"Trial by combat: Deciding a manís guilt or innocence in the eyes of the gods by having two other men hack each other to pieces. It tells you something about the gods."
Traditionally, this is one of the three
basic ways of resolving a conflict or disagreement between two individuals or legal entities, the other two being Trial By Ordeal, and Trial by Arbitration (the only one recognised by modern democracies, and for which we have plenty of coverage already
The idea behind it is very simple, which is probably why it's been used by numerous cultures throughout history: someone is accused of a crime, or two parties are descending into conflict over a matter of opinion or policy. In order to resolve this issue with the minimum of bloodshed, an individual is chosen to represent each side, and they fight. Winner takes all.
This works, supposedly, because Right Makes Might
. Whichever side is in the right will
win a fight, either because Good Hurts Evil
, or because of some kind of divine intervention. Naturally, this idea is passť now, and so the trope is associated with medieval and fantasy settings.
Note that there is no need for either the accused or the accuser to fight for themselves. Just as often, they will choose a champion to fight on their behalf, which is arguably good, because otherwise bullies could handily go around accusing pipsqueaks of crimes against them and beating them up for the recompense, although the less physically imposing antagonists are not forbidden from having their more dangerous minions to fight on his or her behalf. This also says a lot about their characterization of those who partake in the death match since an accused protagonist generally don't allow others to risk death on his/her behalf, but would rather fight their own battles. Alternatively another heroic character someone who vouches their own life in defense of the accused, especially if said accused is unable to fend for themselves, is praise-worthy. On the other hand though, many antagonists are all too selfishly willing to avoid severe injuries or death from combat by having a more physically inclined minion to fight on their behalf.
Note also that these fights don't necessarily have to end in death, though they often do, especially if the accused is suspected of a capital crime.
If the trial takes place between representatives of opposing armies, you have a case of Combat by Champion
. And of course, if the two are fighting over an insult, it's going to be a Duel to the Death
, with all of the Throwing Down the Gauntlet
etc. Be aware of the difference between this and Duel to the Death
. Although they are similar and in many cases overlap, this is always sanctioned by the pervading culture whereas a duel is sometimes illicit. Also, the way of engaging a trial is different. While a duel can be arranged entirely between the conflicting parties, a trial must be instigated at the behest of some authority figure (who will preside over the fight like a referee and may themselves serve as champion, especially if they're of a Proud Warrior Race
), and there have to be witnesses to verify how things went down.
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Anime and Manga
- In Mobile Suit Gundam Wing, Zechs Merquise is court martialed by OZ for disobeying orders and rebuilding the Wing Gundam. The sentence is death, but his friend Treize manages to propose this as an alternate sentence. Zechs is pitted against countless Alliance soldiers, all fighting to win OZ's favor; if Zechs wins he's allowed to go free. Since this is only about one-fifth of the way through the series, of course he wins.
- In ElfQuest, this is the first part of The Trial of Hand, Head and Heart which Rayek challenges Cutter to. The trial of Hand combines dexterity and strength and the outcome is intentionally non-lethal for both participants.
- In The Basalt City Chronicles, the Empire of Smilodons has a hand-to-hand version of this as a civil, rather than criminal, trial. Only in extreme cases are the fights declared to be to the death, and almost always as a means of getting powerful nobles (who would be otherwise forced into a death match) to stop the feuds between their factions (if you win, your faction wins, but you yourself are exiled).
- The Autobots and Decepticons in Things We Don't Tell Humans are both pretty okay with this version of resolving a conflict, especially if honor is at stake, or if someone doubts if a character is adult enough for a responsibility. It leads to some pretty epic throw downs.
- In Excalibur, and some of the source materials it's based on, Queen Guenevere is accused of adultery against King Arthur with Lancelot. All of the knights had been afraid to level this accusation because her champion was Lancelot himself, whom no other knight can defeat.
- In The Canterville Ghost (the 1944 movie anyway) Sir Simon de Canterville runs away from a trial by combat fight (with TorJohnson), becoming the eponymous ghost after his father walls up the door to his room to prove he isn't there.
