Inside Nine Of The Weirdest Medieval Customs That Range From The Bizarre To The Downright Sadistic

Published August 18, 2022
Updated January 21, 2024

Married Couples Could Divorce By Combat

Medieval Divorce By Combat Illustration

Public DomainMedieval divorces were far more hands on than today’s legal disputes.

While modern divorce proceedings certainly aren’t pleasant, their medieval counterparts were actively excruciating. The bizarre practice of divorce by combat was first documented by German fencing maestro Hans Talhoffer. As his 1467 manuscript Fechtbuch (“Fencing Book”) relayed, the proceedings involved spousal bloodshed.

“As per the instructions, the husband was put up to his waist in a three-foot-wide hole dug in the ground, with one hand tied behind his back. The woman was to be armed with three rocks, each weighing between one and five pounds, and each one wrapped in cloth,” wrote Talhoffer.

“The man could not leave his hole but the woman was free to run around the edge of the pit. If the man touched the edge of the pit with either his hand or arm, he had to surrender one of his clubs to the judges. If the woman hit him with a rock while he was doing so, she forfeited one of her stones.”

Talhoffer’s confounding accounts were discovered by University of Oklahoma professor Kenneth Hodges. Trial by combat, in which the accused can request a duel in place of a trial, had long been documented by historians. Divorce by combat, meanwhile, was seemingly only discovered by scholars in recent years.

Talhoffer’s manuscript held illustrated depictions of the antiquated ordeal. It primarily chronicled divorces by combat in medieval Germany, which grew increasingly rare after the early 13th century. These accounts ultimately shed light on the gender dynamics of the time, with men being given a substantial handicap during the fight.

While scholars continue to debate how divorce rulings unfolded, participants would likely continue until one of them capitulated. That is unless they weren’t bludgeoned or strangled to death beforehand.

Marco Margaritoff
A former staff writer for All That’s Interesting, Marco Margaritoff holds dual Bachelor's degrees from Pace University and a Master's in journalism from New York University. He has published work at People, VICE, Complex, and serves as a staff reporter at HuffPost.
Adam Farley
Adam Farley is an Assistant Editor at All That's Interesting. He was previously content director of and deputy editor of Irish America magazine. He holds an M.A. from New York University and a B.A. from the University of Washington.