Monday, October 18, 2021

Divine Revelation in "The Last Duel"--The Book and the Movie


                                                         Movie Trailer for "The Last Duel" 

The new movie The Last Duel has had its first general theatre release this past weekend.  It is a historical drama based on a book with the same name by Eric Jager.  It's about the last legal trial by combat in France in 1386.    

The film stars Matt Damon as Jean de Carrouges, a knight who challenges Jacques Le Gris (played by Adam Driver) to a legal duel after Carrouges's wife, Marguerite (played by Jodie Comer), accuses Le Gris of raping her.  Ben Affleck stars as Count Pierre d'Alencon, the lord to whom Carrouges and Le Gris are pledged as vassals.  The Director is Ridley Scott.

In the Middle Ages, in legal cases where it was difficult for the courts to reach a decision, one of the parties in the dispute could challenge the other to a duel, in which God would intervene to allow the innocent party to kill the guilty party, who would be condemned to eternal damnation.  In this case, Carrouges was fighting as the champion of his wife, so that if he were killed, this would show God's judgment that both he and his wife were guilty of lying under oath, and Marguerite would be immediately stripped naked and burned at the stake.  Both of their souls would be eternally punished in Hell, while Le Gris's soul would win eternal reward in Heaven.

The screenplay for the movie was written by Damon, Affleck, and Nicole Holofcener.  The screenplay follows closely Jager's book The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat (2004).  Jager is a professor of English at UCLA who specializes in medieval literature.  Once he became fascinated by the story, he spent ten years researching and writing the book.  His research is meticulous, which required archival research in France and elsewhere.  Almost every detail in his book is supported by citations of his sources in the notes to the book.  But unlike most such works of historical scholarship, the book has such a vivid narrative style that it reads like a novel.

The movie is very good.  But as we often say, the book is better than the movie.  Most importantly, the book is better in provoking us to think about the religious beliefs that drive the drama of this story.  In at least one scene, however, where the movie's script follows the exact words of the book, the movie does force the audience to wonder about the religious beliefs of these people.

Here's how the book relates Le Gris's last words, after a long brutal fight in the enclosed field for judicial combat, just before Carrouges kills him:

"As the two men struggled, and the huge crowd watched the spectacle in fascinated horror, Carrouges began shouting at Le Gris.  His voice was muffled by his visor, but the nearest spectators could make out his words:

"'Confess!  Confess your crime!'"

"Le Gris shook his head even more violently, as if refusing to admit his guilt even as he resisted the knight's efforts to unlock his visor."

Finally, Carrouges broke the lock, and the visor sprang open, exposing Le Gris's face.

"Le Gris blinked at the light and at his enemy's visored face, which hovered just a few inches away."

"Carrouges drew his dagger, again shouting: 'Confess!'"

"Le Gris, pinned down by the relentless knight, shouted back, trying to make himself heard by all at the field:

"'In the name of God, and on the peril and damnation of my soul, I am innocent of the crime!'"

"'Then be you damned!' cried the knight" (178-79). 

Carrouges then plunged his dagger into Le Gris's throat and mouth up to his brain.

It is almost unbelievable that a man like Le Gris would have had the will and the strength to shout his sacred oath of innocence in these circumstances, because, according to the religious beliefs of the time, if he were really guilty, refusing to confess his guilt before he died would condemn his soul to eternal damnation.

Did Le Gris, Carrouges, and Marguerite really believe what they were professing about God's revelation of his eternal judgment of guilt and innocence?  Did God in fact miraculously intervene to give Carrouges the strength and skill to defeat Le Gris and thus show the innocence of Carrouges and Marguerite and Le Gris's guilt?  If God did this, how would anyone know this to be true?  Would it depend on whether we thought the evidence supported the case of Carrouges and Marguerite?  It was said that Carrouges was sick with a fever when he entered the combat, and Le Gris was healthier and stronger.  If so, does that suggest that only divine intervention could have given Carrouges the ability to prevail?

"Does he truly believe his innocence at the end?" Affleck said of Le Gris in an interview for the Los Angeles Times.  "They took the idea of damnation seriously.  They were very religious.  That was at the root of everything.  And that's one of the things we didn't focus as much on: They truly believed God would make happen whatever was the fair thing to happen, so it would be God's will.  And for him to have to invoke that at the moment of his death and to protest his innocence is interesting." 

If religious belief was "at the root of everything" in this story, then Jager's book really is better than the movie because the book says a lot about the religious beliefs in medieval France, even though Jager clearly suggests that he does not himself share those beliefs, and even though his historical narrative gives us reasons to believe that there was no Revelation of God's will in such a way as to resolve any of the moral and political problems of medieval France.


