Trial by combat would seem to be a thing of the past, or something found in historical fiction like Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe or the TV series Game of Thrones, where Tyrion Lannister demands a judicial duel to resolve a murder charge against him. But appeals for it still crop up occasionally in today’s news. Just last month, shortly before the January 6 assault on the Capitol, Rudy Giuliani told “thousands of fired-up pro-Trump protestors that they should contest the election results via ‘trial by combat.’(Giuliani later claimed that he had merely been referring to “Game of Thrones.”)” And as recently as January 2020, a Kansas lawyer called for “trial by combat” (with samurai swords) against his estranged wife and her attorney to resolve a child custody suit.
People today often have a hard time understanding how medieval society could have expected a judicial duel — often a fight to the death in criminal cases — to provide a fair conclusion to a legal dispute. A duel seems tantamount to a throw of the dice, or, worse, a thinly disguised form of the deeply flawed notion that might makes right.
The fact that trial by combat, also known as “the judgment of God,” traditionally looked to heaven to assure a just and fair verdict only makes the whole thing seem even more preposterous to us today — although Guiliani’s appeal for it seemed to go down well with his crowd of Trump supporters.
The famous Carrouges-Le Gris affair of 1386, where a case of alleged rape was ultimately resolved by combat, was reputedly the last such combat ever ordered by the Parlement of Paris, although court-sanctioned duels continued to be fought in other parts of Europe long afterwards. My book The Last Duel (Broadway, 2004) explores this very controversial case and is also the basis of the Ridley Scott film of the same title to be released in October. Matt Damon, Adam Driver, and Jodie Comer play, respectively, the knight, the squire and the noblewoman caught up in the celebrated affair, which became the fourteenth-century equivalent of a high-profile celebrity scandal today.
Categories: European History