single combat



Marital duels

Marital duel
A judicial duel between an unarmed man in a pit and his wife armed with wrapped stone
From the Solothurner Fechtbuch ('Fight-book') of 1423.

Русская версия

Marital duel Trial by combat (or judicial duel, judicial combat) was a method of Germanic law to settle accusations in the absence of witnesses or a confession in which two parties in dispute fought in single combat; the winner of the fight was proclaimed to be right. In essence, it was a judicially sanctioned duel. It remained in use throughout the European Middle Ages, gradually disappearing in the course of the 16th century. Unlike trial by ordeal in general, which is known to many cultures worldwide, the trial by combat is known primarily from the customs of the Germanic peoples. It was in use among the ancient Germanic tribes while it was unknown in Anglo-Saxon law. Neither it was known in Roman law and does not figure in the traditions of oriental antiquity such as the code of Hammurabi or the Torah. Being rooted in Germanic tribal law, the various regional laws of the Frankish Empire (and the later Holy Roman Empire) prescribed different particulars, such as equipment and rules of judicial combat. One of the forms of judicial duel was so-called marital duels (or conjugal duels) in which a husband and a wife physically prove their case in domestic disputes. In an effort to even the field, husbands were ordered to fight while confined to a shallow pit with one arm tied to his body.

As opposed to single combat challenges such as chivalric duels or later private duels of honor, in the Medieval Ages in some regions of Europe, mostly in German principalities disputing parties would be obliged by authority to enter into a judicial combat. Such occasions could be huge spectacles for the community. Participants might be typically given a month or two to prepare. Certain formalities and ritual – varying from place to place - dictated the setting and conditions. In fact, besides civic and felon cases, the judicial combat sometimes was used as a tool for solving domestic disputes between husband and wife. The marital combat rules required to wear special attire – different in different places. Usually, competing husband and wife were required to wear a tight-fitting body suit with a hood (perhaps a ritual or burial outfit), as it was depicted in the 15th century fighting manual written by Hans Talhoffer. Another form of attire for a female participant was a special long chemise with an extended sack-like closed sleeve (in which a stone was placed) was required as the only clothing for a wife fighting against her husband as it as it was depicted in the 14th century fighting manual written by Paulus Kal.

So, in some regions of medieval Europe (more truly in the Holy Roman Empire), a wife might be allowed to fight her husband, with rigorous conditions being imposed to make the duel a fair one. There are a few written testimonies about such combats. In the year 1200 a man and his wife fought under the sanction of the civic authorities at Bale, in Switzerland. In 1228, a woman fought her husband in Berne, Switzerland, and soundly defeated him. German law provided that in such a case the man should be armed with three wooden clubs. He was to put be up to his waist in a three-foot wide hole dug in the ground, with one hand tied behind his back. The woman was to be armed with three rocks, each weighing between one and five pounds, and each one wrapped in cloth in form of a small sack. The man could not leave his hole but the woman was free to run around the edge of the pit. If the man touched the edge of the pit with either his hand or his arm, he had to surrender one of his clubs to the judges. If the woman hit him with a rock while he was doing so, she forfeited one of her stones. Bizarre as it may seem to us today, this marital duel was very far from play-acting. In the early Medieval Era, for both parties, the penalty for defeat could be death. If the woman won, the man was executed; if the man won, the woman was buried alive. Later, the terms seemed to be softened.

Marital duel So, let’s make some observations based on the unique series of pictures from the 15th and 16th centuries, depicting judicial duels between husbands and wives. Judging from the illustrations, these marital combats were generally inelegant affairs of sticks and stones, although in one picture husband and wife are armed with knives. Both are bare to the waist, and both have drawn blood. The most of other pictures illustrate the more usual form of combat in which differences in strength were compensated for. The first of three drawings by Paulus Kal, master of defense of the duke of Bavaria, from a manuscript from 1400, depicts the wife wearing the long chemise fastened between the legs and with a three-pound stone tied in the right sleeve, is about to assault her husband. He stands in a pit up to his waist. His left arm is tied to his side and he defends himself with a stick. The manuscript describes many types of judicial duel fought by variety of people with the variety of weapons – daggers, swords, lances, staves, spades, sandbags, and stones. The picture is accompanied by the following explanation:

"The woman must be so prepared that a sleeve of her chemise extend a small ell [18 inches] beyond her hand like a little sack. There indeed is put a stone weighing three pounds; and she has nothing else but her chemise, and that is bound together between the legs with a lace. Then the man made himself ready against his wife. He is buried therein up to the girdle, and one hand is bound at the elbow to the side."

The set of the three pictures in the Kal’s manuscript depicting a fight between a man and a woman represents the man appearing to be holding the stick in such a manner that the sling in which the stone was contained would twist round it, and the woman would thus be at the mercy of her opponent. In reality, he dropped his stick and got the sack to twist around his hand.

The most comprehensive illustrations of marital combats are contained in the 15th century fighting manual written by Hans Talhoffer. The nine pictures (at the right) depict husband and wife in various combat positions which are supposed to illustrate different techniques and different possible outcomes of such a fight. Talhoffer seems to assume that either party has equal chances to win the combat. The conditions of this marital combat are quite similar to what Paulus Kal depicted a century before. However, Talhoffer’s, male and female duelists wear a tight-fitting body suit (perhaps a ritual or burial outfit) equipped with a hood, resembling a catsuit (while Kan’s female fighter wore a chemise and nothing else). The wife attacks her husband with a piece of cloth sewn to the suit which contains a weight.

