'Til Death: In Medieval Times, Marital Problems Could Be Solved With Duels

When some 13th-century couples had issues, they took to mortal combat.
Consider this a divorce.
Consider this a divorce. / Ms.Thott.290.2, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Though couples often enter marriage with the best of intentions, some wind up having very acrimonious separations. In previous centuries, it was not uncommon for unhappily married spouses to pick up a bag of rocks and a club as a kind of couples therapy. When husband and wife wanted to split, they could engage in a trial by combat—sometimes with deadly results.

Dating these contests exactly can be a bit tricky. As Allison Coudert points out in Notes in the History of Art (1985), illustrations of married couples engaged in mortal combat can be seen in texts of the 15th and 16th centuries. The drawings, which come from Bavaria, depict a man situated in a hole, his body exposed from the waist up; his arm is tied to his side, and he’s armed with a stick. The woman, meanwhile, is wearing a kind of jumper and is armed with a 3-pound stone wrapped in cloth to use as a sling. The hole and bindings were presumably to handicap whatever physical or strength advantage the man held. Like the game Operation, the man was also purportedly barred from touching the edge of the pit, lest he be disqualified from the duel.

There were other ways to win, too. Other drawings that appeared in the 1467 manuscript Fechtbuch, or Fencing Book, by German author Hans Talhoffer depict a woman choking her husband-slash-opponent. The man, meanwhile, might be able to catch the sling and use it to drag his bride closer for a finishing blow.

If you’re having trouble imagining what this might look like, some historians took it upon themselves to try and replicate the ruleset, which you can check out below.

Coudert theorizes that while the drawings were published in the 1400s, they were likely looking back on earlier practices. Indeed, in 1228 it was reported that one such duel occurred in Berne, Switzerland, with a man idling in a pit while his wife—armed with three rocks—tried to bludgeon him. Apparently, she succeeded. Brutal? Yes. But cheaper than hiring a lawyer.