Jager draws our attention to the fact that in medieval Europe, there was no Revelation of God's truth to resolve the many conflicts in the religious communities.  By the fourteenth century, Christendom had faced the Muslim threat for more than six hundred years.  Ten years after surviving his duel, Carrouges was killed in 1396 while fighting in the Last Crusade against the Ottoman Turks in the city of Nicopolis, in present-day Bulgaria.  Both Christians and Muslims believed that they were defending the true Revelation against the infidels.  Either there was no Revelation, or there was, but it was not clear enough to settle this dispute.  

Christianity was even at war with itself over conflicting interpretations of Revelation.  From 1378 to 1417, Christendom was divided into warring camps led first by two rival popes (in Rome and Avignon) and then by three popes (with a third pope in Pisa).  Previously, in 1054, there was a split between Western Christianity and Eastern Christianity, which is today the separation of the Catholic Church from the Eastern Orthodox Churches.  And, of course, in the 16th century, the Protestant churches would split off.  

These disagreements over Revelation threw Medieval Christian societies into violent conflict.  For example, in 1339 the English invaded France, initiating what came to be known as the Hundred Years War, in which Carrouges and Le Gris fought on the side of France.  By 1378, the Roman pope was blessing England's war of conquest in France, while the Avignon pope was blessing the French against the English.  This led to many atrocities, such as the English raid on Brittany in 1380, during which the English attacked a convent, raping and torturing the nuns.

Jesus prayed to God that all believers would be as one, that they would come to complete unity, "so that the world may believe that you have sent me" (John 17:21).  It seems then that Christians could give witness to the truth of Revelation by showing their agreement about that Revelation.

But in fact Christians have never achieved that goal of Christian unity in their interpretation of Revelation.  Previously, I have written about the failure of Revelation to bring Christian unity in the debate over creation and evolution.  As I indicated, there are three possible explanations for this.  Either there has been no Revelation of God's teaching.  Or there has been a Revelation, but it is so obscure that it conveys no clear teaching.  Or there has been a clear Revelation of that teaching, but human beings have been so blinded by biased thinking that they cannot see it.


If we cannot rely on God's Revelation of the truth, perhaps through a divine judgment revealed in a trial by combat, then we must rely on our human reason to search for the truth.  To decide whether Marguerite was telling the truth about Le Gris raping her, we must use our reason in examining the evidence to decide whether it is probable or not that she was telling the truth.

But can we trust reason without Revelation to lead us to the truth?  Some Christian philosophers like Alvin Plantinga would say no, because we must accept at least one revealed truth--that God has created the human mind in His image--if we are to trust our minds.  If we embrace Naturalism--the view that nothing exists except Nature, and so there is no God or nothing like God--we are caught in self-contradiction: if human thought originated not from a divine Mind but from the irrational causes of Nature, then we cannot trust our minds as reliable, and thus we cannot trust our belief in Naturalism. Naturalism destroys itself by destroying the rationality of believing in Naturalism, or anything else.

As I have previously argued, however, the weak link in Plantinga's argument for metaphysical naturalism as self-defeating is his assumption that adaptive behavior is completely unrelated to true belief. The evidence of evolutionary history suggests that evolution produces cognitive faculties that are reliable but fallible. The mental abilities of animals, including human beings, are fallible because evolution produces adaptations that are good enough but not perfect, and this results in the mental fallibility that is familiar to us.  But despite this fallibility, the mental faculties cannot be absolutely unreliable. Even Plantinga concedes (in his debate with Daniel Dennett) that in the evolution of animals, "adaptive behavior requires accurate indicators."

In the case of judging criminal guilt or innocence, we must rely on our evolved adaptations for detecting and punishing cheaters.  As Morris Hoffman has said, "evolution built us to punish cheaters."

But even if that evolved capacity for judgment in criminal cases is reliable, it is not infallible; and in a case like Marguerite's accusation of rape, there can be disagreement over what counts as the truth.  Le Gris's lawyer--Jean Le Coq--kept a private journal where he wrote out his thoughts about the case.  At one point, he wrote: "No one really knew the truth of the matter."

The movie is divided into three chapters, suggesting three different points of view.  The first chapter is entitled "The Truth According to Jean de Carrouges."  The second chapter is "The Truth According to Jacques Le Gris."  The third is "The Truth According to Marguerite de Carrouges."  So there was a different truth for each of these three people.  And yet, immediately after the title for the third chapter has faded from the movie screen, "The Truth" is flashed on the screen.  So the script writers want the audience to see that there really is only one truth, and it's Margarite's.  

This third chapter of the movie was written by Nicole Holofcener, who invented many details for her story that are not found in Jager's book, which allowed her to turn this into a modern "Me Too" story of how women suffer from the patriarchal oppression of men.  Actually, Damon and Affleck allowed Holofcener to push the entire movie towards this theme.

