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Posts Tagged ‘judicial duel’

Alphabet - Earlier this month, Freelance Academy Press had the pleasure of attending the  International Congress on Medieval Studies held at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, which went from Thursday, May 9th through Sunday May 12th. We had a booth in the exhibitor’s hall, and again received a fair bit of interest in our title roster, including our Deeds of Arms series, particularly the Combat of the Thirty volume, and Dr. Noel Fallow’s forthcoming entry on the Twelve of England.

However, the real highlight was that for the first time our press was a  co-sponsor of two sessions, entitled “Affairs of Arms”.

The first session was A Presentation of a Judical Duel, and that pretty much says it all. Freelance president and founder Gregory Mele presented a short paper on the history and customs of the judicial duel, before turning the floor over to a bit of interpretive history: a physical reconstruction and demonstration of a judicial duel at the turn of the 15th century.

The premise of the duel was a follows: c.1410, somewhere in northern Italy, a young, Italian squire, Giacomo Culla accuses an English knight of having been seen coming from the chambers of a well-known guildswoman “before morning mass”. The guildswoman, Natalia of Philadelphia was seen “with her hair loose and her bodice undone”, and the knight, had “marks of passion about his neck. Further complicating this claim is that both the squire and the knight are in the service of the lord, Sir Geoffrey Peel, an English adventurer (mercenary) in the Italian wars, and the knight’s wife, a native Italian woman, is currently pregnant, and so the squire claims outrage on the lady’s behalf.

It is not the charge of adultery, however, that precipitates the duel, however, but rather the knight’s claim that the squire Giacomo is a liar, and his demand that he recant his claims. This exchange of challenge and response, known as a Cartello, also outlienes the form of the duel.

Sex, scandal and political scheming – what more could one ask for?

The redoubtable Will McLean took Greg’s initial idea for the duel’s storyline and wedded it to a document from the Lord Hastings’ Ms, to create the final script for the duel, which can be read in its entirety on his “A Common Place Book” website.  In addition, our friend David Hoornstra caught the entire presentation on video, which he has graciously allowed us to post on our YouTube page:

A huge thanks to Annamaria Kovacs for presiding over the session and for all who participated in the presentation of the duel:

Jesse Kulla and Dave Farrell of the Chicago Swordplay Guild as Giacomo and Sir David, respectively;

Bob Charrette as Sir Geoffrey Peel, the presiding noble, attended by members of La Belle Compagnie ;

Will McLean took on the role of the Herald and Michael Cramer the Priest;

The accused Natalia of Philadelphia played by respected 14th century clothing scholar, Tasha Kelly of La Cotte Simple, fame, who had the misfortune of being left with “Schroedinger’s Virtue” due to the uncertain nature of the duel’s resolution. (Unsure of what we mean? Watch the video!)

Our second session, Wrestlers, Brawlers, Horse Archers, Oh My: Not-So-Knightly Arts of the Middle Ages was in the vein of last year’s presentation: a “paper” that was more of a physical demonstration of some aspect of martial culture.  In “Fiore dei Liberi’s Abrazare: Wrestling for War versus Wrestling for Love”, Keith Nelson demonstrated the unarmed combat at the heart of Fiore dei Liberi’s martial art of armizare, and how his various grips, throws and breaks differed from medieval sport wrestling. The presentation was well-received, but the “talk” of the session was Russ Mitchell’s “The Good, the Bad, the R5 and the Ugly: Non-Knightly Warfare and its Instruments”, in which Russ demonstrated the full war kit of the Hungarian medium cavalry – horse archers and swordsmen who uniquely merged eastern and western military traditions. This was a glimpse into one of the great financial and military powers of late Medieval Europe that goes all-but unnoticed  by Anglophone scholars, and attendees were impressed by Russ’s ability to speak extemporaneously and with great detail on his subject.

(Note: if you have any photos from this session, please let us know!)

Finally, during a DISTAFF session, our friends from La Belle Compagnie gave a tour-de-force presentation of how a knight was armed during the Hundred Years War, showing not just one such harness, but four from the 1330s, 1380s, 1415 and 1450! Best of all, the entire presentation was also caught on film!

In the end, our sessions were well-received, old friends were visited, new friends made, new publishing projects developed…and oh yes, we sold some books!

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A late-medieval sword duel from a contemporary image.

n the last few months, I have had a chance to deepen my understanding of judicial-dueling jurisprudence, especially as it developed in Italy in the era of Fiore de’ Liberi. I will post a few of my findings here, hoping that they will be of interest to the students of the subject.