- Occurs (unsurprisingly) in the 1964 film version of Prince Valiant.
- Also occurs in the 1961 film El Cid.
- Flash Gordon (1980). When Voltan decides to turn Prince Barin over to Ming, Barin demands a trial by combat under Article 17 of Ming's law. Instead of choosing to fight Voltan, Barin chooses Flash as his opponent.
- Jim Butcher likes this trope:
- In the Codex Alera series, there are at least two forms of this: the Marat have a different form of trial for each clan; the Gargant clan go by this method, calling it "Trial By Strength." Then there's the practice of juris macto among the Aleran people, which is a ritualized and legally binding form of Duel to the Death and covered on that page. Headman Doroga has a few things to say about the "ritual" part.
- The Dresden Files novel Changes, the Harry and Susan are forced to fight one of these when they are pursued into the Erlking's halls by vampires, and the Erlking doesn't know who is right. Besides, he likes a good show.
- At the end of White Night, when Harry and Ramirez challenge Vitto Malvora and Madrigal Raith to a duel. The challenge and duel are a long series of Crowning Moment Of Awesome, with a priceless Crowning Moment of Funny with heavy applications of sarcasm from the White King of all people when Madrigal and Lady Cesarina Malvora try to duck the challenge. Harry later takes on Duchess Arianna, a severely badass vampire (one level down from and aspiring to be the Lords of the Outer Night, Physical Gods to a being. However by now Harry has taken several levels in Badass wields Soulfire gifted by the Archangel Uriel and is the Winter Knight. At the end Harry turns Arianna into a crater on the floor.
- The climax of Ivanhoe culminates in trial-by-combat. Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe fights on behalf of Rebecca, the daughter of Isaac of York, who has been accused of witchcraft solely on the basis of her being Jewish. Wilfred's victory is seen as a sign from God that Rebecca is innocent. Of course, in the end she and her father are still exiled for the "crime" of being Jewish.
- Repeatedly used in A Song of Ice and Fire: Bronn against Ser Vardis over Tyrion's supposed murder of Jon Arynn; Oberyn Martell against Gregor Clegane over Tyrion's supposed murder of Joffrey; and supposed to figure into Cersei's plan to have Margaery Tyrell accused of adultery and forced to be championed by an incompetent member of the Kingsguard, which has rather backfired. The first two Dunk and Egg short stories also end in a trial by combat.
- Occurs in The Knights of the Cross when Danuska gets kidnapped by The Teutonic Knights , Jurand knows the exact culprits but will not implicate them because she is being held hostage. When the order's emissary arrives, he feels insulted that anyone would accuse the knights when the victim's father doesn't and challenges anyone who would "slander" his brothers in arms to a Duel to the Death. Obviously, Zbyszko takes the challenge.
- Occurs in the Chanson de Roland (the Song of Roland), when Thierry fights Pinabel to prove the guilt of Ganelon.
- Chessmen of Mars: Captives in the city of Manator must play a life-sized version of Jetan, with each taking of a piece being a duel to the death. Captives, criminals and slaves can win their freedom by winning enough games.
- The Whitecloaks in The Wheel of Time use this as a way of settling disputes when there is no evidence, though it has fallen out of practice by the time of the books. However, the lawful-minded Galad uses the tradition to challenge the Commander for the suspected murder of his mother, killing him and winning command of the order as a side-bonus.
- Honor Harrington engages in 3 duels in the eponymous series. The first two were Curb Stomp Battles, in which she only got wounded because her Dirty Coward of an opponent cheated. The third was specifically this trope, against the traitorous Steadholder Burdette. He didn't even get a chance to make a move before she took his head off. Interestingly, Manticoran law recognizes duels as a substitute for a civil trial. Therefore, the first duel technically counts as this for libel and battery.
- Used in one Brother Cadfael story to get rid of a murderer (and rival in love) against whom there was no real evidence.
