“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.