In the seventh episode of the first season of Game of Thrones, Cersei Lannister speaks the line from which the series takes its name: “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”
Since 2011, a fever for Machiavellian treachery and ever-looming supernatural doom has moved beyond the usual fantasy-reading public’s borders, with a growing base of aficionados following the fortunes of the Lannisters, Starks, Targaryens and others. The show has, at its core, a realistic sense, rather than a romantic one, of medieval history. It is often compared to the Wars of the Roses and its ensemble cast of villains, bunglers, and occasional heroes.
In the judicial duel between Ser Oberyn Martell, the Red Viper, and Ser Gregor Clegane, the Mountain That Rides, we have yet another echo of actual medieval history.
Of the actual duel between the Mountain and the Viper, judging its accuracy is no easy matter. Certainly, there are famous fights like the 1386 combat most recently discussed in Eric Jager’s The Last Duel. There, a husband defended his wife’s charge of rape by killing the man she had accused. While contemporaries accepted the outcome as proof, the dead man’s guilt has attracted debate ever since.
The bulk of our accounts of judicial duels, however, come in charters left behind by those whose very property was being contested—religious men and women who weren’t supposed to dwell on violence for its own sake. Many often didn’t have an actual combat to recount, just a note of who cut a deal or forfeited by their absence.
The same violence occurs in the Song of Roland’s final combat, where Ganelon’s guilt is established when his champion Pinabel is killed by a single stroke from Thierry. We’re supposed to believe that Thierry clove the iron helmet in two and dashed out Pinabel’s brains just after receiving nearly the same damaging blow.
In the epic poem Raoul de Cambrai, things get even grittier. The protagonists Bernier and Gautier have a duel that again occupies an adrenaline-defying amount of time. They begin with a joust where Gautier pierces Bernier with his lance between his ribs. This wound doesn’t stop Bernier, however, and he returns the favor in the next pass, leaving his spear embedded in Gautier. It’s an epic poem, however, so Gautier isn’t even slowed down. Shields are again splintered into useless bits, and sparks fly from all the metallic collisions. Gautier (with a spear still stuck in his side, let’s not forget) eventually lands a monumental blow: Once again a helmet gets shattered, and Bernier loses six inches of his face, including an ear. He takes a moment to complain to God about this injury since he feels his cause is just, a sentiment that the Red Viper could doubtless commiserate with. Still he carries on, sustaining yet another horrendous blow from Gautier that removes six inches of flesh from his shoulder.
Probably the other most vivid and parallel account of an actual trial by combat comes from the pages of the Flemish notary, Galbert of Bruges, who kept a journal of events in 1127-28. In a series of murders, executions, and betrayals that could rival Martin’s cosmos (except in several hundred pages rather than 1000s), the political system in Flanders nearly came undone.
During the chaos, many old grudges were settled, sometimes under the guise of overdue justice. A man called Iron Herman took the opportunity to charge Guy of Steenvoorde with participating in the Flemish count’s murder. Guy turned immediately to a trial by combat, and in this case, both men did their own fighting.