Dispelling Some Myths: Divorce by combat
It is highly unlikely that Mediæval divorce was ever settled by combat. Yet a handful of sources do mention judicial duels fought between men and women, most famously Hans Talhoffer’s Fechtbuch (‘Fight Book’) of 1467. This richly illustrated volume explains how a couple could clash, the man buried up to his waist, in a fight to the death, with God deciding who was the wronged party. Yet judicial duels and trials by ordeal were viewed with extreme scepticism in the Middle Ages. There are no known cases of any marital dispute being resolved by a duel. There are, however, fictional accounts of warring spouses that may have fuelled the myth.
In one such comic tale from 13th century France, Sire Hain and Dame Anieuse decide that their rows can be resolved only by a fight, with a pair of trousers the prize. It was a close-run thing, but Sir Hain is victorious. The storyteller reminds us that husbands should keep wives in check if necessary, with blows - a wholly unacceptable notion today.
Mediæval divorce was very rare and usually settled in the church courts. Couples could seek an annulment, but this was costly and depended on showing the marriage was invalid because of consanguinity (the couple were too closely related) or impotence. Even in cases of domestic abuse, courts were not likely to grant a divorce. Separation was more likely; a split a mensa et thoro (‘from table and bed’) granted by court order allowed couples to live apart even though still legally married.
Skoda, H. (2023), ‘Q&A: Did medieval divorce by combat ever happen?’, BBC History Magazine February 2023, p.42.