Trial by combat has become a popular trope in television shows and movies set in medieval times or fictional fantasy environments. Hit franchises like Game of Thrones use trial by combat as a plot device for obvious reasons: they provide a dramatic and suspenseful way of settling conflicts, and are far more action-packed than a court trial. The real question that many people have is what trial by combat is really like.
Real-life trial by combat was a genuine method of resolving criminal and civil disputes throughout history, mostly in Europe starting in the 7th century. It was a relatively simple process, with the accused choosing this route rather than going through more traditional legal proceedings. They would then fight the complainant, often to the death, to see who was right. A trial by combat not only provided some extra entertainment for the peasants, but it often ensured a quick end to any disputes. The practice started falling out of favor in the 14th century, replaced by more civil means of conflict resolution.
Sensationalist though it seems, trial by combat was a genuine method of determining guilt and settling disputes. An accused person might choose trial by combat for a number of reasons. There might be insufficient evidence to support their argument or witnesses who contradicted each other's testimony. Trial by combat could also be used in civil cases to bring proceedings over contracts and ownership conflicts to a close without having to wait for months or years of negotiating.
But, mostly, it was a matter of pride. If a landowner or lender accused the defendant of theft or not repaying a loan, a defendant's choice of trial by combat broadcasted his staunch belief in his innocence and in the grievous error of the plaintiff.
When an accused person chose trial by combat, it was considered a community-wide event. A posting in the newspaper that gave the details of the duel, including the date, time, and location.
People assembled from all over the area to watch the bloody festivities.
Not everyone could opt to fight for themselves. In most societies, women, children, the disabled, and members of the clergy could not participate. Bastards could not challenge legitimately born men in a trial by combat; similarly, serfs and slaves could not challenge free men.
Participants in the case could hire a champion to fight on their behalf. According to the book Medieval Justice, "Women, the young, the old, the sick, the crippled, clerics, and Jews were the most likely to use a champion." Professional champions made their living by offering themselves as stand-in fighters for trials by combat.
Despite the apparent bravery it took to make this one's vocation, champions were not viewed favorably. In fact, they were considered the dregs of society. But if a person didn't want to jeopardize their own life in a trial by combat, a champion was their best chance to get the outcome they wanted.