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I like to read classics, historical fiction and world lit. Oh and I love short stories.


The Last Duel (Eric Jager)

The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France - Eric Jager

A popular non-fiction book on a fascinating subject: judicial duels or trials by combat. Jager follows one famous case: the fabled last judicial duel to ever take place in France. Two men fight to the death over the accusation that one has raped the wife of the other. The subject has all the good ingredients for a juicy historical story: the Hundred Years War, a noblewoman seeking justice, the world of the lower nobility, medieval legal and military antics....


Good popular historical non-fiction can permit itself some more liberties compared to academic non-fiction in interpreting the lacunas in the sources, and the style of writing is not necessarily argumentative, but narrative. Jager has chosen to write his book as a narrative with heavy literary influences, which makes this particular book a bit of an odd beast. The author at times permits himself a fictionalized interpretation of key scenes, such as the blow-by-blow action scenes of the judicial duel itself, which not only helps the reader transport themselves to that place and time, it allows for a pleasant change of pace in the overall narrative.


Inside the cultural-historic framework, Jager tries to tease out the personalities of the key figures. This does not always work as well. The figures emerge as types instead of human beings of flesh and blood: there's the rugid and honest man-at-arms Carrouges, there's the sly courtier Le Gris, there's the silent "good wife" Margerite. There's little room for nuance in these characterizations, but this typification allows for a solid good vs. bad storyline and isn't at all unpleasant to read.


The author has a clear love for this story and his own interpretation of what kind of characters the key figures in the story must have been. As a reader, I wanted to give in and follow Jager's narrative and interpretation of events. However, the style of the book makes it impossible to distinguish which parts are based on medieval sources and which are Jager's own interpretation or imagination. Furthermore, I felt that there were a lot of minor errors and argumentation flaws in his story.


The problem with a lot of little things is that then add up into one big ball. There are several instances where you can doubt the historical validity of the claims, or the explanations just feel off-key. Possibly, this the result of wanting to simplify things for a wider audience and the fact that the writer is specialized in medieval literature and not medieval history. The result is imprecisions or off-the-mark typifications. Examples include typifying the disputes between Le Gris and Carrouges prior to the rape as a "feud" (no blood flowed, no armed clashes took place - you can hardly speak of a feud when Carrouges has badmouthed Le Gris for a bit. One could possibly speak of a fued starting once Margerite is raped) and the author's confusion as to why the mother of Carrouges wasn't living with her grown son after her husband's death (this is really common for the late medieval nobility - all examples of widows I know of lived on their own land and not together with their adult son).


Then there are spots in the argumentation and explanation of events which are wholely unsupported. It went to the point that I became suspicious of any statement which started with "it is likely that...". One glaringly obvious example early on in the book is the claim that Margerite did not like staying with her mother-in-law. It is never explained why the author thinks this is the case, except for the "mother-in-laws, ammi rite" vibe. Hardly a sound argument.


What certainly doesn't help the author's credibility is the fact that the notes are a mess. There are plenty of phrases throughout the book which are placed in quotation marks without any reference to whose words these are. Then there are the notes which are provided at the end of the book. They do not have a clear reference to the text as there are no footnotes to indicate in the text where exactly the footnote refers to. Though upon checking, I learned that they certainly do not refer to the mystery quotes. Very sloppy and an eternal shame as the author clearly did do a lot of research and digging into the original sources.


Furthermore, I found that two things were lacking in this book. One was that we never learned what happened to Adam Louvel. Was he executed after the duel for his complicity? Second was that I really missed an exploration of the misogyny that informed so much of this process - from the fact that Margerite herself can't pursue justice, to the dismissal and and disbelief in her story by so many men, both contemporaries of her as well as historians later on. The disbelief in her statement is harrowingly mirrored by the treatment of many survivors today - a comparison that could easily have been made, but sadly isn't.


All in all a book about a fascinating subject, though I feel the author hasn't been able to write the best book he could make of it.