The Woman in Black

The last judicial duel in France hinged on whether a woman could be believed.

By Eric Jager

A Judicial Duel, by Lieven van Lathem, 1464. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

On a freezing December day in 1386, at an old priory in Paris that today is a museum of science and technology—a temple of human reason—an eager crowd of thousands gathered to watch two knights fight a duel to the death with lance and sword and dagger. A beautiful young noblewoman, dressed all in black and exposed to the crowd’s stares, anxiously awaited the outcome. The trial by combat would decide whether she had told the truth—and thus whether she would live or die. Like today, sexual assault and rape often went unpunished and even unreported in the Middle Ages. But a public accusation of rape, at the time a capital offense and often a cause for scandalous rumors endangering the honor of those involved, could have grave consequences for both accuser and accused, especially among the nobility.

Marguerite de Carrouges, descended from an old and wealthy Norman family, had claimed that in January of that year she had been attacked and raped at her mother-in-law’s château by a squire (the rank below knighthood) named Jacques Le Gris, aided by one of his closest companions, one Adam Louvel. Marguerite’s father, Robert de Thibouville, had once betrayed the king of France, and some may have wondered whether this “traitor’s daughter” was in fact telling the truth.

Marguerite’s husband, Sir Jean de Carrouges, a reputedly jealous and violent man—whose once close friendship with Le Gris had soured in recent years amid court rivalry and a protracted dispute over land—was traveling at the time of the alleged crime. But when he returned a few days later and heard his wife’s story, he angrily brought charges against Le Gris in the court of Count Pierre of Alençon, overlord to both men. Le Gris was the count’s favorite and his administrative right hand. A large and powerful man, Le Gris was well educated and very wealthy, though from an only recently ennobled family. He also had a reputation as a seducer—or worse. But the count, infuriated by the accusation against his favorite, declared at a legal hearing that Marguerite “must have dreamed it” and summarily dismissed the charges, ordering that “no further questions ever be raised about it.”

Carrouges, without whom his wife could not even bring a case, resolutely rode off to Paris to appeal for justice to the king. A 1306 royal decree based on ancient precedent allowed the duel as a last resort for nobles involved in capital cases—e.g., murder, treason, and rape—but by now judicial duels were extremely rare. That July, at the old royal palace on the Île de la Cité, the knight formally challenged the squire, throwing down the gauntlet, as witnessed by the young Charles VI, many other royals, and the magistrates of the Parlement of Paris, the nation’s highest court.

The challenge did not lead directly to a duel, however, but marked the start of a formal investigation by the Parlement, which would authorize a duel only if unable to reach a verdict on the basis of the available evidence. Over the next several months, famous lawyers were hired, witnesses were summoned, and testimony was gathered. Marguerite herself—now pregnant, perhaps as a result of the rape—came to Paris and testified in great detail about the alleged attack by Le Gris and his accomplice. “I fought him so desperately,” she claimed, “that he shouted to Louvel to come back and help him. They pinned me down and stuffed a capucium [a hood] over my mouth to silence me. I thought I was going to suffocate, and soon I couldn’t fight them anymore. Le Gris raped me.”

Le Gris countered with a detailed alibi for not just the day in question but the entire week, calling numerous witnesses to establish his whereabouts in or near another town some twenty-five miles away. Le Gris’ attorney, the highly respected Jean Le Coq, kept notes in Latin that still survive, allowing us a glimpse into attorney-client discussions. Le Coq seems to have had some doubts about his client’s truthfulness, while admitting that this was the thorniest of “he said, she said” cases. Despite the lady’s many oaths, and those of the squire, he confided to his journal, “No one really knew the truth of the matter.”

Alfred Dreyfus in Prison, engraving by Fortuné Méaulle after Lionel-Noël Royer, 1895. © HIP / Art Resource, NY.

Alfred Dreyfus in Prison, engraving by Fortuné Méaulle after Lionel-Noël Royer, 1895. © HIP / Art Resource, NY.

The Parlement ultimately failed to reach a verdict, and in September it officially ordered a trial by combat, where—in theory—God would assure a just outcome. If Carrouges won the duel, the couple would go free, their claims vindicated. But if Marguerite’s husband and champion lost, thus “proving” her accusation to be false, she too would be put to death. And not just any death. In accord with ancient tradition, she would be burned alive as a false accuser.

