Trial by Combat: a Middle Age judicial way of solving differences and "legal cases"

The trial by combat (also bet of battle, trial by battle or judicial duel) was a method, born out of the Germanics tribal laws, to solve the accusations in the absence of witnesses or a confession in which two disputing parties fought in a single combat; the winner of the fight was proclaimed to be right. In essence, it was a duel judicially sanctioned. It remained in use throughout the European Middle Ages, gradually disappearing throughout the 16th century.


Unlike the trial by ordeal, which will be the specific subject of a future post, the trial by combat is known mainly by the customs of the Germanic peoples. It was in use among the ancient Burgundians, Ripuar Franks, Alemanni, Lombards, and Swedes. It was unknown in Anglo-Saxon law, Roman law, and Irish Brehon law and does not figure in ancient Middle Eastern traditions such as the Hammurabi code or the Torah.


The practice is regulated in various Germanic legal codes. Rooted in Germanic tribal law, the various regional laws of the Frankish Empire (and the later Holy Roman Empire) prescribed different details, such as equipment and rules of engagement. For example, the Lex Alamannorum (Lantfridana recension 81, dated between 712 and 730 AD) prescribes a trial by combat in the event that two families dispute the boundary between their lands. A handful of land taken from the disputed land is placed between the contenders and they are asked to touch it with their swords, each swearing that their claim is legal. The losing party, in addition to losing their right to the land, must pay a fine.


Historical example of this type of duel was the one that took place in the 1540s of a judicial combat in Augsburg in 1409, between Marshal Wilhelm von Dornsberg and Theodor Haschenacker, in this combat Dornsberg's sword was broken at the beginning of the duel, but he eventually killed Haschenacker with his own sword.


Another example of these judicial duels was the one between Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris, which has inspired Ridley Scott's latest film, and whose final outcome we are not going to reveal in this post so as not to spoil the end for those who want to see the film which is currently in movie theaters.

7 views0 comments