The Last Duel True Story

It has been a turbulent few years in Hollywood. The industry has been forced to deal with latent racism with the #OscarsSoWhite movement as well as the festering, dangerous misogyny brought to light by the #MeToo revolution. Conversations about the lack of diversity and inclusion both in front of the camera and behind it have spurred action. An industry like Hollywood takes time to move towards a more equal playing field. But the increase in diverse storytellers and actors announced for upcoming film and television projects shows promise.

Which is how it comes as a shock that Matt Damon and Ben Affleck would team up for the first time since Good Will Hunting to tell the story of two men fighting to the death over the alleged rape of a woman. What’s even more of a shock is that the actors, along with director Ridley Scott, were taken aback by the immediate backlash.

First reported earlier this week and titled The Last Duel, the screenplay is based on a novel by Eric Jager. The story tells the details of the last time a duel was used as a substitute for a trial in France, circa the 14th century. If you’re a Game of Thrones fans, think of it asking for Trial By Combat, as Tyrion does multiple times throughout the series.

A description of the script, which is said to be “coming together quickly” is one long yikes:

“It’s a revenge story of two best friends. Damon and Affleck will play them. The main characters are the Norman knight Jean de Carrouges and the squire Jacques Le Gris. They were friends. One goes to war and returns to accuse Le Gris of raping his wife Marguerite de Carrouges. No one will believe the woman, and the soldier appeals to the king of France to undo a decision handed down by Count Pierre d’Anencon, which favored Le Gris. The decision handed down is that the two men fight a duel to the death. The one left alive would be declared the winner as a sign of God’s will. And if Jean de Carrouges loses, his wife will be burned at the stake for punishment for her false accusation.”

The idea of using a woman’s pain (or death) to further the narrative of a man is one of the oldest and most overused tropes in storytelling. The idea of writing a story about the ego of two men fighting about the “despoiling” of a woman in 2019 is downright a kiss of death. But, since this story is based in actual history, there is a way to tell this story of tragedy and ultimate triumph: through the eyes of the actual protagonist, Marguerite de Carrouges (nee de Thibouville).

Who Was Marguerite?

The woman at the center of this story was born Marguerite de Thibouville sometime in the mid-14th century. Births were not always recorded in Europe at this time, especially the births of girls. We know Marguerite was old enough to marry Jean de Carrouges in 1380. But her story begins much earlier than that, with several bad decisions made by her father, Robert.

An ancient Norman family with ties to William the Conqueror, the de Thibouville name was dragged through the mud when Marguerite’s father sided against the French king in territory disputes not once, but twice. Each time, Sir Robert avoided the headsman but lost part of his fortune, his land, and the dignity of his House. As the only surviving child of Sir Robert and his first wife (whose name is lost to history), Marguerite was a conundrum. By all accounts, she was a catch: rich, young, beautiful, with the added allure of having no male siblings to inherit her father’s lands. But her name was also associated with treason. Enter Jean de Carrouges, an opportunistic realist. 

Into the Lion’s Den

So here is Marguerite, perhaps still in her late teens, married off to a French war hero by her father. A sacrificial lamb on the altar of social maneuvering. If Marguerite did well, some of the treason would hopefully come off the de Thibouville name. If Marguerite saw her new husband as something of a savior, she would soon be disabused of that notion. Within months of their marriage, it would become clear de Carrouges had ulterior motives for choosing her as his bride. Marguerite was merely a pawn in an ongoing feud between her husband and his rival, Jacques Le Gris.

When Marguerite’s father lost land due to his treasonous actions, one of the pieces of property forfeited was the Aunou-le-Faucon estate. The property was purchase by de Carrouges liege lord, Count Pierre of Alencon. The Count then turned around and gave the property to Le Gris for services rendered. Much to what I assume was Marguerite’s horror, she discovered she was trapped in the center of a petty, escalating feud between former best friends.

Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris had once been neighbors, compatriots in the King’s army, and close friends. So close in fact that de Carrouges made Le Gris the godfather of his firstborn son (both the son and de Carrouges first wife later died). It wasn’t until Count Pierre inherited overseeing their lands that things turned sour. Le Gris was an obvious favorite of the Count, garnering a disproportionate amount of rewards. de Carrouges overwhelming grief coupled with seething jealousy sent the friendship into a tailspin into which Marguerite would become the injured party.

Determined to get even with Le Gris for his alleged manipulation of the Count, de Carrouges sued his former friend to get the deed back to Aunou-le-Faucon within months of his marriage. The lawsuit claimed prior ownership and stated the property should have been part of Marguerite’s dowry. The case dragged on for three years and only ended with the Count went to his cousin, the King of France, and showed the legal paperwork. Pissing off the Count did not work in de Carrouges favor. Not only did he lose that case, he would be stymied in the future anytime he tried to expand his estates. Count Pierre was even petty enough that, when Carrouges’ father died, the Count gave the land to Le Gris.

Throughout all of this, Marguerite was kept isolated at the de Carrouges estate. Despite marrying in 1380, she wasn’t presented to noble society until 1384. For four years, without socializing or proper support, Marguerite lived until the eye of her mother-in-law Nicole and the household servants. It wasn’t until de Carrouges was firmly routed in court for a third time that he brought his wife out to both introduce her to society and allegedly bury the hatchet with Le Gris. It would be the first time Marguerite would meet her future rapist.

The Aftermath

One could argue the centerpiece of this story is the sexual assault. But, like Mad Max: Fury Road showed, you don’t have to show the trauma to unpack the effects. In short: the feud between Le Gris and de Carrouges escalated to the point that one day, while Marguerite’s husband was away on a military campaign, Le Gris and one of his manservants arrived at the de Carrouges estate. Marguerite was home alone, as her mother-in-law and all the servants had gone out. When words of love and bribes of money didn’t work to woo her, Le Gris turned to violence. When he swore he would hurt her if she told a soul, Marguerite promised to tell her husband as soon as he came home. 

She did just that, leading to another protracted legal battle. Women didn’t often go public with their sexual assaults, so it was instantly a scandal. Count Pierre was in charge of justice, but since Le Gris was his favorite and de Carrouges loathed, the Count sided with Marguerite’s attacker. Undeterred, de Carrouges took the case directly to the King. It was determined a duel would determine who was telling the truth, though if de Carrouges lost, Marguerite would be punished as well. If Le Gris won, she would be burned at the stake for lying about her assault. 

The duel was a massive event, drawing thousands to Paris to witness the event. Even the King and the nobles turned out. Le Gris was knighted so he and de Carrouges would be on equal social footing and the battle began. Marguerite watched alone, dressed in black in a carriage on a dais overlooking the arena. Should her husband fall, she would be immediately be taken to the stake. The fight began on horseback and eventually came down to swords, and then daggers. de Carrouges toppled his opponent, thereby saving Marguerite’s life and proving her honor.

Living Well is the Best Revenge

After surviving a hellish seven years — including giving birth during preparations for the duel — Marguerite’s life settled into the rhythm of an average noble woman. Over the next several years, she would give birth to two more children. She would go on to outlive her husband who died while on Crusade in 1396 and the petty Count Pierre who passed in 1404. Her eldest son by de Carrouges inherited his lands and titles at the age of ten. One hopes Marguerite was there, quietly pulling the strings behind the scenes of her son’s minority, living well and staying far away from men of a marriageable mind.

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