Trial by Battle in France and England
By Ariella Elema
PhD Dissertation,University of Toronto, 2012
Abstract: Trial by battle was a medieval European form of legal proof in which difficult lawsuits were decided by a single combat between two duellists before a judge. This dissertation surveys the history of trial by battle in the French-speaking regions of the European continent and England, concentrating on the period between roughly 1050 and 1350 when it was most practiced.
Chapter One examines the origins of the procedure and the earliest references to it in the legal codes of the early Middle Ages. The second chapter discusses the courts in which it could be used and the gradual process by which higher courts reserved the privilege of holding judicial duels. Chapter Three examines the nature of the suits in which trial by battle could be used, while Chapter Four looks at the litigants who participated in it, finding that not only knights, but also poor men, could fight judicial duels, while women, clergy, Jews, the young, the elderly, the disabled and certain kinds of kin enjoyed varying forms and levels of exemption from them. The fifth chapter traces the steps involved in a lawsuit leading to proof by battle, while the sixth one describes the procedures on the duelling field and the consequences of winning and losing a judicial duel. Chapter Seven traces the history of opposition to trial by battle and concludes with its gradual decline and disappearance.
The honour and shame of medieval litigants, and the reputations which both upheld these conditions and resulted from them, form an ongoing theme in this discussion. Trials by battle, both actual and threatened, were above all events that challenged and re-established their participants’ status and reputation in their communities.
Mathieu d’Escouchy and Olivier de La Marche were not afraid to see blood. The former was a fifteenth-century Picard chronicler who had personally fought at the battle of Montlhéry in 1465. The latter was a courtier of the duke of Burgundy; in his memoirs he recounted many of the major battles and tournaments he had seen in his day. Nevertheless, amidst their tales of shattered lances, flowing wounds, and armoured men colliding with a crunch, one incident left both chroniclers taken aback. It had occurred in 1455. La Marche, a young man at the time, had witnessed it in person, and Escouchy was clearly familiar with the details of the event.
In the town of Valenciennes, in the duchy of Hainault, two men had fought a judicial duel in the centre of the marketplace. Neither of them was a knight. Jacotin Plouvier was a commoner from the town, while Mahiot Coquel was a tailor from Tournai. In the street one day, Plouvier had accused Coquel of murdering his kinsman in an ambush, a particularly heinous form of homicide. He warned the tailor to watch himself, for vengeance would surely follow. Coquel, for his part, sought protection from the provost and justices of the town. He did not deny the killing, but insisted that it had been committed in self-defence. This argument posed a quandary for the court, for the town had by long tradition possessed the privilege of providing sanctuary to those who had killed someone, as long as their cases had since been ruled to be self-defence or at least settled with the victim’s immediate kin. The provost warned Plouvier that, according to the customs of the city, he must either withdraw so serious an accusation or prove it by his body: that is, he must challenge Coquel to a duel. Plouvier coldly chose the second option and Coquel accepted the challenge.