By Peter Konieczny
“Iron Herman fell prostrate to the ground, and Guy threw himself on top of him, pounding the knight’s mouth and eyes with his iron gauntlets.”
When I first got interested in medieval history as a university undergraduate, one of the first historical sources I read was The Murder of Charles the Good. Written by Galbert of Bruges, it tells the story of Charles, Count of Flanders, how he was murdered on March 2, 1127, and the chaos and warfare that took place in the weeks and months following his death.
What captivated me was how vivid Galbert’s account was – he writes as if he is almost a journalist sending out daily reports on what he has seen and heard. At one point he comments that “among so many dangers during the night and so many conflicts during the days that I, Galbert, since I had no place for writing, noted down on tablets a summary of the events that were going on until at some point in a longed-for moment of peace, during the night or day, I could set in order the present description according to what had happened.”
Jeff Rider, a professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and Medieval Studies at Wesleyan University, has spent the last several years working on Galbert’s account and has produced a new translation of it, entitled The Murder, Betrayal, and Slaughter of the Glorious Charles, Count of Flanders. It is from this translation that I wanted to share one particular episode, a judicial duel fought between Guy of Steenvoorde and Herman the Iron on April 11, 1127.
The duel takes place in the town of Ypres, just after the brutal execution of one of the main conspirators involved in Count Charles’ murder. Guy of Steenvoorde, “a famous and strong knight” is also accused of being part of the plot that killed Charles, apparently because he was married to the niece of another conspirator. Guy denied the accusation, but another knight named Iron Herman made a challenge to single combat. The duel was set, and Galbert writes:
…both fought bitterly. But Guy knocked his adversary from his horse and kept him down easily with his lance as he was struggling to get up. Then his opponent, running nearer, ran Guy’s horse through with his sword, disemboweling it. Sliding from the horse, his sword drawn, Guy attacked his adversary. A continuous and bitter encounter followed with exchanges of sword blows, until, worn out by the weight and burden of their arms, they threw away their shields and hastened to win the fight with their strength in wrestling. Iron Herman fell prostrate to the ground, and Guy threw himself on top of him, pounding the knight’s mouth and eyes with his iron gauntlets. But just as one reads of Antheus, the prostrate man gathered strength bit by bit from the coolness of the ground and slyly made Guy think he was certain of victory while he rested. Meanwhile, having raised his hand very smoothly to the lower edges of the mail coat, where Guy was unprotected, and grabbed him by the testicles, he collected his strength for a single effort and threw him from him, breaking open all the lower parts of his body by this grabbing throw so that the prostrate Guy grew weak and cried out that he was defeated and was going to die.
The other version of duel
The only other account of the duel is recorded by Walter of Théroanne, which shares some similarities, but is also very different:
When the judicial duel to determine the case between Guy and his accuser Herman, nicknamed the Iron, began, Guy had the better of the first and second exchanges of blows and fell on Herman and crushed him the the ground under the immense weight of his body and their arms (for Guy, like Herman, was armed with a heavy hauberk and a helmet). Then Herman, strengthened by God’s virtue, got up as if he no longer felt anything weighing on him and, throwing down in turn him who, as was mentioned above, had previously had the upper hand, began to press him to confer the crime he had committed. What more can I say? He was ultimately vanquished by divine judgement and convicted of the crime of which he was accused and thus sentenced to die.
Why is Galbert’s version so different, and more vivid? Ryder notes an important fact: Galbert of Bruges was not in Ypres to see this duel. He was relying on the reports of other eyewitnesses and used that to recreate the fight. His imagination also makes use of how duels were written about in 12th-century literature to help give the fight some extra drama. Galbert even adds a reference to ancient mythology with the mention of Antheus – he was said to be the giant son of Poseidon and Gaia, and was invincible in battle when in contact with the earth. He gets killed in a wrestling match by Hercules, who held him over his head until the giant grew weak.
There are, to be sure, certain elements of the fight – like resorting to fisticuffs, and the mighty testicle-tugging toss by which Herman vanquishes his enemy – that are out of harmony with the spirit of heroic literary duels and are unlikely to have been invented by Galbert, and the fight probably took place in much the way Galbert describes it. Guy probably did knock Herman off his horse and keep him down; Herman probably did then kill Guy’s horse; they probably did fight with swords, then with fists; and so on. But here…Galbert has used an existing mental model – in this case, the narrative model of a duel – to grasp, analyze, and represent an event which, in this cause, he has not witnessed and must imagine on the basis of other people’s accounts. By inserting it in a narrative tradition, moreover, this model makes his description richer, more vivid, and more detailed than Walter’s, and lends it a resonance and familiarity that Walter’s lacks.
This is just one episode from Galbert of Bruges’ fascinating chronicle, one that is filled with enough violence, warfare and political intrigue that one would think it was meant to be a Hollywood film. There are two translations of Galbert’s work – the first by James Bruce Ross from 1953 – you can read an excerpt from it on the De Re Militari website. Jeff Rider’s 2013 translation was published by Yale University Press, while his book, God’s Scribe: the Historiographical Art of Galbert of Bruges, offers indepth analysis.