Let us start from a reliable period definition of what a duel was as commonly understood in the fourteenth century, and how it differed from other kinds of physical and violent ways in which to settle disputes. According to law-historian Marco Cavina, we are on solid ground when looking for this definition in the writings of fourteenth-century jurist Giovanni da Legnano, who authored an influential treatise on the subject in the period that interests us.[1] Entitled Tractatus de Bello, de Represaliis et de Duello, Giovanni’s treatise defines the duel as “a deliberate physical fight between two, for purification, glory or augmentation of hatred.”[2] The author then specifies that those for glory and augmentation of hatred[3] fall outside the scope of duels as commonly understood at the time, leaving the third specie (gratia purgationis) as the only fitting subject for the rest of his treatise.[4] Giovanni describes this type of duel as one by which a person accused of a misdeed can, lacking preponderant evidence, purge or purify himself of the accusation by proving his case through physical strength (viribus corporeis), and traces the roots of this practice to Lombard law.[5] The duel emerges as a legal proceeding of sorts, between an accuser and a defendant, to unfold through actions of physical strength, and following the dictates of centuries-old jurisprudence.

More specifically, a judicial duel of honor is a type of duel in which the initial offense is to the honor of the offended rather than to his body or property. Historians classify it as distinct from the older duel as an ordeal. Dueling as an ordeal was a sub-specie of the Germanic ordeal (Urteil) with which officials interpreted failure or success in a predetermined physical endeavor as representing God’s judgment in legal disputes that could not be adjudicated through factual evidence.[6] Besides pertaining to cases about personal property, liberty or physical injuries rather than honor, dueling as an ordeal also differed from the duel of honor in another important sense: the litigants in the former fought almost always through professional surrogates called pugiles, while in the latter the accuser and defendant were normally the ones also entering the field of

Giovanni da Legnano, the jurist who authored an influential text on dueling law in the 14th century.

arms.[7] Although scholars disagree about whether Giovanni da Legnano’s definition pertains to the duel of honor,[8] they concur that this form of preordained single combat gradually replaces dueling as an ordeal between the eleventh and the fourteenth centuries (as we will see later in more detail).[9]

Perhaps the earliest extant records of dueling to settle legal disputes are in the Lombard Edictum Rothari (AD 643), where it appears as a privilege of the higher class, the liberi. Between that time and the eleventh century, it remains an established juridical procedure in Italian common law for cases lacking material evidence, with the outcome (the judgment of God) having legal force. Dueling for honor comes into being and grows in importance when, between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries, the bellicose values of the feudal knightly class gradually harmonize with the ethos of the nascent urban nobility, which emphasizes honor. In particular, Cavina theorizes that the chivalric code, centering on the cult of the oaths of fealty and of the value of a word given, would become the glue that holds together the aristocratic class. Accordingly, by the mid-1300s the judicial duel for the point of honor is so ingrained in the mores of the Italian nobility that jurist Giovanni da Legnano begins treating is as an institution of natural right (ius naturale).

Meanwhile, theologians and moralists gradually reject the idea of dueling—with the violent death that often comes as a result of this practice—being compatible with biblical and Christian doctrine, although this happens slowly and not without significant exceptions. For instance, there is the fact that an appropriate missa pro duello functions as one of the opening rites before combat, that clerics known to have taken part in duels are at times still allowed to celebrate mass, and that even Thomas Aquinas condones dueling in the Summa Theologica. Even in spite of these exceptions, the attitude of theologians remains one of increasing intolerance for dueling. Finally, dueling becomes the target of increasingly-frequent papal attention in the sixteenth century, until the council of Trent (ending in 1563) makes it categorically illegal under canon law, thereby turning it into an underground activity.

Stay tuned for more information about this fascinating topic, including first-hand accounts of duels in the time in question!


[1] Cavina, Marco, Il Duello Giudiziario per Punto d’Onore: Genesi, Apogeo e Crisi (Sec. XIV-XVI)(Turin: G. Giappichelli Editore, 2003), 63-70. Cavina states that Giovanni da Legnano completed the treatise in 1360 and that, based on the number of surviving commentaries, it was a highly influential work on the subject.

[2] Giovanni da Legnano, Tractatus de Bello, de Represaliis et de Duello, ed. T. E. Holland (Washington: Oxford University Press, 1917), 175: “Duellum est pugna corporalis deliberata hinc inde duorum, ad purgationem, gloriam, vel odii exaggeratione.”

[3] These are, respectively, dueling in tournaments (or as public spectacles) and acts of private, premeditated aggression between two rivals, the latter including such ideas as the vendetta. See Cavina, Il Duello Giudiziario, 68.

[4] Giovanni da Legnano, Tractatus de Bello, 183-184: “Et [duellum quod fit gratia purgationis] proprie et stricte ‘duellum’ apud vulgares nuncupatur.

[5] Giovanni da Legnano, Tractatus de Bello, 176. “cum aliquod crimen alicui imponitur, et ad probationem provocans forte carens aliis probationibus … offert se probaturum viribus corporeis, duello suscepto, et provocatus sic se purgat … et de hoc habetur etiam iure cautum … in Lombarda.”

[6] Cavina, Marco, Il Sangue dell’Onore (Rome: Editori Laterza, 2005), 8.

[7] Ibid., 28.

[8] Cavina, Marco, Il Duello Giudiziario, 67.

[9] Cavina, Il Sangue dell’Onore, 17.

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