In fact, there are no sources allowing assessing real chances of the sides in such duels. While Talhoffer equally considers either outcome, the chances of a woman fighting with a stone in a sack or in chemise’s sleeve, to win such a duel do not seem to be high -- once her opponent grasped her by the sack or the long sleeve, he would be able to use his physical advantages and could drag her into the hole upside down (as it was depicted at one of Talhoffer’s illustrations) or to snatch out her sack or tear off her sleeve. At the title illustration above, the man appears to be unarmed, but obviously still able to defend himself.

Marital duel As a matter of fact, judicial duels were common enough in the medieval and early modern period to merit etiquette books; but according to professor Allison Coudert from University of California, ‘nowhere except in the Holy Roman Empire were judicial duels even considered fitting means to settle marital disputes, and no record of such a duel has been found after 1200, at which time a couple is reported to have fought with the sanction of the civic authorities at Bale. How then can we explain the late dates of these pictures? My hypothesis is that later authors copied them from earlier manuscripts and included them, along with pictures of other outmoded dueling practices, to make their treatises as historically comprehensive as possible. [According to historical sources,] by the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, law, custom, and religion were so stacked against aggressive and unruly wives that it is impossible to imagine civic authorities in any part of Europe condoning a wife’s attack on her husband with a stone much less with a sword. According to a fourteen century customary law, it was a crime in some places for husbands to allow themselves to be beaten by their wives.” This is the opinion of Allison Coudert. However, the manuscripts by Paulus Kal and Hans Talhoffer are also serious historical documents, so the latest occasions of marital duels are still obscure.

A brief analysis of the combat techniques depicted on other Talhoffer’s pictures can be found in the article written by the Associate Professor Kenneth L. Hodges from the University of Oklahoma.


Trial by combat

Paulus Kal Fechtbuch (Cgm 1507)

Paulus Kal Fechtbuch (MS KK5126)

Talhoffer's Medieval Fight Book Blog

Hans Talhoffer. Fewchtbuch (pages 162-170)

Hans Talhoffer. Fewchtbuc (Kapitel 11) (Marital duel techniques)

Comments to Hans Talhoffer's marital duel illustrations by Kenneth L. Hodges

Medieval Fencing manuals. List

Conjugal Duels

Judicial duels between husbands and wives by Allison Coudert

Revolted Woman: Past, Present, and to Come (Google eBook)

Combat Instead of Trial. FSCC

Some more illustrations from the book
"Medieval Combat, A 15th C Illustrated Manual of Sword Fighting and Close-Quarter Combat by Hans Talhoffer"

Marital duel
Opening position for a marital duel. The man must stand in a pit up to his waist armed with a wooden mace. The woman stands above him on the ground with a stone tied in her veil. The mace must be as long as her veil.

Marital duel
Common technique by the man to strike her attack aside. The woman aims her stone at the man. He lets the veil wrap around his arm which give him control over her in the fight.

Marital duel
The woman winds her veil around the man's throat to strangle him while the man strikes her in the chest with his mace.

Marital duel
The woman has the man locked in a hold by the neck and the groin and pulls him out of the pit.

These illustrations show the techniques that can be employed by each party and the potential outcomes of the duel

Marital duel
The woman means to strike her husband with a stone in her veil; he stands in the pit up to the waist armed with a wooden mace.

Marital duel
She tries to strike him; he has displaced the stroke and trapped it wrapping her veil around his mace.

Marital duel
He uses the trapped veil as leverage and takes her down to the ground.

Marital duel
She breaks free of his hold, presses against his mace and gets her arm and her veil around his neck meaning to throttle him.

Marital duel
She grasps him by his hood from behind and means to break his back helping with her leg.

Marital duel
He draws her to him and throwing her into the pit upside down.

Marital duel
As she holds him by his hood and means to strike, he manages to shove his mace between her legs.

Marital duel
She pulled him from the pit, broke him on the back trying choking him.

Marital duel
The exchange with strokes; her legs and his forehead are bleeding; blood is visible at his mace.

Illustrations from the Paulus Kal's fightbook
"Paulus Kal Fechtbuch (Cgm 1507)"

Marital duel
The woman wearing just a chemise armed with a three-pound stone tied in the right sleeve, is about to assault her husband. He stands in a pit up to his waist; his left arm is tied to his side and he defends himself with a short stick.

Marital duel
The woman hits her husband in the head by the stone wrapped in the cloth while he is able to defend himself by the stick and counter attack trapping her cloth winding it round his stick.

Marital duel
The man drops off his stick and winds her sleeve with the stone round his arm in attempts to take control over his wife. However, his right arm is busy holding her sleeve while the left arm is tied to his side, so he doesn't have too many options but to move of pull her sharply in attempts to get her out of balance and then to try choking her by one hand or grab the dropped stick and beat her up while she lies supine. At the same time, she has an advantage of the free left arm which can be used to attempt choking him.

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Last updated: November 28, 2013

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