Divorce Duels: Medieval Trial by Combat

Divorces are usually pretty messy: Families unravel, mutual friends are forced to choose sides and children get caught in the crossfire. Medieval Germany took “messy” to a whole new level. In 1467,German fencing master Hans Talhoffer created the “Fechtbuch” or “Fight Book.” This combat manual contained various detailed images of men and women fighting to the death. These “divorce duels” were a last resort in settling marital disputes or ensuring a judge’s impartiality. 

The images, attached with specific combat instructions,  are quite shocking. The images provide both genders with tips and strategies to thwart their spouse-turned-opponent. 

Historical analysis shows that divorce duels were real and actually kind of common. Let’s take a look through the intense history of spousal combat!

Adam Driver gif screaming “And Die!” 
Can you imagine if this couple had to do a divorce duel…

The Origins of Judicial Duels

According to University of Oklahoma Associate Professor Kenneth L. Hodges, trial by combat started to fade out as the Middle Ages drew to a close. But, it was still a part of the accepted legal theory throughout the Renaissance.

You may be wondering: Why would an established legal system still allow duels at all? One of the reasons is that judges operated as extensions of the king. Therefore, accusations of treason pitted the defendant against the sovereign himself. 

So, in order to keep things fair and square, the accused could demand trial by combat. This trial was an impartial battle against whoever the king put up to fight. Guilt or innocence was determined by the survivor. 

Painting of medieval duel with two men battling in the center of a crowd.
udicial duel between Marshal Wilhelm von Dornsberg and Theodor Haschenacker in the Augsburg wine market (1409). Dornsberg’s sword broke early in the duel, but he succeeded to kill Haschenacker with his own sword. Image Source: Medievalists

Why Women Chose Divorce Duels

Hodges research also showed it was very common for men and women to settle marital disputes in state-sanctioned combat. But there are some skeptics who find this claim surprising, if not unlikely. 

This is for a couple of reasons:First, the woman was at an obvious physical disadvantage. In addition, women were subjugated to an overwhelming amount of religious and political discrimination that would never allow them a real shot at hurting a man. 

But, Talhoffer’s manual and further research revealed understandable reasons why a woman might want or have to take the risk. 

For example, the man she would normally pick to fight on her behalf is the man she’d *currently* be trying to kill. So, she has to fight instead. Also, the legal system went through almost comical lengths to provide an “even” playing field. 

Talhoffer’s images show the man positioned in a hole with a club and the woman standing above him with a rock-filled cloth. Sure, seems fair enough… 

The idea was that both weapons would be the same length. And the woman would be given an advantage in mobility. But, Talhoffer’s descriptions of how the fights could occur were even more crazy.

Rendering of woman swinging stone-sling down at man in hole with club.
In Germany, during Medieval times, domestic differences were settled by judicial duels between man and wife. Image Source: Wondermark

Talhoffer’s Tips on Divorce Duels

As a combat expert, Talhoffer was definitely qualified to imagine and document all of the different strategic moves a battling husband and wife could use to settle a dispute. Divorce duels in medieval Germany must have been a sight to behold (as seen below in Talhoffer’s descriptions).

Scroll and take a look at these combat photos! 

divorce duels - Women swing stone-sling at man in hole holding club. 
Talhoffer’s description: “Here the woman stands free and wishes to strike; she has in the cloth a stone that weighs four or five pounds. He stands in a hole up to his waist, and his club is as long as her sling.” Image Source: Kenneth L. Hodges
divorce duels - Man in hole dragging woman toward him
Talhoffer’s description: Here she has struck a blow. Now he has deflected the blow and caught it, and wishes to pull her to him and subdue her. Image Source: Kenneth L. Hodges
Woman strangles man in the hole in divorce duel
Talhoffer’s description: “Here she has laid him on his back and wishes to strangle him and drag him out of the hole.” Image Source: Kenneth L. Hodges

If only these couples had the guys from Wedding Crashers to help mediate!

Share the Post:

Read These Next

The Reign of Terror

Dear History Enthusiast, In this special edition of the Historyinmemes Newsletter, we delve into a tumultuous period of history marked

Read More

Disaster Strikes

Dear History Enthusiast, In this edition of the Historyinmemes Newsletter, we journey back in time to the ancient Roman city

Read More

Woodstock Festival

Dear History Enthusiast, In this special edition of the Historyinmemes Newsletter, we journey back to the iconic Woodstock Festival, a

Read More

The Clovis People

Dear History Enthusiast, In this special edition of the Historyinmemes Newsletter, we journey back in time to uncover the mysteries

Read More

The Trail of Tears

Dear History Enthusiast, In this special edition of the Historyinmemes Newsletter, we delve into the heart-wrenching chapter of American history

Read More