When Jager has been asked about the historical accuracy of Holofcener's writing, he has said that it is at least 75% accurate.  Most importantly, he agrees with her conclusion that the evidence in the case favors Marguerite's story as most likely true.

In his book, Jager makes four arguments for why we should be persuaded by Marguerite's accusations.  First, some people have suggested that even if she was raped, she might have been mistaken in identifying Le Gris as the rapist.  Marguerite had met Le Gris only once, a little over a year before the night of the rape.  So she may have had only a vague memory of what he looked like.  And if she did not have a clear view of the rapist's face, she might have mistakenly thought the rapist looked like Le Gris.  But as Jager observes, this is implausible.  Marguerite swore in court that two men were responsible for her rape, and that she had a clear view of both men.  She said that Adam Louvel--a friend of Le Gris--helped Le Gris in holding her down on her bed, while Le Gris raped her.  She also said that Louvel was the first one to appear at her door, and that he specifically mentioned Le Gris by name before Le Gris entered her room.  This makes it highly unlikely that she was mistaken in identifying both men.

Jager's second argument concerns the story that sometime after Carrouges won his duel, a man later confessed to being Marguerite's rapist, which vindicated Le Gris's innocence.  Jager points out the implausibility of this considering that Marguerite had accused two men as responsible for her rape.

Jager's third argument responds to the claim that Marguerite knowingly lied in accusing Le Gris, either because she was trying to cover up her adultery, or because Carrouges forced her to fabricate this lie to get vengeance against a man he hated.  This was the claim made by Le Gris in his testimony.  Jager notes the obvious problem with this:  if she was lying, why did she include Adam Louvel in her charges?  Why would she add to her burden of proof by including Louvel in her charges?  If either Louvel or Le Gris had a good alibi, that would deny her story.

Jager's fourth argument is his strongest.  It is hard to come up with any good motivation for Marguerite to lie given that she had very little to gain from this and everything to lose.  She knew that if it was decided that she was lying, she would be executed; and according to her religious beliefs, her soul would be condemned to eternal punishment by God.  Surely the risk of such punishment would have deterred her from falsely charging Le Gris with rape.

There is another complicating factor in this case that I have not yet mentioned.  Marguerite and Carrouges had tried without success for five years to conceive a child.  But when Marguerite and Carrouges appealed their case to the Parlement of Paris, she was pregnant.  She had told Carrouges that she was pregnant at the same time that she told him about the rape, four days after it had occurred on January 18, 1386.  Jager judges that the child was born sometime between early September, nine months after Carrouges had returned from fighting in Scotland, and the middle of October, nine months after the rape.  The duel occurred on December 29, 1386.

Had she been impregnated by Carrouges or by Le Gris?  According to medieval law, if Le Gris was the father, that would prove that he did not rape her, because Galen had taught that sexual intercourse could not cause a pregnancy unless the woman's "seed" was produced by her orgasm; and if she had an orgasm that showed that she was not raped because she had enjoyed the coitus.

Now we know that if a rapist impregnates his victim, that does not show that she felt sexual pleasure, because a woman's orgasm is not required for ovulation.  This should be known by common-sense experience as much as by science, since many women have been fertile without experiencing orgasm.

It seems unlikely, however, that Marguerite was impregnated by Le Gris only four days before she told Carrouges that she was pregnant.

For all of these reasons, we can conclude that it is highly probable that Marguerite was telling the truth about her being raped by Le Gris.  We can reach this conclusion by using our reason to examine the evidence and then to logically draw inferences from that evidence.  Even if this is not a demonstrative proof, it is a probable truth beyond a reasonable doubt.

We can do this by reason alone without any need to appeal to some Revelation of the truth by God through trial by battle or some other means.  We can see this, beginning in the early modern period of European history, as European legal systems shifted to relying on judges and juries to decide legal disputes, which provided an alternative to oaths, ordeals, combat, and other appeals to divine intervention.  Thus did the state take over the role first played by God.


Barto of the Oratory said...

In this article, Dr. Arnhart is giving us reasons why divine revelation is not a good basis for the Conservative or Classical Liberalism form of political order. Dr. Arnhart seems to be saying that some or many people remain religious because of rational reasons, & can also abandon religious thinking after engaging in a rational analysis of religion.

But hasn’t the whole "Darwinian" tradition of research & analysis provided convincing evidence that religion is an evolved phenomenon that is hardwired into every human brain, & this can't be shaken off by any amount of education or reasoning? Aren’t there scholars who've shown convincingly that even hardcore atheists & materialists end up developing & operating in a religious, "irrational" way? Don’t we in 2021 know something that Plato & Aristotle did not know or understand? That human beings have this huge & powerful preconscious & subconscious mental activity, & that human beings are ultimately controlled by that, not by the "reason" that the classical philosophers imagined did or could rule the human being & that did or could rule the human political world.

