Trial By Combat between a Man and a Woman

Associate Professor Kenneth L. Hodges
University of Oklahoma

Trial by combat (or, more formally, judicial duels) were increasingly unusual by the end of the middle ages, but they were still an accepted part of legal theory and practice through the renaissance. They could be used in cases of treason (since judges were agents of the king, and the king was the offended party, it was a way to preserve impartiality) and a variety of other criminal and civil cases where there was not overwhelming evidence on one side or the other. Only a few people were exempt - clergymen, for instance - and women were not among them. As a result, women sometimes fought.

In 1467, Hans Talhoffer wrote his Fechtbuch giving illustrated instructions on how duels with a great variety of weapons should be fought. One section deals with combats between a man a woman. R. Coltman Clephan, following R.L Pearsall, reports that, while these were rare in Germany after about 1200, a number of illustrations refer to them. The set-up pictured by Talhoffer is common, but not universal. Apparently, they were most common between husband and wife (because otherwise she would have less trouble finding a champion?) Talhoffer presents his isntructions without special comment, and his advice applies to both combatants. He gives two different versions of a fight, one with the man victorious, one with the woman winning.

The pictures reproduced below are scanned from xeroxes of a facsimile of the manuscript edited by Gustav Hersgsell in 1887. The transcription of the original German is from the facsimile; the English translation and commentary are mine.

Da Statt Wie Man vnd Frowen / mit ainander kempffen soellen vnd / stand hie In dem anfanng.
Da statt die frow / fry vnd wyl schlahen vnd / hatt ain stain In dem Sleer / wigt vier oder finf pfund.
So statt er In der / gruben bis an die / waichin vnd ist / der kold so lang / als Ir der Schleeer / von der hand.

Here is how a man and woman should fight each other, and this is how they begin.
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.

Comments: The setup shows that, while it was definitely not inconceivable for a woman to fight, she was presumed to be much less skillful than a man. Talhoffer does not present this fight as anything novel. This section is tucked in toward the end without comment, and this beginning is very matter-of-fact for what was probably a very rare kind of fight. Her clothing (a one-piece body suit with stirrup legs) is practical rather than flattering, and Talhoffer's following descriptions seem to be useful fighting advice: he is taking this seriously, not exoticizing it.

Hie hatt Sie ain schlag / volbracht.
Nun hatt er den schlag versetzt / vnd gefangen vnd wyl Sie zu / Im ziehen vnd noetten.

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.

Comments: Talhoffer seems, as far as I can tell, to favor a defensive style in which the defender exploits an attacker's vulnerabilities - unfortunate for the woman who must come to the immobilized man.

Da hatt er sie zu Im gezogen vnd vnder sich / geworffen vnd wyl sie wuergen.

Here he has pulled her to him and thrown her down and wishes to strangle her.

Da hatt sie sich vsz Im gebrochen vnd vnderstatt / Sie In zu wirgen.

Here she has broken away from him and attempts to strangle him.

Comments: Once again, the defender has exploited the attacker's weakness. She needs to take care: with his hands underneath him, he should have the leverage to move her. A lot of fights with weapons come down to wrestling, once the "in-fight" is joined (think of Hamlet, where the decisive move is Hamlet's disarming of Laertes). Modern fencing prohibits bodily contact, so this tends to be forgotten.

Hie hatt sie In gebracht an den Rucken vnd / wyl In wirgen vnd ziehen vsz der grub.

Here she has laid him on his back and wishes to strangle him and drag him out of the hole.

Comments: she has gotten rid of his leverage by arching him back over her knee, but his two hands are free while hers are immobilized.

Da hatt er sie zu Im / gezuckt vnd wuerfft sie / In die gruben.

Here he has pulled her to him and thrown her in the hole.

Comments: This is an ending of the fight with the man victorious.

Als sie schlahen wyl So ist sie Im zu / nach Tretten das er sie ergryfft by / dem schenckel vnd wirt sie fellen.

Since she wishes to strike, she has stepped too close to him, so that he grabs her leg and will throw her.

This is evidently the beginning of a new fight. The emphasis on maintaining the right distance is basic to all martial arts, and her mistake is a common one (not just for beginners).

So schlecht er sie Fuer die brust.
Da hatt sie Im den schloeer vmb den / hals geschlagen vnd wyl In wuergen.

Here he strikes her on the chest.
Here she has wrapped the sling around his neck and wishes to strangle him.

Da hatt sie In gefaszt by dem halsz vnd by sinem / zug vnd wyl In vsz der gruben ziehen.

Here she has grabbed by the neck and by his member and wishes to drag him out of the hole.

Comments: I do not know if dragging him out of the hole or her into it constitute a victory condition short of death or disablement. Here, she has him fairly effectively pinned, so this is a victory for her. Since Talhoffer includes advice for her on how to fight, one assumes he considered the possibility of having women as part of the potential audience for his book.


  1. Clephan, R. Coltman. The Medieval Tournament. Mineola, NY: Dover, 1995. Originally published as The Tournament: Its Periods and Phases London: Methuen, 1919.
  2. Pearsall, R. L. "Some Observations on Judicial Duels, as practiced in Germany." Archaeologica v 29.
  3. Talhoffer, Hans. Fechtbuch aus dem Jahre 1467. Gerichtliche und andere Zweikampfe darstellend. Gustav Hersgsell, ed. Prag: J.G. Calve, 1887. My thanks to Marcy Toon and the staff of the Preservation unit at the Harlan hatcher Graduate Library at the University of Michigan for giving me access and helping me copy Talhoffer's Fechtbuch.

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