Eric Jager’s position as a professor of medieval literature at UCLA doesn’t typically put him in the media spotlight.
But that has changed with the publication of his third book, The Last Duel.
The 1979 Calvin graduate’s nonfiction historical tale of the last judicially sanctioned duel in France has caught the attention of National Public Radio and BBC Television.
“The book’s kind of like Gladiator meets The Return of Martin Guerre,” said Jager, talking about the volume over lunch at the UCLA Faculty Center.
Jager was reading up on the Hundred Years’ War in preparation for a course he was teaching on Chaucer when he came across the compelling story of Jean de Carrouges, a 14th-century knight who comes home from battle to learn that his wife, Marguerite, has charged an old friend and fellow warrior, Jacques Le Gris, with raping her.
The knight champions his wife’s cause all the way to King Charles VI, the teenage monarch of France, who surprises the court by ordering a duel in order to determine guilt and innocence — a battle to the death. And if Carrouges should lose, his wife (now pregnant, with the child’s paternity in question), would be put to death as well.
The high drama of this tale immediately drew Jager to investigate the story further.
“In reading various accounts of the story, it appeared to me that the woman was getting a bum rap,” said Jager. “After reading the trial record and finding some new, unpublished source materials I thought I could present a more accurate and balanced picture.”
Subtitled “A True Story of Crime, Scandal and Trial by Combat in Medieval France,” The Last Duel is a fast-moving narrative, but thoroughly researched. It carries the reader along with carefully crafted storytelling and interesting historical information, leading up to the climactic duel of the book’s title — a contest with absolutely everything at stake.
“It is a bit unusual to have a book written by a professor about a 14th century trial draw the interest of multiple publishers, but that’s what happened in this case,” Jager said.
In fact, about a dozen publishers showed interest, and after publication, BBC Television asked for the rights to film a one-hour documentary based on the book.
“I was pleased with the BBC’s interest because the organization is intellectually responsible, and I wanted the story told right the first time,” he said.
The BBC version of The Last Duel is due to air sometime during the next year.
Prior to his tenure at UCLA, Jager taught at Columbia and the University of Michigan (where he earned his Ph.D.). But Calvin ranks right along with them all in his estimation.
“I had four wonderful years at Calvin,” recalled Jager. “I learned much from [English professors] Ed Ericson and Dick Tiemersma, and religion courses from Len Sweetman and Gord Spykman help when I teach about the Bible in my courses.”
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