In the 12th century, the often-cranky English monk, historian, and part-time fashion critic Orderic Vitalis issued two laments about the hairstyles of elite Norman noblemen. One set, he moaned, “parted their hair from the crown of the head to the forehead, grew long and luxurious locks like women.” The others, Vitalis groaned, “shave the front part of their head, like thieves, and let their hair grow very long in the back, like harlots.” In other words, Vitalis would have hated The Last Duel.
The Last Duel is a story of male violence against women and against one another, drawn from a historical event that featured a judicial trial by combat over an allegation made by a knight, Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), that the squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) had raped Jean’s wife, Marguerite de Thibouville (Jodie Comer). This is serious stuff, but some people online have not been able to hold back a giggle at the men’s hairstyles—especially Damon’s mullet.
We’ve already covered a number of key ways that the movie engages with and deviates from our quite copious record of the event in medieval sources. But every film set in the Middle Ages has to make all kinds of choices about portraying a world centuries in the past, and this one engaged in a complicated blending of medieval, modern, and something in between for the men’s hair, especially Damon’s. This effort to use hair to define status and character, especially the hair of the male protagonists, actually does have an important medieval basis: Not just the whiny Orderic Vitalis but lots of people in the Middle Ages were obsessed with hairstyles and what they might mean. In The Last Duel, the leads go to two extremes. We get one libertine, with long, extremely sexy, wavy locks, and one man who looks at the same time both austere and uncouth, with a mullet.
Adam Driver plays Jacques Le Gris, a squire who indulged in the art of seduction by recourse to Latin double-entendre, taken from manuals on courtly love. From a medieval perspective, the character’s long hair appropriately reflects his interest in dalliances with the fair sex and in social climbing. Historically, by the time the trial by combat happened, Jacques was already over 50 and no longer, at least according to his lawyers, up for amorous adventures and able to engage in midnight orgies with the local count, but The Last Duel keeps the character young and virile.
Despite a long tradition of the most powerful men cultivating luscious long locks in the Middle Ages, some people, especially churchmen or the more moralistic type of secular authorities, worried that long hair for men meant trouble. Various biblical precepts they clung to declared that men must look like men, and women look like women. St. Paul, in Corinthians 11:14, for example, declares, “If a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him.” A woman’s long hair, meanwhile, “is her glory.” Long hair in women, between the time when Paul wrote and the time of The Last Duel, was a critical marker of difference. Anything that blurred this distinction, that made men look like women, risked gender-bending, making women of men.
But while, in the eyes of some, long hair made men look a bit too much like women, and therefore lascivious, it was nonetheless still widely popular and coveted. As with everything, what medieval norms proposed and what people actually did and thought are not the same (no more so than today). This was particularly true among the male nobility—who were, it must be said, often fond of flouting the rules that some overly strict priests fruitlessly sought to impose on them.
Mullets came in for more abuse in some places and times in the Middle Ages, particularly when and where they were associated with Irish males. In 1297, the British Parliament condemned “the degenerate English of modern times who wear Irish clothes, have their heads half shaved and grow their hair long at the back, calling this culan, making themselves like the Irish in clothing and appearance.” (The word culan came from the Old Irish word cul, which meant “back of the head.”) As historian Robert Bartlett explains, the adoption of this hairstyle among English settlers in Ireland made it hard to tell them apart from the Irish population, and this just wouldn’t do: “Englishmen were being mistaken for Irishmen and killed as Irishmen, even though the killing of an Englishman and the killing of an Irishman required quite different punishments.”
Matt Damon’s Jean de Carrouges has what looks to our modern eyes indisputably like a mullet, sides shaved, beard increasingly scraggly as the film wears on. This seems anachronistic, but, as Bartlett points out, and the observations of Orderic Vitalis make clear, there are certainly some medieval precursors. Even so, the hairstyle is seemingly much more out of place among Norman French courtiers of the 14th century than the long and excessively feminine locks of a Le Gris type. But, in making Carrouges look so unfashionable, the movie could be intending to show yet again how out of touch he was with his fellow Norman courtiers, his hair a visible sign of why he could not fit in with the in-crowd of Pierre, the Count of Alençon.
But then again, Count Pierre (Ben Affleck) has short hair. This could actually, once again, be somewhat accurate, in that kings, from the eighth-century monarch Charlemagne on, often favored shorter hair than their subjects, as a way to further demarcate social distinctions. As Pierre was a quite important lord, and one who was related to the king, Affleck’s hairstyle could be sending that kind of signal about his status. Certainly, the movie’s King Charles VI wears his hair close-cropped (though images of the historical king tend to give him slightly longer hair, for what it is worth).
Of course, the film does have a female lead; indeed, the film is framed as finding “her story.” Her hair is perfect: a fairy-princess vision of medieval nobility that holds true to the ideal of female beauty in the sources. In the movie, Marguerite’s glorious hair moves from the free flowing or loosely braided locks of a girl to the flawless bejeweled crown of braids of a noble wife. Her hair perfectly expresses the ideal of medieval female beauty, long and blond, reflecting at the same time the problem of hair for women in the Middle Ages and the early modern period. The religious teachings of the time, and the society’s moral code, stressed modesty for women, who should cover their hair, especially in church. At the same time, they were not supposed to try to be beautiful, but were, still, supposed to be beautiful to attract and keep husbands; they should be at once pure and virginal, and an object of desire. The actress Jodie Comer’s blond hair, bound in jewel-studded proto-Leia buns on either side of her head, sends that signal perfectly.
And so, to return to the question: “Is the hair in The Last Duel accurate?” We give the filmmakers a strict B-plus on the merits but a grade-inflated A, because it’s so fun to think of the long-gone Orderic Vitalis looking down from heaven and somehow catching sight of Matt Damon’s culan. A harlot and a thief, in one! What a bargain.