16 Brutal Realities of Trial By Combat Fighting Throughout History
16 Brutal Realities of Trial By Combat Fighting Throughout History

16 Brutal Realities of Trial By Combat Fighting Throughout History

Trista - April 9, 2019

16 Brutal Realities of Trial By Combat Fighting Throughout History
The Devil bargains with God over Job’s faith in Duomo (San Gimignano). Wikimedia.

3. Successful Fighters Were Considered Chosen By God

In a highly religious era, the victor in trial combat was believed to have been chosen by God in his righteousness. It also very conveniently protected the referees and winner of a trial from any accusations of cheating, wrongdoing, etc. since that would be tantamount to questioning the judgment of God himself. In practical terms, the men of the era believed the god would not let an innocent and virtuous man die, so it would be impossible for the wrong man to be killed in a trial by combat.

Of course, in practice, this is incredibly far from the truth, and likely many medieval men died who were genuinely innocent due to lack of martial skill, bad luck, cheating, or any combination of the above. It was these arguments of the lack of real justice that ultimately led to the practice being outlawed throughout Europe in the 17th through 19th centuries. It is also likely why the method never caught on in my areas, with the practice being unheard of in Anglo-Saxon law before the Norman Conquest, in Islamic law and throughout much of the rest of the world. Even many medieval lawmakers felt that stabbing or bludgeoning your fellow man to death wasn’t a great way to prove your worth as a person.

16 Brutal Realities of Trial By Combat Fighting Throughout History
An illustration of a Holmgang duel. Jake Rowling / Wikimedia.

2. Combat Ended After 24 Hours or An Admission of Defeat

While many trials by combat began on horseback, they often ended with two exhausted, unarmed man scrabbling on the ground. Horses were often killed early in the fight by long weapons such as spears. Once horses were removed from the battle, knights would wield swords while ordinary men often used staves, clubs, and crude maces. Anyone who has ever swung a real sword knows how incredibly heavy they are to the untrained arm, and how exhausted one gets after swinging one repeatedly – especially in a life or death scenario!

Given this tiring work, many men often threw down their weapons at some point during the fight, too exhausted to keep swinging them accurately or effectively. In times like these, men turned to fist-fighting or wrestling. Trickery became a more critical part of fighting at this point, as illustrated in the 12th century Flemish case where a knight played dead to lure his opponent into letting his guard down, at which point he beat him to death. If a combination of brutality and trickery didn’t end the fight within 24 hours, the defendant would be declared innocent, and the accuser would be labeled “infamous” and lose many of his rights.

16 Brutal Realities of Trial By Combat Fighting Throughout History
A painting of hanged men by Pisanello. Wikimedia.

1. Defeated Defendants Were Maimed or Killed

There were only three ways for a trial by combat to end: 24 hours of survival of both parties, one party saying the word “craven” to admit defeat or one of the participants being killed or rendered unable to fight. In cases where a man yelled craven, he would be labeled “infamous” which was a mark of incredible dishonor that carried with it penalties including the loss of many of the rights of a free man, including property ownership. This concept applied to the accuser as well as the accused.

If a combatant were knocked unconscious or otherwise unable to finish the fight but did not die, the losing combatant would be swiftly punished. In severe cases where a man accused of a serious crime was wounded but did not die, he would typically be hanged immediately after the end of combat. In less serious cases, a hand would be cut off, and their property seized. Indeed, this was a deeply unpleasant system of justice. If you wanted to accuse someone of a crime, you had to be willing to stake your life on it physically. If you were wrongly accused, you similarly had to stake your life on it, and even if you weren’t outright killed you still might end up facing the death penalty for a crime you didn’t commit.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Trial By Combat Was Real – And Way Worse Than ‘Game of Thrones’ Portrayed It” Donn Saylor, Ranker. n.d.

“Trial by combat” Wikipedia contributors. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. December 2019.

“Holmgang”Wikipedia contributors. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. December 2019.

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