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After the fall of Rome to the Visigoths in 476, many thought much of Ancient Roman culture would be lost. After all, the Romans had been accused of becoming corrupt, unpatriotic,  and subversive. Roman law disappeared until the eleventh-century discovery of sixth-century Byzantine emperor Justinian’s once-lost Digest, which codified the Roman laws, spurred a  rethinking of the law and how that could pertain to the Church, in particular.

This emphasis on law helped create medieval universities and their curricula, and this was eventually secreted into society.

The French Body of Law

When relating this to Eric Jager’s 2004 non-fiction book, ‘The Last Duel: A True  Story of Trial by Combat in Medieval France‘, the medieval French legal system’s characteristics and influence will be the focus.  

The medieval French legal system could be characterized as fair when one considered how cases were heard. The French body of law was called ‘coutume‘, French for “custom.” By the 1200s,  ‘coutume’ was a general similarity found in central and northern France.

In Jager’s book, the knight Jean de Carrouges and the squire Jacques Le Gris are granted a trial by combat over allegations made by Carrouges that Le Gris had raped his wife, Marguerite de Carrouges. The process of acquiring a trial by combat was highly grueling but fair and reminiscent of the modern Western legal process. As Jager suggested in 1249:

The royal decree of 1306 included a lengthy formulaire—an elaborate protocol … of the judicial duel, including the initial appeal, the formal challenge, and the solemn oaths …

Carrouges and LeGris were both vassals under Count  Pierre during French feudalism. Therefore, their constant bickering for the Count’s favor perhaps cast the allegations in a biased light. If there was conclusive evidence that Carrouges had been lying, he would have been put to death. As Marguerite initiated these claims, she would have been put to death, as well.

Therefore, the reputation and honor of the defendant are just as important as the possible suffering of the plaintiff. It is important to note that Carrouges had brought this case before Count Pierre, who dismissed it as an attack against his preferred Le Gris.  The fact that Carrouges could appeal to the king illustrates a well-thought-out system.

Any judge could be biased, and an appeal ensures that the verdict is correct. Lawyers were important, as  Carrouges had to understand such a complicated process. After an initial appeal, the plaintiff and defendant met face-to-face and nobles took witness, signing pledges of the challenge made.  Witnesses are important, because if the plaintiff were found to be lying, then everyone would know his wrongdoing, and this deters false accusations.

The decision for whether the combat should take place or not rested upon the Parliament of Paris, thirty-two magistrates who surely judged accurately. As Jager proposed in 1308:

Carrouges and his legal counsel … would have to wait—quite possibly several weeks or even months—for the next step, the formal challenge. The king … immediately turned the case over to the Parlement of Paris, which had jurisdiction over all duels and would handle the details of the case.

During the formal challenge, both the defendant and plaintiff presented themselves before Parliament- stating their names and the reasons for why they either agreed or disagreed with the allegations. If both parties failed to agree, then they challenged one another. If the Parliament failed to see the point of combat, then they ordered a  formal investigation.

This painstaking procedure was notably administered by responsible legal experts. Written testimony was also given by the defendant and plaintiff so that their stances could not be misinterpreted. This was responsible and time-demanding. Marguerite de Carrouges was also required to provide sworn testimony. This process of judicial duel could also be described as holy because it seems that everyone is afraid to bring a false case before God- who is believed to determine who wins the duel. This fear of God is apparent and adds anxiety to the issue.  

The medieval French legal system displayed some unfair attributes, such as the right to request a judicial duel and who presides over cases.

These two features of the system did not accurately speak to the defendant’s innocence or guilt. One could argue that the process of securing a judicial duel was fair, but the fact that it was called Judicium Dei, or ‘judgment of  God’, counters this argument.

Yes, trial by combat is only offered in capital crimes cases, but  God cannot be called upon as a judge.

Because this excludes non-Christians, and the ‘Word of God’ is not based upon laws that change day by day. The appeal for the judicial duel was made to the king alone, which is worrisome as the king could not have knowledge of the law as someone in the legal profession.

It is good, however, that the Parliament had the last say. What is extremely worrisome is the power Count Pierre had over the case up until the appeal was accepted by the royal court. Count Pierre was not a lawyer or judge by profession—just a noble. Perhaps he had been educated on such matters, but Count Pierre displayed bias towards Le Gris, and anyone could have predicted this from the stories of the feud between Le Gris and Carrouges.

If  Carrouges did not have the option of appeal, his case would be over and his family would live in shame, a far cry from what really happens after Carrouges kills Le Gris in the duel. As Jager acknowledged:

Within two months of the duel, the Parlement of Paris awarded the knight an additional sum of 6,000 livres in gold … charged against the dead squire’s estate.

Another point is that a cleric opting out of the trial by combat is not fair for non-clerics who cannot do so. As Jacques Le Gris was a cleric, he had this choice, because being part of the Church’s bureaucracy is thought of as a holy profession. Jager affirms that:

Since Jacques Le Gris was … a member of the clergy having some education—he could escape the jurisdiction of the Parlement of Paris altogether and have his case heard instead by a church court, where a duel was out of the question.

From a modern viewpoint,  there is no scientific or legal basis that establishes that a proclaimed servant of God has more rights than others. All in all, these unfair attributes are outweighed by those described in the previous paragraph, but thankfully were abandoned in the modern West.  

