Saturday, June 17, 2006

These days, when we think of a "duel" in history, the vision is usually of two men settling some dispute of honor that could not be corrected by law. Indeed, over the years, dueling itself has been made illegal in many countries. So the idea of a duel being the result of a court case, instead of that case ending with a judge or jury's verdict, is somewhat of a surprise. Eric Jager's The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France tells the story of how in 1386, Jean de Carrouges went through legal channels to seek a trial by duel for his former friend, Jacques Le Gris, accused of raping Carrouges' wife Marguerite. It was thought that God would arrange the outcome of the duel, that only the side that was telling the truth could win (and obviously Jean de Carrouges had a lot of faith, as these duels were fights to the death, and if Carrouges lost, his wife would also be executed for making a false accusation).

This is a book that I could not put down. It combines the best parts of historical novels, non-fiction history books, and modern legal thrillers. Jager does extremely well in fleshing out the historical documents that are his sources into real people, while making it known what the records leave unclear. The politics surrounding these minor nobles and the legal system of the era are explained clearly without letting us lose sight of the individuals involved in the case and their real reactions, adding up to a truly fascinating story.