able to resist rape because they felt too much pleasure. Men, in this construction, had to keep control of their women.
When it comes to depicting medieval women and medieval systems of justice, The Last Duel replaces the malevolence of medieval patriarchy and adds in relatively modern threats. It’s a strange mix of history and fiction—a muddle that misses a chance to reveal how the hierarchies of oppression remain static but the manifestations of those hierarchies shift with the times.