Fandango just released the opening scene for The Last Duel. Ridley Scott’s latest movie is a star-studded affair. Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Adam Driver star in the film alongside Jodie Comer. Damon and Affleck shared the writing duties with Nicole Holofcener on this picture as well. Eric Jager’s The Last Duel novel serves as the source material. In 14th-century France, two knights, Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris are set to duel to the death after a conflict concerning Le Gris’ wife. Those wild names alone will get some people into the theaters, but it seems like the studio has something special cooking. Affleck and Damon last worked together on a script when they took home the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 1998. Back then, Good Will Hunting was absolutely beloved by audiences and critics alike. They’re hoping for more of the same with The Last Duel.
Here’s the description for the film, straight from the studio: “20th Century Studios’ “The Last Duel Movie,” a gripping tale of betrayal and vengeance set against the brutality of 14th century France directed by visionary filmmaker and four-time Academy Award® nominee Ridley Scott (“The Martian,” “Black Hawk Down,” “Gladiator,” “Thelma & Louise”), opens in theaters nationwide October 15, 2021. The trailer and teaser poster for the film are available now.”
“The historical epic is a cinematic and thought-provoking drama set in the midst of the Hundred Years War that explores the ubiquitous power of men, the frailty of justice and the strength and courage of one woman willing to stand alone in the service of truth. Based on actual events, the film unravels long-held assumptions about France’s last sanctioned duel between Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris, two friends turned bitter rivals.”
“Carrouges is a respected knight known for his bravery and skill on the battlefield. Le Gris is a Norman squire whose intelligence and eloquence make him one of the most admired nobles in court. When Carrouges’ wife, Marguerite, is viciously assaulted by Le Gris, a charge he denies, she refuses to stay silent, stepping forward to accuse her attacker, an act of bravery and defiance that puts her life in jeopardy. The ensuing trial by combat, a grueling duel to the death, places the fate of all three in God’s hands.”
The medieval women who spoke out against sexual violence
With the release of new historical drama The Last Duel Movie 2021, its storyline centring on an accusation of rape, Professor Hannah Skoda considers attitudes towards sexual violence in medieval society and brings the stories of courageous women who spoke out against their attackers to the surface.
While it is unusual for Hollywood to take an interest in 14th-century French legal history, the story of The Last Duel has proven too good to resist. A film based on the 2005 book of the same name by Eric Jager will be released on 15 October 2021, starring Jodie Comer, Matt Damon and Adam Driver.
The title refers to a real trial by combat fought between two knights in medieval France – but this is not just a story about two men. The cause of the duel was an accusation of rape, and at the heart of the story lies a woman, Marguerite de Carrouges. Her courage and steadfastness eclipse that of the duelling knights. It was Marguerite who was raped. It was she who chose to speak up. It was she who had to recount what had happened, multiple times and in excruciating detail, to huge groups of men who were determined to disbelieve her. And when Marguerite’s husband finally demanded a trial by combat against the accused, it was not only him who risked his life: if he lost the combat, she was to be burned for perjury.
The real Marguerite was clearly an extraordinary woman. But her story reminds us of thousands of other victim-survivors who chose not to remain silent. And in the Middle Ages, the stakes were appallingly high. Women faced repeated trauma, public humiliation and shame, and potentially heavy punishment themselves.
Rape and medieval society
Medieval law clearly condemned rape. Laws of rape tended to be brutal – forcing a woman to have sex ‘against her will’ was most definitely a crime, to be punished most cruelly with castration, blinding or hanging. The English legist Bracton stated that: “There must be member for member, for when a virgin is defiled she loses her member, and therefore let her defiler be punished in the parts in which he offended.”
Legal frameworks were clear that this was a heinous offence. Women across the social spectrum could bring an appeal of rape, and it was understood that rape of sex workers was still rape. An astonishing recent discovery by Gwen Seabourne of Bristol University has shown that assaulting an intoxicated or unconscious person could also be defined as rape. One Isabella Plomet was raped in 1292 by her doctor who had drugged her, and he was found guilty as charged.
The language in medieval legal documents conveys the horror and disgust which the crime evoked, using terms like “most horribly”, “cruelly”, “shamefully”. Some rapes were deemed particularly terrible because of aggravating circumstances: in 1386, Adam Matte tried to buy sex with Maud Whetewell. She refused, but granted him access to her maidservant and locked the door. He assaulted and raped her, and she died the next Saturday “by reason of the shame, the rape and… Adam’s (venereal) disease”.
But even if laws about rape were stringent and uncompromising, their prosecution looked very different. Then, as now, only a small proportion resulted in a conviction, and most women would have been unable to access the means to bring a case in the first place. When men were found guilty, most often the legally stipulated punishment was not applied and they were simply fined.
Scholars have pointed out that such financial settlements were key for victim-survivors. In some cases, the settlement might even involve the marriage of the victim to the rapist: abhorrent as this was, for many victims it was their only means of social survival. Everything was stacked in favour of the rapists, with juries extremely reluctant to enforce such vicious punishments, or to believe the women.
Nevertheless, women did speak up again and again. Recent scholarship listens more carefully to these voices. Contrary to popular belief, women could often bring cases themselves, sometimes with the help of male guardians, despite this being fraught with risk – public humiliation, and, most dramatically, punishment for perjury if the accused was found innocent.
And the trauma of the moment had to relived over and over. Women had to recount what had happened multiple times, not allowing even the slightest detail to differ as this would result in the case being thrown out.
In a particularly distressing case of 1321, an 11-year-old girl made a mistake in her testimony. She initially stated that a rape had happened on the Wednesday and subsequently that it had happened on the Sunday. She was laughed out of court and sentenced to pay huge damages against the rapist – and since she couldn’t pay, she was to be imprisoned and was only pardoned because of her age.
In another 13th-century case, a woman named Rose claimed that she was raped and subsequently imprisoned for two years. She pursued the case through the courts, but it was rejected because, as the accused put it: “Rose did not name a definite day or a definite year or a definite place when he had raped her.” (Eventually, the rapist was fined 10 pounds).