Medieval Duels

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During the medieval period, knights would usually fight each other on foot in three contexts: the judicial duel ("trial by combat"), the private duel, and the single combat as part of a tournament. All three were usually fought in armour and this favoured simple movements; medieval duelling is to be distinguished from later, Renaissance duelling with little or no armour and swords designed for thrusting.

Judicial Duels

The judicial duel, or trial by combat, was a fusion of Celtic and Germanic practices with Christian teaching. In 501 AD, King Grundebald of Burgundy declared that the wager of battle would be a recognised legal process.


Previous to this the main system of justice was trial by ordeal, in which guilt and innocence were decided by success at painful tasks: a defendant might have to hold red hot metal without harm, for example. It was assumed that God would aid the innocent and not the guilty. This system was open to widespread fraud; the tests were administered by clergymen, who might very easily control the outcome (in the above example, the metal might be simply painted red to ensure innocence).

Trial by combat was based on the same principle - that God would help the innocent but not the guilty - but was harder to fix. Victory in combat would ensure the truth of one's claims. Old men, women, invalids and boys under fifteen were exempt, as (later) were priests.


Various conventions governed trial by combat - for example, combat would not start before noon and if the defendant could survive until the stars came out he would automatically win (quite what happened on cloudy nights is unknown). Commoners were usually restricted to fighting with staves, mounted combat and swordplay being the preserve of the nobility. One or both parties could have a proxy fight for them and soon a class of 'champions' arose, who saw fighting as a proxy as a dangerous but lucrative career.

Relationship with the Church

Trial by combat always had an uneasy relationship with the church. Sometimes the church espoused it; indeed, some priests took part (wielding blunt weapons), some monasteries had stadia built specially for such duels and one Bishop Liutprand of Cremona is supposed to have retained a champion to prove the truth of his theological statements. However, successive Popes condemned it and it fell out of fashion by the 16th century.

Interestingly, in Britain, trial by combat was only legally abolished in the 19th century when a child murderer used it as a legal loophole to avoid justice.

Private Duels

Around the 13th century, the 'duel of chivalry' developed from the duel of law. The duel of chivalry was a formal, ritualised form of combat, but for those who found its strictures irksome, or who sought extra-legal justice, there was the 'duel of honour': usually private, often illegal and therefore secret. Duels of honour began as anything but honourable: they took place in hidden locations without rules or referees; contemporary books of swordsmanship tell us that men might carry sand in their pockets to throw in their opponent's face, and warn against shaking hands with a man whose sword is already drawn, in case it is used immediately. Nevertheless, a repeatedly successful duellist might develop a good reputation.

Tournament Single Combat

At a tournament knights fought each other in three separate events: the tilt (or 'jousting'), the general melee and the single combat on foot. These events would be fought à outrance - to the point of surrender - or à plaisance - for fun. Single combat on foot was not just fought with the sword; knights might use axes, poleaxes and daggers as well.


In all three types of duel armour was worn, although perhaps less so in extra-legal duels of honour. Battlefield weapons and shields were used. These factors produced a style of combat centred on simple fighting, one blow at a time. However, it was important to be able to change stroke if you realised that you would otherwise miss, and so light but strong weapons were favoured.

In a duel of honour, though not in a tournament combat, the challenged man had the privilege of first blow. There was much initial feinting and maneuvering. When the first man to strike was recovering and preparing his next stroke, the other would attack, and so on.

The combatants would either try to avoid blows altogether, or block them with the shield. Only once the shield was too cut up to be of any use did they try to parry with their weapon, since edge-to-edge clashes damaged both blades. In a fight to the death, a finishing blow would have to be delivered through a chink in the armour. This style of fighting was unlike the duels with long thrusting weapons that were to come later, but it did demand similar levels of skill and physical condition.

As Applied to Battlemaster

What sort of duel takes place when a Battlemaster duel happens is largely up to the players' roleplay, and the realm. In a realm where duelling is illegal, most duels will likely be private affairs, 'duels of honour' away from the public eye. In a realm where duelling is legal, or encouraged, duels might take on more of a judicial cast; if the realm's judge wants to, he could actually start making rulings based on judicial duels (although he might have a rebellion on his hands if he did). Duels as part of a tournament are of course represented by the swordfighting competitions.

Equipment and technique also depends on the players' roleplaying and the type of realm; for example, a duel in the Atamaran realm of Norland, which has a Norse theme, might involve axes and lots of cursing . . .

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