By now the case had become a cause célèbre. The entire royal court was gossiping about the rape, the trial, and the likelihood of a duel. Beyond the court the dispute was being spoken of “as far as the most distant parts of the kingdom,” according to the chronicler Jean Frois­sart. News back then traveled, archival research has shown, at the rate of an average day’s journey by horseback: about thirty miles per day. Word of the scandalous affair spread far and wide via merchants, soldiers, itinerant clergy, and others who carried the latest tidings along the rutted roads to far-flung towns and villages.

The mortal combat, set for December 29, promised to be the season’s highlight in the capital, as thousands of Parisians flocked to see it, and the young king and his court took their places in colorful viewing stands set up alongside the field at the monastery of Saint-Martin-des-Champs. Froissart portrays Marguerite, who had recently given birth to a son, praying to the Virgin as she anxiously awaits her fate. “I do not know,” he adds in a poignant aside, “for I never spoke with her, whether she had not often regretted having gone so far with the matter that she and her husband were in such grave danger—and then finally there was nothing for it but to await the outcome.”

After many preliminary ceremonies decreed by tradition (an arms inspection, a series of solemn oaths, the requisite dubbing of Le Gris as a knight to make the combatants equal in rank, etc.), the duel began as a joust on horseback, with lances. The two combatants “sat their horses very prettily,” writes Froissart, “for both were skilled in arms. And the lords of France delighted to see it, for they had come to watch the two men fight.” Besides the resolution to a deadlocked legal case, the duel also provided eagerly anticipated blood sport for the nobility.

After dismounting, Carrouges and Le Gris fought on foot with swords, “both very valiantly.” But Le Gris managed to get within Carrouges’ defenses and wound him in the thigh. “All who loved him were in a great fright,” adds the chronicler in what is the narrative equivalent of a cinematic reaction shot.

Although now losing blood, Carrouges mounted a daring counterattack and “fought on so stoutly” that he managed to throw his opponent to the ground. Other accounts provide more technical detail, even suggesting that Le Gris slipped on his opponent’s blood. Froissart says simply that Carrouges “felled” his opponent and, “thrusting his sword into his body, killed him on the spot.”

With the duel concluded, Froissart continues, “Jacques Le Gris’ body was delivered to the executioner of Paris, who dragged it to Montfaucon and hung it there.” For months afterward, at the great stone gibbet on the infamous hilltop outside the city’s northern gates, this grisly sight greeted any townsman or traveler passing by. The moral was plain: Le Gris rose in the world and then suddenly fell, he dominated but finally was vanquished, he committed a crime in secret and was publicly exposed. In the end the city expelled the contagion, and the body politic was cleansed.

 

The contest between Carrouges and Le Gris would turn out to be the last judicial duel sanctioned by the Parlement of Paris. In the six centuries after the quarrel ended, however, the moral that was to be derived from it changed considerably. Many skeptics—including chroniclers, historians, partisans, and even historical novelists—have cast doubt on the official verdict. Some have echoed Count Pierre’s dismissive decree, saying that Marguerite made it all up, perhaps to cover up an affair with another man. Some have suggested that her husband forced the story out of her to avenge himself on Le Gris, his former friend turned rival at court. And some, invoking the most popular theory, acknowledge the rape but say that Marguerite mistakenly accused the wrong man, an “honest” but tragic error that robbed Le Gris of his life, fortune, and good name.

The theory of mistaken identity ultimately derives from two sources that began circulating more than a decade after the duel. The earlier of the two is the Saint-Denis Chronicle, an official royal history by the monk Michel Pintoin probably written around 1400. It states that Le Gris’ innocence “was later recognized by all, for a man condemned to death by the law confessed to having committed the heinous crime. When the lady learned this and realized that the error was her fault, she retreated to a convent after her husband’s death, vowing perpetual chastity.”

The more sifted, the finer the flour; the more often repeated, the rougher the gossip.

—Korean proverb,

A similar report with a significant difference of detail appears in Jean Juvénal des Ursins’ Histoire de Charles VI, written no earlier than the 1420s and perhaps closer to 1430. Born in 1388, two years after the fatal duel, Juvénal, a bishop, wrote at an even greater remove in time and may have been influenced by Pintoin’s account. He likewise claims that Marguerite had been deceived about her attacker’s identity, although the supposed “truth” comes out under rather different circumstances: “Later it was discovered that [Le Gris] had not really done it, but that it had been done by another, who died of illness in his bed and, at the moment of death, confessed before others that he had done the deed.”