- Such a system is in place in the King Arthur legendarium. Every knight knows that Guinevere is cheating on Arthur with Lancelot, but an accusation without any proof can only be made by challenging the queen's champion- Lancelot himself. Since he's an invincible knight, no one dares asperse her loyalty out loud.
- Being based on King Arthur and other medieval literature, the country of Arendia in The Belgariad uses this system as well. It comes up in the second book when, because Garion is unable to prove that an ambassador is plotting to kill the king in order to foment war, the renowned and eminently honourable Mandorallan challenges the ambassador in order to prove his misdoings.
- In one of Teresa Edgerton's Celydonn stories, a villainess demands that the king's greatest knight fight for her as champion before she will consent to help his party. He explains that it's just a popular superstition that if you get the strongest knight, you win, that there is more in the combat. (She escapes before being brought to trial, making the matter moot.)
- In the Chivalric Romance The Earl Of Toulos, the earl gallantly fights on behalf of his Peerless Love Interest against a Malicious Slander that she was adulterous.
- In Susan Dexter's The True Knight, Titch fights for Gerein because his arm is broken, and wins him an exile instead of death.
Live Action TV
- In Star Trek: The Original Series episode "The Omega Glory," Kirk fights Captain Tracey to prove to the Yangs that he (and not Tracey) is trying to help them (the Yangs believe that Good is stronger than Evil).
- In "Arena", he had to face an alien captain in order to determine which spaceship would be destroyed" by Sufficiently Advanced Aliens who didn't like less advanced races bring their disputes into their territory. In the end, Kirk "won" the fight, but by showing mercy to the Gorn who had been prepared to kill him, and by showing a willingness to settle the misunderstanding that had caused the conflict in the first place, Kirk convinced the aliens to spare both their ships. Actually killing the Gorn, it's implied, would have doomed Kirk's own ship.
- In the V (1980's) episode "Trial By Combat", Diana and Lydia fight one to decide whether Lydia is guilty of killing Charles.
- Lois and Clark: Lord Kal-El became the ruler of New Krypton to prevent Lord Nor from doing so. Lord Nor charged Kal-El with treason and a Kangaroo Court held under Kryptonian Law sentenced him to death. A few minutes later,, Nor drops the Villain Ball hard enough to swing the main prosecutor to Kal-El's side. Said prosecutor was only all too happy when it was pointed out to him that the defendant wasn't informed he had the right to invoke this trope - this means that Kal-El is Off on a Technicality.
- In Lost Girl, the Fae often settle things this way. The first episode has Bo forced into a two-step trial: first, she had to fight a hulking behemoth to the death; second, she had to overcome a creature's mental attack.
- The Clans of BattleTech base their entire culture around this. The higherups made an edict your clan doesn't like? Then the result will most likely be a Trial of Refusal. There are Trials for all kinds of stuff, from the mundane Trial of Bloodrightnote through the politically-motivated Trial of Absorptionnote to the more radical Trial of Annihilation.note . It should be noted that, by tradition, all duels are fought between Humongous Mecha.
- In the video game adaption MechWarrior 4: Mercenaries, the eponymous mercs can choose to involve themselves in two further Clan trials: the Trial of Possessionnote , and the Trial of Positionnote .
- On the other hand, if you're not the dueling sort, you can tell the Clan you're going through with the Trial of Possession, and then attack the night before.
- Trial by combat is still practiced in certain rural areas of the empire in Warhammer Fantasy. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay even has a class, the Judicial Champion, who represents the local courts.
- In Ascalon, the Imperial League of Minotaurs (Krynn's very own Roman Empire) arbitrates everything this way. However, they were wise enough to realize that even this kind of trial needs rules. While even petty larceny must ultimately be arbitrated this way, only the really grave crimes require a Duel to the Death; minor crimes can be resolved by disarming or first blood. And for all except the really bad crimes (like assassinating the emperor), the accused may select a champion to fight in their stead, with evidence determining just how effective a champion one may select.
