Medieval Divorce Duels Were A Wild (But Fair) Brawl

Till death by blunt trauma do them part.
Medieval Divorce Duels Were A Wild (But Fair) Brawl

As we've mentioned previously, getting a divorce in the Middle Ages was a hard process -- literally. The only way a man could stop his wife from leaving him was to get a full-blown erection in the middle of a cold, calculating courtroom proving he was up to the task to perform his sacred husbandly duties. But if they wanted to avoid the ignominy of pushing rope in front of a judge, there was one way to dig themselves out of that hole. All they needed to do was to invoke the ancient rite of trial by combat. And then crawl back into the hole.

Medieval trial by combat typically adhered to ethical hitman rules: no women, no children, no lepers. These were at the mercy of their champions, men willing to fight in their stead. But there was one exception: marital disputes. Since a wife would have a hard time talking her husband into picking a fight with himself (and if she could, why get divorced at all), European courts allowed her the rare privilege of picking up arms herself. 

And, even better, be allowed to wear pants for the first time in her life. 

This practice was commonplace and weird enough to warrant an entire chapter in the dueling manual written by legendary fencing instructor Hans Talhoffer. In his 1467 book, Talhoffer showcases the insane lengths judges went to make the husband-and-wife duel a fair fight. As opposed to regular duels, the defendant wasn't allowed to pick their weapon of choice. Women, unaccustomed to the tools of war, were given the Medieval equivalent of a prison tube sock filled with used batteries -- a rock wrapped in a piece of cloth. 

She would’ve been allowed to wield a shank, but the toothbrush hadn't been invented yet.

Men, on the other hand, got to fight with a wooden club of equal length. If that doesn't seem fair at all -- the judges agreed. That's why they had to do it with one hand tied behind their back while standing chest-deep in a three-foot-wide hole. 

Maybe couples counseling wasn’t such a bad idea, after all.

But as the wife was gearing up to play some Whack-a-Mole, the duel was more like a game of Operation for the husband. Touching the sides of the hole meant forfeiting one of his three available clubs. Set off the invisible buzzer three times, and he had to continue unarmed As Talhoffer illustrates, this would often result in the duel turning into a lopsided wrestling match with the husband desperately trying to pull his wife into the hole before she used years of pent up anger to cave his head in like an overripe melon.

If only he had pulled that move more often when they were married, maybe they’d still be together.

For all its strange sexism, the rules of the marital duels did seem to work in the woman's favor as there are several recorded occasions of a scorned wife towel-flicking her terrible husband into submission. And while marital Duels were typically not to the death, someone was always bound to die. If the man lost, he was to be executed with honor in the town square. And if the woman lost, it was her time to go into a hole to be buried alive. It just goes to show that progress is always two steps forward, one step back -- into a chest-high hole.  

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Top Image: Clauss Pflieger


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