Dr. Steven Isaac is a professor of medieval history at Longwood University in Virginia. In this essay, he puts the concept of trial by combat we see in Game of Thrones in a historical context. If you're not caught up on the current season, there are spoilers below.
In one of the newest wrinkles being ironed out on the hit HBO series Game of Thrones, Tyrion Lannister, accused of killing his nephew the king, finds a surprising ally—at least they have one common purpose—in Prince Oberyn Martell. Conclusion of the fight aside, Martell's motives are personal: he seeks vengeance, not Tyrion's innocence, as he agrees to champion the Imp in a trial by combat.
All of this is vintage George R.R. Martin: the complexity of motives and the sophistication of move, counter-move and bluff layered into his tale. Clichéd views of medieval justice have portrayed the practices of the ordeal [a means of determining guilt or innocence by subjecting the accused to dangerous or painful tests under the belief that their survival was under supernatural control] and of trial by combat as last gasps of superstitious ignorance, as desperate appeals to God for lack of better options, before the Renaissance and the Enlightenment gave us proper rules of evidence and legal procedure. Martin's narrative shows everyone—Tyrion, Cersei, Oberyn and still others—calculating to the nth degree the advantages to be had in each manipulation of the rules.
Such sophistication was perfectly typical of the Middle Ages.
For starters, medieval litigants knew full well that justice was far from blind, that she was, in fact, wholly open to manipulation. It was one of the reasons they eventually turned away from using the ordeal as a way to verify the truth of testimony. The ordeals by fire/iron or by water were ways to test the truthfulness of witnesses, especially when so many cases were of the "he said/she said" variety. Admittedly, a first glance at medieval documents makes it seem that these were the preferred solution almost everywhere.
The real point was that the lengthy and complex preparations for an ordeal gave the contending litigants time to cool down, even to seek a compromise. Or, they could explain a "guilty" verdict as the result of having bungled the rituals.
An oft-cited study by Prof. Stephen White describes how many complainants (including one unfortunate man literally named Bunghole) often proposed to undergo an ordeal, all while intending to force a resolution and thereby avoid the actual pain of the ordeal. Looking at the evidence just for one area of France, Bruno Lemesle has trimmed down White's percentages, but still less than half of the proposed ordeals took place. More telling, only about 10-13 percent of litigants even tested the possibility of using the ordeal. Instead, suit, counter-suit and eventually compromise dominated the negotiations.
There were always those, like Cersei in Westeros, less interested in compromise than in having their own way. William the Conqueror's son, William Rufus, saw a peasant cleared by the ordeal of hot iron over a charge of killing one of the king's deer. Infuriated, he asked: "Is God a good judge? To hell with anyone who thinks so! He'll answer for this according to my good judgment and not God's, which gets bent this way and that according to the will of each person."
In some ways, trial by combat avoided such human interference. Whatever the outcome, it was definitive. This may explain why its popularity continued well into the later Middle Ages.
And yet the human element was still utterly present. Trial by combat, or the judicial duel, remained popular longer than the ordeal, but it was far less practiced, perhaps for the very reason that it was so definitive. Lemesle found that barely one out of every two ordeals went the distance of being undertaken. For actual combats, however, the ratio fell to one out of seven. One conclusion is that the very stunt of proposing a duel was such an aggressive negotiating stance that it compelled the other side to the bargaining table.
Not surprisingly, those involved in such affairs played to win. In 1080, the monks of Saint-Florent de Saumur balked at a challenge, explaining that no matter what happened, they would end up countenancing a homicide. But they were an exception. Many other churchmen (and women!) had fewer qualms. In 1069 the abbey of Marmoutier tried to slip in a ringer for a combat, but their opponents, the monks of La Trinité, saw through it, recognizing the man in question as a fighter that others regularly bet on in such duels. Having lost their ace, the monks of Marmoutier accepted a negotiated settlement.
I was recently summoned for jury duty. It turned out dully: no Lannister backstabbing, no histrionics, and certainly no physical combat. But the teams lined up. We jurors took our places. And the defendant accepted a plea bargain in seconds.
Not everyone is as desperate as Tyrion, or as obsessively vengeful as Prince Oberyn. Not even back in the Middle Ages.