- In Lohengrin, the swan knight fights Telramund in judicial combat as Elsa's champion.
- In the Hercules episode "Hercules And The Prometheus Affair", Hercules defies the gods and frees Prometheus from his imprisonment. After some consideration, the gods agree that Prometheus can keep his freedom if he can defeat the eagle that eats his liver in battle. Hades refers to the trial as a "Trial By Fire" and empowers the eagle with a flaming body and wings. Prometheus almost loses, but Hercules interferes and helps defeat the eagle. Although upset, the gods allow Prometheus to go free.
- This was used during the Medieval Era as a way to determine "God's Judgement", because (the thinking went) the winner would obviously have been chosen by God to win. Generally, it was easier than the one where you got thrown in the river to see if God wants you to survive. (The medieval Church repeatedly condemned both trial by combat and trial by ordeal as barbaric and un-Christian, notably at the Lateran Council of 1215. Both procedures continued nonetheless, though the bans contributed to the development of more familiar systems like trial by jury.)
- However, in some places, it often wasn't simply because of the justification of God picking the winner. In Germany, in particular, it was seen as an ancient right when justice couldn't be brought about by regular methods. This is because back in the day, even back in Roman times, chieftains, and, later, judges, had a very hard time determining people's guilt or innocence without eyewitnesses, so the result would often be Off on a Technicality. Generally it never went as far as trial by combat, but it often would in cases of rape. Because it helped prevent blood feuds, most places in central Europe tolerated it, although by the 15th century people were pushing heavily to replace it with trial by jury.
- In The Last Duel by Eric Jager, the author describes the last legally sanctioned (Duels to the Death of course continued to the eighteenth century and beyond, but they were more an aristocratic version of a Bar Brawl done with lethal weapons, then a legal practice) judicial duel in France during the hundred years war. A French noblewoman who was pregnant out of wedlock claimed that it was rape by her husband's enemy and her husband, believing her, stood in the lists as plaintiff. The accused stood as defendant. In something of a Zig Zag no one really believed it was an ideal means, the Church condemned it as Tempting Fate and there hadn't been such an event in ages. It was only permitted by the French king because the law was still technically on the books because no one had bothered to take it off. And because there was no way to solve a rape case there being no DNA testing at the time. In other words it was permitted not because it was actually believed that God would automatically intervene for the right party but because no one could think of anything better to do and it was technically legal. In any case, as the title of the book indicates it was the last one in France.
- Notably averted between Romans Octavian (aka Augustus) Caesar and Mark Antony. After Octavian's navy defeated Antony's at Actium, Antony holed up in the palace at Alexandria. He sent a messenger out to Octavian, challenging him to single combat to resolve the matter. Octavian was an excellent general, but no match for Mark Antony physically, so he had no reason to accept.
- Notch, creator of Minecraft, challenged Bethesda to a 3 vs 3 game of Quake III: Arena to settle a legal dispute (referencing the above mentioned A Song of Ice and Fire series). Sadly, Bethesda chose to ignore this challenge.
- In a French legend, Aubry de Montdidier, a knight of King Charles V, was murdered by Robert Macaire. The only witness was Montdidier's dog. In court the dog reacted violently to Macaire, leading the king to order a duel between Macaire and the dog. The dog won, and Macaire confessed to the murder and was hanged. The murder was said to take place in 1371.
- In 1817, Abraham Thornton, out of fear of facing a biased jury when charged with the rape and murder of Mary Ashford, challenged her brother (who was pressing charges) into that kind of trial. William Ashford knew he'd lose regardless of Thornton being guilty or not and it was officially ruled that, if he accepted and Thronton killed him, that death wouldn't be considered a murder. Ashford refused and Thornton was acquitted. However, Thornton was so Convicted by Public Opinion he moved from England to America.
- Interesting factoid: Because trial by combat was not abolished in Britain until 1819, well after the American Colonies split off from the British Empire, and no American court has ever addressed the issue, in theory trial by combat is still legal in the United States.