The Real Medieval History Behind Game of Thrones' Trial by Combat

The Mountain and the Viper fought savagely, but so did people in middle-ages judicial affairs.
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“Trial by combat: Deciding a man’s guilt or innocence in the eyes of the gods by having two other men hack each other to pieces. It tells you something about the gods.”

That’s Tyrion Lannister on Sunday night’s Game of Thrones, in a bit of dialogue that felt like a flash of self-awareness for the show. As scintillating and horrifying as the fight between Prince Oberyn and Gregor Clegane was, you might argue the entire verdict-by-duel plotline has seemed a little far-fetched. The Lannisters seem anything but devout. Why would they stake the future of their family on observance of a showy, unpredictable, religious ritual?

But it’s worth noting that the HBO show and the George R.R. Martin novels from which they’re adapted, if anything, downplay just how savage and illogical real-life medieval judicial proceedings could be. In societies around the world throughout history, guilt and innocence has more-than-occasionally been ascertained in “trial by ordeal.” Reading the Wikipedia page on the phenomenon is as harrowing as watching any given Ramsay Bolton scene. In some cases, the accused were made to pluck a stone from a cauldron of boiling water, oil, or lead; if their skin didn’t burn off, they were judged innocent. In other cases, the guilty were believed to be those who suffered grave injuries from walking across hot iron, or ingesting poison.  

Trials by combat happened less frequently than trial by ordeal, but persisted in history for longer, according to Steven Isaac, a professor of medieval history at Longwood University. At Longwood’s website, Isaac writes of a Flemish murder inquiry in the 12th century that was resolved in a duel distinctly recalling the one we just saw on Thrones:

Eventually, Iron Herman was on the ground prostrate and seemingly finished. As Guy prepared to deliver the coup de grâce, Herman saw and took a brutal path to victory. From his place on the ground, he reached up and grabbed Guy’s testicles, held on to them tight, and then shoved Guy aside without loosening his grip. With all his "lower parts broken apart," Guy admitted defeat, an admission that saw him hanged a few hours later for his (now proven) treachery.

But unlike the Martell/Clegane showdown, real trials by combat were often governed by rules to ensure they weren’t David/Goliath affairs—competitors were to use similar weapons, be of similar skill levels, etc. “The difference in armor—the Mountain encased in plate mail, the Red Viper in a light byrnie and boiled leathers—would not have been allowed,” Isaac writes. “The offensive weapons would likewise have been kept within similar bounds.”

Of course, strict historical accuracy isn’t at all the point of Thrones. But Martin has repeatedly said that he does want to ground Westeros in the real world. The Purple Wedding and Red Wedding, for example, recall events that actually did happen. So the show's latest bloody, skull-busting, twist-laden scene wasn’t just good TV. Seen in the context of the sick ways that humans have dealt with each other for millennia, Thrones is less of a fantasy than we might hope.

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Spencer Kornhaber is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he edits the Entertainment channel. More

Before coming to The Atlantic, he worked as an editor for AOL's Patch.com and as a staff writer at Village Voice Media's OC Weekly. He has also written for Spin, The AV Club, RollingStone.com, Field & Stream, and The Orange County Register.

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