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Trial by Combat: The Bloody Business of Justice

By Danièle Cybulskie

Over the course of the thousand years that made up the Middle Ages, people were constantly working to refine their justice systems so that they would be more fair and impartial. Along the way were various missteps, of course – trial by ordeal stands out as a particularly nasty stage of the process.

Depiction of a judicial combat in a 14th century German law book, illustrating the provision that the two combatants must “share the sun”, i.e. align themselves perpendicular to the Sun so that neither has an advantage.

Before Henry II insisted on a trial by one’s peers in England, the justice system relied on trial by combat to establish guilt or innocence. As a community of the faithful, medieval people believed that no matter how evenly or unevenly matched the fighters were, the one who was innocent would prevail, but trial by combat was not often a black-and-white thing.

Naturally, not everyone who was accused of a crime was trained, equipped, or physically fit to fight for his or her innocence in a trial. As Hunt Janin writes in Medieval Justice: Cases and Laws in France, England and Germany, 500-1500, “Women, the young, the old, the sick, the crippled, clerics, and Jews were the most likely to use a champion.” Interestingly, champions were actually required in property cases in England, as it could be tricky to prove who owned what in the first place; guilt or innocence relied on a person’s word alone.

Champions risked certain injury and possibly death as part of the combat, or as punishment for guilt, which could include “the amputation of a hand or foot, or even … hanging.”  Because of this, it would be a huge favour to ask someone to represent your innocence. Besides being willing to invite injury on your behalf no matter what the outcome, the champion would want to be reasonably certain of your innocence, lest God’s judgement of guilt came down upon his head. But wherever there is desperate need, there will be people willing to meet that need – for a price.

The ambulance-chasers of the Middle Ages, professional champions fought for money, if not for respect. As Janin says,

In thirteenth-century France, they were ranked with prostitutes and petty criminals. Germany lumped them together with actors, jugglers and bastards as undesirables who were “unlaw-worthy” and who were not permitted to give evidence or inherit property. Italy suspected them of being ex-convicts or men of unsavoury reputations.

To be fair, the Italians were not altogether wrong in their estimation: in England, canny lawmen used criminals’ crimes against them to turn them into champions in exchange for lesser punishments, much like modern prosecutors “flip” criminals now. These criminal champions were called “approvers.”  As Janin points out, this was convenient and low-risk for the justice system: given the likelihood of injury or death, the approver was likely to suffer punishment anyway.

Judicial duel between Marshal Wilhelm von Dornsberg and Theodor Haschenacker in the Augsburg wine market (1409). Dornsberg’s sword broke early in the duel, but he succeeded to kill Haschenacker with his own sword.

Given that these champions were fighting for high stakes – innocence, property, their own safety, and their very lives – historical trials by combat were not romantic examples of chivalry or the relatively clean fighting of the tournament. Janin shares the story of two twelfth-century Flemish knights, Guy and Herman the Iron, who fought fiercely and mercilessly to win. The two began on horseback until Herman was unseated, at which point Herman slaughtered Guy’s horse in order to bring the fight to foot. The two fought with sword and shield until they were too tired to continue, and “threw away their shields” so they could go hand-to-hand instead. Then, the fight got really dirty:

Herman the Iron fell prostrate on the ground, and Guy was lying on top of him, smashing the knight’s face and eyes with his iron gauntlets. But Herman … by cleverly lying quiet made Guy believe he was certain of victory. Meanwhile, gently moving his hand down to the lower edge of the cuirass where Guy was not protected, Herman seized him by the testicles, and summoning all his strength for the brief space of one moment, he hurled Guy from him; by this tearing motion all the lower parts of the body were broken so that Guy, now prostrate, gave up, crying out that he was conquered and dying.

If this is how knights, presumably the pinnacle of chivalry, behaved in a trial by combat, you can see why professional champions were not looked upon as model citizens.

Though trial by combat was overwhelmingly replaced by what is more recognizably a jury system, it was slow to die away completely. In France, the last trial by combat was conducted in 1386, but England’s last trial of this type was held over a hundred years later. Janin writes, “The last judicial duel held in England occurred in 1492, at the end of the Middle Ages. Remarkably, trial by battle was not formally abolished in England until more than 300 years later – in 1819”

Strangely, it seems that trial by combat is still lingering on the books in certain places, even New York. Still, I think a trial by jury is going to be a better option – especially where one’s “lower parts” are concerned.

To read more about medieval law and order, check out Hunt Janin’s excellent Medieval Justice: Cases and Laws in France, England and Germany, 500-1500, and for a full and fascinating account of France’s last trial by combat, have a look at Eric Jager’s The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France.

You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist

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