Trial by combat was a last-ditch method of proving one’s case. Of course, it didn’t prove innocence or guilt, just that one or other of the combatants was luckier/stronger on the day. Nor did trial by water prove a woman innocent of witchcraft, because it killed her no matter what the outcome. If she floated she was a witch and had to be burned (or whichever fate the law of the land decreed). If she sank she was innocent. By then it was too late and she’d drowned.
Anyway, I’m writing now about this article which tells of the titanic 1386 trial by combat between two French knights, Jean de Carrouges and his friend and neighbour Jacques Le Gris. All was well between the two men until, while Carrouges was away, Le Gris was accused of raping Carrouges’ beautiful wife, Marguerite.
Le Gris denied it when Carrouges returned, and taking the matter to court did not resolve the matter. So trial by combat was decided on, and France awaited with bated breath to see the outcome. Marguerite, of course, was accused of lying. Well, that goes without saying. She was a woman and would never be believed in a male-dominated world.
An immense crowd watched the battle, which ended with Carrouges defeating Le Gris, thus exonerating his wife. As Le Gris lay on the ground, Carrouges demanded his admission of the crime. Le Gris reiterated that he was innocent, so Carrouges raised the defeated man’s visor and stuck his dagger in, killing Le Gris on the spot.
Did this prove Marguerite’s innocence? Well, yes, according to medieval law. It wouldn’t prove anything today, and rightly or wrongly Carrouges would be arrested and charged with murder. He could hardly deny it, he’d done it in front of a horde of witnesses!
If the battle had gone the other way, as well it might, then Le Gris would have been innocent. Did he rape Marguerite? We’ll never know.
You’ve probably heard of the upcoming film The Last Duel, which is all about this famous and bloody confrontation. If not, you can read about it here.