Eric Jager in Lapham’s Quarterly:
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.”