One ground for skepticism about these two reports—apart from their priestly sources, notoriously suspicious of women—is that each tells a substantially different story. One identifies the supposed felon as a condemned man about to be executed, the other as a sick man on his deathbed. And one includes the lady’s penitential retreat to a convent, while the other omits this finale. Furthermore, neither report has ever been independently corroborated, although the existence of two such reports, despite their differing details, may have allowed each to vouch for the other in the minds of those eager to believe them.

The earlier, more detailed account of the supposed confession, in Pintoin’s chronicle, not only differs from the other but also diverges sharply from Marguerite’s official testimony before the Parlement in ways that make its scenario clearly impossible. According to Pintoin, Marguerite and her assailant dined together before the attack, and it was while showing him to his room for the night that he assaulted her. These details are wholly at odds with Marguerite’s court testimony about her assailant’s daytime visit, whose timing (if not its specific allegations) was corroborated by her mother-in-law’s departure that morning and her return a few hours later that same day. In his alibi, Le Gris himself cited the narrow window of time available for his alleged visit, strictly during daylight hours. And even if the assailant, as Pintoin claims, had actually (and contra the actual testimony) made his visit late in the day, it’s wholly unlikely that Marguerite, who must have been very familiar with her husband’s complaints against the squire, would have offered a meal and overnight lodging to her husband’s rival (or to a man she mistook for the same), especially during her husband’s absence.

Centuries later the story of the “innocent” Le Gris falsely accused and forced to defend himself in a barbaric and unjust trial by combat was further popularized by Enlightenment thinkers. Diderot’s Encyclopédie and Voltaire’s Histoire du Parlement de Paris used the 1386 affair to denounce the supposed ignorance and cruelty of the Middle Ages. By the early nineteenth century, the notion that it all had been a case of mistaken identity was firmly established, as typified in an 1824 retelling by Norman historian and politician Louis Du Bois, who “explains” the supposed miscarriage of justice by speculating that the actual rapist “was a squire who doubtless bore some resemblance to the unfortunate Le Gris.”

The mistaken-identity theory was also embraced abroad, as by American historian Henry Charles Lea, who in his influential 1866 study of medieval law, Superstition and Force, stated as a matter of fact that “Le Gris was subsequently proved innocent by the deathbed confession of the real offender.” Lea even faulted Froissart for having omitted any mention of the confession.

Portrait of Shaoyu in the Guise of Liu Ling, c. 1765. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Friends of Asian Art Gifts, 2017

A century and more after the philosophes had popularized the theory, it solidified as hard fact in authoritative encyclopedias. In an entry on duels, the Grand dictionnaire universel (1866–77), overseen by respected editor Pierre Larousse, describes the 1386 affair as “one of the most remarkable” in history, claiming that the wide belief in its injustice helped to bring the custom of trial by combat to a speedy end. The article offers a garbled, error-strewn version where, “in 1385,” Le Gris was accused of attacking the lady “by night,” with “his face masked,” as she awaited her husband’s return from the Holy Land. After the fatal duel, the “truth” comes out: “Sometime later, a criminal on the point of atoning for his other crimes confessed that he was guilty of the odious act of which Le Gris had been accused. This cruel error moved the Parlement to systematically reject all appeals for the duel…This was the end of judicial combat.”

A similar story is retailed by the famed eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1910–11), which likewise gives the erroneous date of 1385 and has the rapist attacking the lady by night, although here “in the guise of her husband” as she awaits his return from the Crusades—an implausible bed trick recalling the story of Martin Guerre. The denouement, too, echoes the Grande dictionnaire: “Not long after, a criminal arrested for some other offense confessed himself to be the author of the outrage. No institution could long survive so open a confutation, and it was annulled by the Parlement.”

Popular historical fiction abetted the theory of mistaken identity, exploiting its shock effect. An elaborate example appeared in 1829, just a few years after Du Bois’ conjecture that the accused squire had been mistaken for a look-alike, in L’historial du jongleur, an anonymous collection of “medieval” tales. The forty-page story “Le jugement de Dieu” begins with throngs of excited, gossiping Parisians arriving at Saint-Martin’s field to watch the long-awaited duel. As might be expected, the deadly trial by combat before the huge crowd of spectators unfolds with genuine drama and suspense. But then, just moments after Carrouges has killed Le Gris on the battlefield, a dusty courier rides up with the astounding news that another man has confessed to the crime—news that is now too late to save the innocent Le Gris. What sets this version apart, besides its unusual length, is how quickly the judicial “error” on the battlefield is revealed by the sudden arrival of the “truth.” Rather than a belated discovery taking many years—as in the chronicles—it’s just a matter of minutes from Le Gris’ death to the “proof” of his innocence.

