Imagine fighting a duel with your spouse to “work things out.” Claims about what happened in the medieval period should be taken with a grain of salt when they come from non-scholars. Usually, someone cherry-picks a passage already translated (sometimes incorrectly) into English and runs with it. But the claim that marital duels existed in medieval Germany may be true – if embellished a bit.
The truth about medieval German marital duels
In 1985, religious studies scholar Allison Coudert published a paper about the duels that may have taken place between husbands and wives. The paper explores depictions that were found of marital duels between husbands and wives in the fifteenth- and sixteenth centuries. These pictures show combats where couples use sticks, stones, swords, and other weapons.
Coudert argues that, despite the illustrations, there is no record of such duels taking place after 1200. (Which presumably means that before 1200, you could challenge your spouse to a duel.) It is suggested that the images were copied from earlier manuscripts and included in treatises to provide a comprehensive historical overview of dueling practices.
Of course, the idea of medieval couples hurling stones at each other and hitting each other with sticks is the kind of thing that makes headlines on viral news sites. But it wasn’t so straightforward (and you need to know medieval German – as Coudert apparently does) to get to the bottom of things.
The paper goes on to explain that, by the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, societal, religious, and legal norms were against wives engaging in physical confrontations with their husbands. The duels were over – but wife-beating was apparently still ok.
Customary laws made it a crime for husbands to allow themselves to be beaten by their wives. In contrast, wife-beating was legal, and in some cases, encouraged. This brutal treatment was justified based on both scripture and law. Catholic and Protestant theologians agreed on the subordination of women. This belief even influenced opinions about sexual positions, with intercourse with the man on top and the woman below considered “natural.”
Changes in women’s status and position during the 12th century could explain the absence of marital duels after 1200. Before this time, women may have battled their husbands. The importance of their economic and administrative roles in the household was understood and defended.
However, by the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the law, religion, and custom made such duels unthinkable. The depiction of these duels in illustrations may be a reflection of an earlier time.
So while it appears the duels are not a myth, most people are basing their stories on the wrong evidence.