As every attentive history student knows, trial by combat was a means of resolving disputes in early medieval Europe. If one party alleged criminal conduct or a grievance against another, without witnesses or evidence, the judge or lord might order the matter to be settled by combat. Whichever party emerged victorious – and remained alive – was considered vindicated both by God and the law.
Trial by combat was practised at various times all over Europe, though it was more common in the German-speaking regions. Needless to say, it was an ineffective and brutal means of dispensing justice.
One graphic account of trial by combat was recorded by the 12th-century chronicler Galbert of Bruges. In April 1127, a knight named Guy of Steenvoorde was suspected of involvement in the murder of Count Charles of Flanders. Guy was ordered to trial by combat against a loyalist knight named Herman the Iron – but it did not go well for the defendant:
“Guy unhorsed his adversary and pinned him down with his lance… Then [Herman] disembowelled Guy’s horse by running at him with his sword. Guy, having fallen from his horse, rushed at Herman with his sword drawn. There was a long and bitter struggle with clashing of swords, until both were exhausted [and] fell to wrestling. Herman fell on the ground and Guy did lay upon him, beating his face and eyes with iron gauntlets. But Herman lay prostrate, regained his strength from the cool of the earth and lay quiet, leading Guy to believe that he was victorious. But Herman moved his hand to Guy’s cuirass [apron armour] where he was not protected and seized him by the testicles, and summoning all his might hurled Guy from him. By this motion, all the lower parts of Guy’s body were broken [and he] gave up, crying out that he was beaten and was dying.”
Herman the Iron was declared victorious and Guy of Steenvoorde was dragged to the gallows, where he was finished off alongside other conspirators.