What is the source of this new knowledge that we moderns have, & that the classical philosophers lacked? Is it not one man & one book: Darwin & his “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.”

This understanding--that human beings are not self-controlled by “reason,” but by powerful preconscious & subconscious mental activity--is it not the essence of the Darwinian Revolution?

In 1920, the philosopher Bertrand Russell visited the new Soviet Union & had an hour-long private meeting with Lenin. Here’s how Russell later described Lenin: “He resembles a professor in his desire to have the theory understood & in his fury with those who misunderstand or disagree, as also in his love of expounding, I got the impression that he despises a great many people & is an intellectual aristocrat.” If only Lenin has understood Darwin & Freud! He would have understood that the endeavor to refashion Russia along the lines of a highly pro-social rational order was doomed! Lenin was operating within the tradition of the classical Greek philosophers who thought that reason could rule the world!

But I think the endeavor to refashion the USA & the world along the lines of a non-religious Aristotelian-Lockean Classical Liberalism is just as doomed, & for the same reason. Aristotelian-Lockean Classical Liberalism requires that human leaders & followers voluntarily adhere to a rules-based economy & a rule of law-based political system, & that they voluntarily adhere to the Non-Aggression Principle. But these are rules that the preconscious & subconscious human mind can never obey, either as a matter of altruism or self-interest. As Darwin & his successors showed us, the preconscious & subconscious human mind always blindly follow the animalistic laws of biology, just as nonliving matter & energy blindly follow the mechanistic laws of physics.

And the rise of Donald Trump, Trumpism, & similar movements all over the world in the present time (and in the 1920s-1940s, & during most of human history) is Exhibit A in the case.

All this is explained by the sentient ape scientist, Dr. Zaius, speaking to a human, in the 1968 “Planet of the Apes”:

“You are right, I have always known about man. From the evidence, I believe his wisdom must walk hand & hand with his idiocy. His emotions must rule his brain. He must be a warlike creature who gives battle to everything around him, even himself…. You are a menace. A walking pestilence.”

This is the shocking, terrible news that Darwin presented to the world in 1859.

Dr. Arnhart ends this article with, “We can do this by reason alone…” As understand Darwin & the whole Darwinian scientific tradition, human beings never do anything “by reason alone.”

Roger Sweeny said...

@ Balto - Certainly, "human beings never do anything 'by reason alone'.” But they are more likely to use reason if they think it is morally better and higher status--"morality" and "status" both being "unreasonable". Part of what Arnheim is doing is trying to raise the status of reason :)

What you describe as a Darwinian view of the world is actually very pre-Darwinian. For millennia, people thought that reason/consciousness/morality fought against people's animal nature. In Christianity, people were midway between animals and angels. Far from breaking with that tradition, Freud worked within it. So a "modern" restatement is his Civilization and Its Discontents, a book that when I went to school (back when dinosaurs still roamed the earth), every educated person was expected to have read.

There is a long tradition in western thought that people are "naturally" solitary. Hobbes saw a "war of all against all" that was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short". Rousseau said, "Man is born free but is everywhere in chains" because he has to live in society. Darwin didn't completely escape it. But modern Darwinian theory says it is wrong, wrong, wrong. People evolved in groups. They are adapted to live in groups. Being smart and solitary can take you only so far. Being smart and co-operative means you can be fruitful and multiply and overspread the earth.

Which is just what humans have done.

Much of the excitement of modern Darwinism is figuring out how humans deal with what Morris Hoffman, in his wonderful The Punisher's Brain, calls "the social problem": it is in just about everyone's short-term self-interest to shirk, to lie, to cheat; but it is in just about everybody's long-term self-interest to co-operate, to be honest and trustworthy. Part of the answer is pre-dispositions: to enjoy and be co-operative with people who are co-operative with you, to look for approval from other members of your group, to have a "conscience" (James Q. Wilson's The Moral Sense, though not focused on evolution, is a well-written, if somewhat dated, look from a political scientist).

Another pre-disposition seems to be the desire to obey "the rules of the game". Most people most of the time actually want to obey laws. (Frank H. Knight saw this back in the 1920s when he said that Homo sapiens should actually be Homo ludens, playing man.) People actually want rules. One thing youngsters do a lot of is find out what the limits are by testing them.

You are absolutely right that modern psychology says that most of what we do is not decided by conscious rationality. Most of the work is done infra-consciously. But unconscious does not mean "beastly". The human brain is not composed of a good, rational consciousness and a bad "nature red in tooth and claw" unconscious. There is no conscious "super-ego" over a "monsters from the id" unconscious. It's all integrated. In incredibly complicated ways. (Scott Alexander's review of Andy Clark's Surfing Uncertainty is a nice intro to some new ideas.)

Dr. Zaius is not a modern wise man (wise ape?). He is closer to a medieval theologian.