Medieval Law vs Western Contemporary Law

Comparisons and contrasts can be made between the legal systems of medieval France and the West today.

The fact that much of the medieval French process is alive today demonstrates its correctness and efficiency. Lawyers are still needed, appeals are still offered,  and judges with extensive legal expertise are entrusted with passing judgments upon cases. The legal system has always been complicated, for good reason, as there is usually never a black-or-white issue. Appeals avoid a biased judge or misinformed jury. The death penalty for false accusations has been removed, but false accusations still carry a penalty of extensive prison time.  This is essential in maintaining a trustworthy system.

Such legal systems, however, believe that spirituality adds to this trustworthiness. God may not be called upon to judge a case as in medieval France, but that aura of holiness is still present, as God is mentioned when swearing oaths in the United States of America, for example.

The West has discarded judicial duel and double standards for Church officials, proving the previous paragraph’s argument that these two features were unfair and unsupportable. The death penalty exists today, however, demonstrating that killing the defendant is often deemed to be a viable solution in extreme cases. Death is still considered the worst form of punishment and thus is the hardest to secure for a convicted criminal. 

Counter argument

There is one counterargument to explore: that Le Gris could have been the victim of injustice. Le Gris had been already acquitted of Marguerite de Carrouges’s rape charges, yet Jean  Carrouges successfully appealed to the King of France. It could be argued that the word of Count  Pierre, as Le Gris’s immediate overlord, should have been taken more seriously than the king’s,  as Count Pierre personally knew Le Gris and Carrouges and had better knowledge of the situation. Because as Jager contends:

The law said that a vassal who felt that his lord had handed down an unfair verdict, a  faux judgment, had the right to appeal the case to his overlord. Since Count Pierre was a vassal to the king of France, the knight [Carrouges] could make his appeal directly to the royal court …

Count Pierre could have made a fair decision, yet his verdict was marred by the history of the feud between Le Gris and Carrouges and his bias towards Le Gris. As Jager continues:

Count Pierre already hated  Carrouges for accusing his favorite, and he had tried to quash the case … As the legal affair unfolded, the count became ‘so infuriated by the knight’s obstinacy that there were many times  when he would have had him killed.

This emotional response from the Count was precisely why an appeal to the king was made.

A truly fair verdict is made by an impartial judge,  and the king was not close to Le Gris and Carrouges, meaning the king himself was more impartial than Count Pierre. If there were no doubt that Le Gris could not have raped Marguerite,  the legally expert Parliament would not have granted a judicial duel.

It is noteworthy that the purpose of the judicial duel was to use God as the judge.

This is not a scientifically or legally plausible idea, and therefore it is arguable that Le Gris was a victim of injustice. There is a gray area here, as it is seen that Count Pierre’s partial verdict was correctly challenged, yet God was unfairly used as a judge over Le Gris’s fate. Therefore, this synopsis will conclude that Le Gris was the victim of injustice, marring the otherwise optimistic preceding arguments. 

Final thoughts

It can be concluded that the medieval French legal system described in Eric Jager’s nonfiction piece, The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial by Combat in Medieval France, was largely grounded in fairness but had inconsistencies pertaining to bias, privilege, and religion.

The  Parliament of Paris was comprised of legal experts of the day, ensuring an informed and accurate verdict would be reached. Inconsistencies arose when Le Gris was offered an escape from judicial duel solely for his clerical status, when God was evoked to be a judge, and when Count  Pierre and the king served as judges despite them not being legal experts, among other instances. Le Gris could be considered a victim, meaning that the medieval French legal system contained precise procedures but failed to provide justice. 

References used in the compilation of this article

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Coutume,” Britannica, 20 Jul 1998, 

Fronska, Joanna. “Legal manuscripts in England and France,” British Library, and-France. 

Jager, Eric. “The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial by Combat in Medieval France,” 2004,  Broadway Books.  

Mousourakis, George. “Roman Law and the Origins of the Civil Law Tradition,” 2015, DOI:  10.1007/978-3-319-12268-7, Springer. n.a. “The Medieval Law School,” BerkeleyLaw University of California, 2020, UC Regents, UC  Berkeley School of Law, collection/exhibitions/medieval-law-school/.

Published by Althea Chokwe

Masters student currently in England | Native New Yorker


  1. Justice had never been fair.
    I studied Victorian crime at university, wrote my dissertation on it.
    Those with the financial means have a better defence, than those who are poor.
    Reputation was everything, and having someone to vouch for your character helped in clearing your name in the Victorian era.
    Not much has changed really. Money still makes the difference, and poor people are more likely to go to prison.

    I agree that God should not be brought into court cases. It should be about concrete evidence. Especially now when we have DNA evidence that is available.

    The media complicates things too.
    Because people often face trial by media.. And this is before any court has decided on their guilt ir innocence.. And once the media condemns a person, it really doesn’t matter what a court decides.. Because a person’s life can be ruined by media speculation and judgement.

    I think this media judgement is now what should concern us.. There is a sense that media should not report or disclose a name until they have been proven guilty by a court.. Innocent until proven guilty.
    Afforded the same animosity as victims, until guilt is proven.

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