 

Apart from the dubious, sketchy, and inconsistent reports in the two chronicles, no external evidence for this hazy legend has ever been offered in support of the oft-told tale of a last-minute confession by the “true” culprit. It’s strange that so many authorities seem to have been untroubled by the obvious factual errors in these reports, their mutual inconsistencies, or the lack of any corroborating evidence. If there are reasons for believing in the possibility of Le Gris’ innocence, the doubtful story of a belated confession by another man certainly is not and never has been one of them.

Despite the claims of naysayers and novelizers, Marguerite’s testimony suggests that she was almost certainly not mistaken about the identity of her attackers. That testimony takes up nearly a thousand words of Latin in the Parlement’s official summary of the case, preserved today at the Archives Nationales, on the Right Bank, in the Marais, a short walk from the old priory where the battle unfolded on that cold winter day.

Marguerite testified repeatedly under oath that on a certain day in January 1386—Thursday the eighteenth—she was attacked by the two men, Le Gris and Louvel. This happened, she said, in the morning hours at the modest château of her widowed mother-in-law, Nicole de Carrouges, on a remote Normandy estate known as Capomesnil, about twelve miles southwest of Lisieux. At the time of the attack, Jean de Carrouges was away on a trip to Paris from which he would return a few days later. Nicole, in whose care Jean had left his wife, was also absent for part of the day in question, having been called away on legal business to the nearby abbey town of Saint-Pierre. Marguerite claimed that Nicole took with her nearly all of the household servants, including a maidservant whom Jean had specifically instructed never to leave Marguerite’s side, thus leaving Marguerite “virtually alone.”

Marguerite also testified that Adam Louvel was the first to arrive at the château, and that he began his visit by urging her to ask her husband to extend the term of an outstanding loan for one hundred gold francs. Louvel then added a greeting from Jacques Le Gris, who he said “greatly admired her” and was eager to speak with her. Marguerite replied that she had no wish to speak with Le Gris, and that Louvel should stop his overtures at once.

The Legislative Belly (detail), by Honoré Daumier, 1834. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Edwin De T. Bechtel, 1957.

At this point Le Gris himself suddenly entered the château’s hall (aulam, probably referring to the main chamber or “great hall” where guests were typically received). Greeting Marguerite, he declared that she was “the lady of all the land,” that he loved her the most and would do anything for her. When Marguerite told Le Gris that he must not speak to her in this way, he seized her by the hand, forced her to sit down beside him on a bench, and told her that he knew all about her husband’s recent money troubles, offering to pay her well. When Marguerite adamantly refused his offer, saying she had no wish for his money, the violence escalated.

The two men seized her by the arms and legs, she testified, and dragged her up a nearby stairway, while she struggled and shouted for help. Forced into an upstairs bedroom, she tried to escape by running through a door at the other end of the room but was blocked from doing so by Le Gris. The squire then threw her onto a bed but could not hold her down without help from Louvel, who rushed back into the room on Le Gris’ orders to help his friend subdue and finally rape Marguerite. She continued shouting for help, she says, until silenced by Le Gris’ hood.

As noted in the 1850s by the Norman historian Alfred de Caix, one of the few to credit her story, Marguerite’s testimony is impressively “circumstantial and detailed.” Certain details in her account raise serious problems for the mistaken-identity theory. In particular, Marguerite testified that she saw both men in the light of day, that Louvel specifically mentioned Le Gris by name before the latter appeared shortly afterward, and that she spoke with both men at some length before they attacked her. Marguerite’s claim that Louvel mentioned Le Gris by name is especially telling, for it is hard to fit this detail into a plausible scenario in which she is genuinely mistaken, as many have claimed she was, about the identity of her assailants, particularly Le Gris.

In his own defense, Le Gris claimed that Nicole had found nothing amiss upon her return and didn’t believe her daughter-in-law’s later allegations. In court, he also claimed to have seen Marguerite only twice in his entire life: during the Parlement’s official inquiry, and also “not less than two years earlier” at a social gathering at the home of a mutual friend, Jean Crespin, where Carrouges and Le Gris apparently put aside their recent quarrels and Carrouges ordered his wife to kiss Le Gris as a sign of renewed friendship.

