'Game of Thrones': Trial by combat was a real option, says writer

'Game of Thrones' recently included a twist involving trial by combat, which writer Eric Jager says it was a real option for much of Europe in the Middle Ages.

Helen Sloan/HBO/AP
'Game of Thrones' stars Charles Dance.

Spoiler alert! This post includes plot points from last Sunday's episode of the HBO fantasy series "Game of Thrones." If you're not caught up on the show (or the original books), you may wish to turn back now.

Leave it to a Lannister to overturn expectations, once again, on "Game of Thrones."

Tyrion Lannister, now an accused murderer on top of being a perennial disgrace to his father, was supposed to go gently into that not-so-good night. His trial, on charges of killing his nephew the king, appeared to be heading toward a kind of banishment.

Instead, the maverick Lannister, as is his wont, chooses a "trial by combat" instead. While anything but unprecedented in the world created by George R.R. Martin, the choice threatened to unleash all sorts of chaos… just like in real life.

In the Middle Ages, trial by combat was a real option in much of Europe. Eric Jager, a professor of literature at UCLA, chronicles France's last known trial by combat in his 2004 book "The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France."

In an interview this week, Jager talked about a faraway era's debate over justice and its similarities to our own battles over how the  treatment of the accused.

Q: Trial by combat isn't the same as a duel. What's the difference?

A: People often have a notion that trials by combat are like those duels of honor that we hear about, Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton.

But duels of honor tended to be illegal and private. Trial by combat was public and an official part of the legal system in the Middle Ages.

Q: Trials by combat weren't isolated affairs with a couple men standing around with pistols and their seconds, correct?

A: These were very well-witnessed events. A king or duke might preside, and there would be huge crowds. The spectators were there for blood sport, but they were also legally serving as witnesses in a legal procedure.

Q: Where in Europe were trials by combat part of the legal system?

A: It seems to have been almost universal in Europe – Italy, Spain, France, and Scandinavia – except England prior to 1066. And once the Normans conquered England, it became an option there too.

Q: In the latest episode of "Game of Thrones," Tyrion Lannister makes the choice to undergo a trial by combat. Was this also a choice for the accused – or the accuser – in the Middle Ages?

A: "'Game of Thrones' follows a widely practiced medieval legal procedure.

There would be some kind of inquiry, a trial of sorts. Sometimes there would be a verdict that didn't please one of the two parties. One of them would appeal to an overlord who had jurisdiction, and the authority would have discretion as to whether approve the duel.

Q: To put it mildly, a trial by combat doesn't sound very just. Did anyone question this procedure at the time?

A: If you read the annals of the duels that took place, you can sometimes find a note of skepticism by an observer or chronicler. But the official theory was that the ultimate witness was God, who was imagined to preside and see that justice is done in the outcome of the duel.

Q: As we've seen previously in "Game of Thrones," an accused person can choose a champion to fight for him (or, presumably, for her). Was that the practice in the Middle Ages?

A: There was a provision for champions.

An able-bodied knight would have to fight in his own stead. But a champion was appointed to fight if a woman or cleric was bringing the charge. Someone who is feeble-bodied, an old or a sick person, could have a champion appointed to fight for them.

Q: Were these fights to the death?

A: They often were in criminal law cases like murder, rape or treason. But if the victor had clearly defeated the other guy without killing him, the loser would be removed from the field and hanged.

Q: What kinds of spectacles were these matches?

A: They had to be incredibly dramatic. It wasn't just about being kicked in the groin or bashed in the head. It ended in somebody's death.

Q: How did the tradition of trial by combat begin to die out?

 A: The duel in 1386 seems to have been the last one ever authorized in France.

The practice was increasingly suspect to lawyers and legal authorities who said, 'This is a terrible way to decide what is true.' And the kings of France going back a good 100 years or so had been trying to get rid of it.

It wasn't because they had doubts. Instead, it was because the practice decimated the nobility.

You needed the most important nobles for your next campaign or war with England, and you'd lose one of them if they had a duel. Imagine if the generals of the Pentagon were busy with their own quarrels and knocking over each other in duels.

But the death of the duel tended to bring back another method – torture. Torture had a resurgence with the decline of the duel as a way of using violence to extract the truth.

Q: What can we learn from the days of trial by combat? 

A: It's a very dramatic scenario and probably gave people a lot of satisfaction that justice was done.

But there was no appeal. Once someone is dead, you can't do much.

It's irrevocable in the way that capital punishment is. Do you want a punishment that can't be taken back if an error is found? That's a debate we're still having today.

Q: Do you think the "Game of Thrones" TV show has a good grasp of what trial by combat meant?

A: When Tyrion Lannister makes his choice, the camera pans to all the officials in the room. You can see their disappointment: He's gummed things up by calling for a duel.

People can't just shrug that off. You've made a ritualistic statement that has to be met with legal respect.

They know that they'd trapped him, and now he's trapped them. The series catches that brilliantly. They got this right.

Jager's new book, about a real-life 15th-century murder, is titled "Blood Royal: A True Tale of Crime and Detection in Medieval Paris."

Randy Dotinga is a regular Monitor contributor.

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