Trial by combat
40s depiction of a 1409 judicial combat in Augsburg (Paulus Hector Mair, Munich cod. icon. 393)
Trial by combat (also wager of battle, trial by battle or judicial duel) 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 is a judicially sanctioned duel. It remained in use throughout the European Middle Ages, gradually disappearing in the course of the 16th century.
OriginsUnlike 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 Burgundians, Ripuarian Franks, Alamans, Lombards, and Swedes (but is notably absent from Anglo-Saxon law). It was unknown in Roman law and does not figure in the traditions of oriental antiquity such as the code of Hammurabi or theTorah.
The practice is regulated in various Germanic legal codes. 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 combat. TheSachsenspiegel prescribes combat with sword and shield, while the Schwabenspiegelprescribes combat with shields and wooden clubs. The Lex Alamannorum (recensio Lantfridana 81, dated to 712–30 AD) prescribes a trial by combat in the event of two families disputing the boundary between their lands. A handful of earth taken from the disputed piece of land is put between the contestants and they are required to touch it with their swords, each swearing that their claim is lawful. The losing party besides forfeiting their claim to the land is required to pay a fine.
Capitularies governing its use appear from the year 803 onwards (Boretius 1.117).Louis the Pious prescribed combat between witnesses of each side rather than between the accuser and the accused, and briefly allowed for the Ordeal of the Crossin cases involving clerics.
In medieval Scandinavia, the practice survived throughout the Viking Age in the form of the Holmgang.
London and sometime Fellow and Lecturer of
Girton College, Cambridge
First published, 1924
my colleagues and students
at Girton College, Cambridge
Social history sometimes suffers from the reproach that it is vague and general, unable to compete with the attractions of political history either for the student or for the general reader, because of its lack of outstanding personalities. In point of fact there is often as much material for reconstructing the life of some quite ordinary person as there is for writing a history of Robert of Normandy or of Philippa of Hainault; and the lives of ordinary people so reconstructed are, if less spectacular, certainly not less interesting. I believe that social history lends itself particularly to what may be called a personal treatment, and that the past may be made to live again for the general reader more effectively by personifying it than by presenting it in the form of learned treatises on the development of the manor or on medieval trade, essential as these are to the specialist. For history, after all, is valuable only in so far as it lives, and Maeterlinck's cry, 'There are no dead', should always be the historian's motto. It is the idea that history is about dead people, or, worse still, about movements and conditions which seem but vaguely related to the labours and passions of flesh and blood, which has driven history from bookshelves where the historical novel still finds a welcome place.
In the following series of sketches I have tried to illustrate at the same time various aspects of social life in the Middle Ages and various classes of historical material. Thus Bodo illustrates peasant life, and an early phase of a typical medieval estate; Marco Polo, Venetian trade with the East; Madame Eglentyne, monastic life; the Ménagier's wife, domestic life in a middle-class home, and medieval ideas about women; Thomas Betson, the wool trade, and the activities of the great English trading company of Merchants of the Staple; and Thomas Paycocke, the cloth industry in East Anglia. They are all quite ordinary people and unknown to fame, with the exception [pg viii]of Marco Polo. The types of historical evidence illustrated are the estate book of a manorial lord, the chronicle and traveller's tale, the bishop's register, the didactic treatise in household management, the collection of family letters, and houses, brasses, and wills. At the end of the book I have added a bibliography of the sources which form the raw material for my reconstructions, and a few additional notes and references. I hope that this modest attempt to bring to life again some of 'our fathers that begat us', may perhaps interest for an hour or two the general reader, or the teacher, who wishes to make more concrete by personification some of the general facts of medieval social and economic history.
My thanks are due to my publishers, Messrs. Methuen and Co., for allowing me to incorporate in Chapter VI the greater part of a chapter in my book 'The Paycockes of Coggeshall', and to the Cambridge University Press for similarly allowing me to repeat in Chapter III a few sentences from my study of 'Medieval English Nunneries'. I have also to thank my friends Miss M.G. Jones and Miss H.M.R. Murray of Girton College, Cambridge, for various suggestions and criticisms, and my sister Miss Rhoda Power for making the index.
London School of Economics and Political Science
University of London
Preface to the Tenth Edition
For years after the first edition of Medieval People had come out, Eileen Power collected notes and made plans for several essays to be included in an enlarged edition of the book. Of these essays only one, "The Precursors", had been written out in full before she died; and it has now been added to the present edition. In its published form it is not in every respect identical with the author's original text.
The essay was taking shape as Munich came and went and as the war itself was drawing near. No historian writing at that time about Rome menaced by the barbarians--and least of all an historian as sensitive to the extra-mural world as Eileen Power was--could have helped noting the similarities between the Roman Empire in the fifth or sixth centuries and Europe in the nineteen-thirties. In the end, having finished the essay, she decided to withold it from publication for the time being and to present it instead to a friendly audience as a tract for the times. This she did at a meeting of the Cambridge History Club in the winter of 1938: and for that occasion she replaced the opening and concluding pages of the original essay with passages, or rather notes for passages, more suited to the purpose.
I am sure that she never intended these passages to be perpetuated in her Medieval People and I have therefore done what I could to replace them with a reconstructed version of her first draft. The reconstruction had to be done from somewhat disjointed notes and cannot therefore be word-faithful. The readers must therefore bear in mind that the first two and the last page of the essay are mere approximations to what Eileen Power in fact wrote.