So the mistaken-identity theory has in its favor Marguerite’s relative unfamiliarity with Le Gris’ physical appearance at the time of the alleged rape in January 1386, over a year after Marguerite had first met and seen Le Gris at Crespin’s. Still, the theory cannot plausibly account for Louvel’s having named Le Gris while in conversation with Marguerite. Louvel’s naming of Le Gris just prior to the squire’s own arrival would seem to put Le Gris indisputably there—unless Marguerite’s story was a deliberate fabrication.

It’s also significant that the Parlement of Paris found Marguerite’s story credible enough to vacate Count Pierre’s official exoneration of Le Gris and to authorize the rare judicial duel, whose official purpose, however doubtful the procedure may seem today, was to determine the truth in cases where witness testimony and other evidence was insufficient for reaching a verdict. Marguerite’s story must have seemed at least plausible to the magistrates who ordered the duel, something the Parlement had not done for over thirty years in a rape case.

 

If the mistaken-identity theory is wrong, that forces us back onto the sharp horns of a dilemma: Was Marguerite lying, or was she telling the truth? The view that Marguerite was lying—a conjecture unsupported by any evidence, apart from Le Gris’ dubious alibi—holds either that she concocted the rape story herself, perhaps to cover an adultery, or that it was extorted from her by her opportunistic husband in order to avenge himself on his rival. The latter explanation is the very one that Le Gris put forward in his own defense, and it has been echoed by at least one modern historian as recently as 1992. In his book Tales of the Marriage Bed from Medieval France, R.C. Famiglietti claimed that Carrouges, after learning that Marguerite had been raped, “resolved to turn the rape to his advantage” and “forced his wife to agree to accuse Jacques of having been the man who raped her.” In this view, Marguerite accused the wrong man not in honest error but in knowing collusion (or fearful compliance) with her husband. And her court testimony is reduced to nothing more than her husband’s “script”—as Famiglietti calls it—for destroying his hated rival.

Show me someone who never gossips, and I’ll show you someone who isn’t interested in people.

—Barbara Walters, 1975

The fly in this ointment is another aspect of Marguerite’s testimony that has not been given due attention—namely, the inclusion of Adam Louvel in the criminal charges. Given the absence of any witnesses in her own favor, Marguerite’s accusations against Louvel were a gratuitous and risky addition to her testimony if her story of the attack and rape was indeed a deliberate lie. The more complicated her story, the more vulnerable it was to challenge; including Adam Louvel in the charges simply added to her burden of proof. Only Le Gris’ alibi survives in the court records, but if Louvel had separate witnesses who placed him elsewhere at the time of the crime, their testimony would have exonerated Le Gris as well, just as Le Gris’ alibi would have helped exonerate Louvel. Two separate alibis are harder to disprove than one. And two suspects are harder to convict than one, unless they can be turned against each other. Yet Adam Louvel reportedly confessed to nothing, not even under torture. But if Marguerite’s story is true and Le Gris was guilty as charged, why did the squire increase his risk of being found out by bringing an accomplice in the first place?

This tangled and still-controversial case leaves many tantalizing questions, not least of all why Jacques Le Gris did it, if indeed he did. And if the Parlement of Paris could not establish even the basic facts, there’s little chance of our discovering hidden motives all of these centuries later. But the doubts greeting Marguerite’s scandalous story, the initial rejection of her claims in court, and the shadow cast over her reputation by the later chronicle accounts are not so different from the skepticism and prejudice faced by more recent victims of sexual assault. Much as Le Gris is said to have silenced Marguerite with his hood, a legion of clerics, historians, and partisans managed to muffle and stifle her story with vague rumors and inconsistent reports that have shrouded the matter almost to the present day.

Yet the case does reveal the way in which scandal, as a cousin to the word slander (both derive from the Old French escandle), ultimately resides in the spoken or written word, whether in the gossip of neighbors or the hearsay of the chronicler. Historical scandals, much like the contemporary ones filling our tabloids, news sites, and now-ubiquitous Facebook feeds, are built on a widely shared sense of certainty about “what really happened”—a feeling that often belies the elusive truth. While some touched by scandal may resurrect their lives and reputations, others never will: what happened, or is said to have happened, may follow them even through the pages of history.

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