‘Une piteuse bataille’: A trial by combat between commoners in Valenciennes, 1455

When Jacotin gouged out both of his opponent’s eyes, the broken man cried out for mercy from the Duke of Burgundy. Philippe le Bon could not fulfil this request and he let justice be done by the town, according to its franchise.[1] After Mahiot confessed his crimes to the priests, the executioner put an end to the misery of the murderer. This awful spectacle was watched by a large audience in the market of Valenciennes. The Duke of Burgundy was ashamed by that terrible spectacle according to his chronicler Olivier de la Marche. He promised that he would show the citizen of Valenciennes how chivalry was properly done that following year, by organising a tournament. Two knights fulfilled that promise by  performing an emprise d’armes in 1456, ‘properly armed for fighting on foot, with one throw of the lance and twenty-five blows with the axe’.[2]

The Plot

In Valenciennes (Hainault, Burgundian Low Countries), Jacotin Plouvier, a burgher of the town, accused Mahiot (Mahiénot) Coquel, a tailor from Tournai, of murdering one of his parents. A trial by combat that followed the town’s charters was agreed upon by the magistrate. Preparations lasted more than a year, and the combat finally took place in May 1455

Three chronicles relate the event, mostly depicting it as terrible, awful, and out of place.[3] The combatants, whose hair and nails were cut, wore a tightly fitted garment made of leather, covered in grease ‘so that they could not grapple each other’, their hands covered with ashes ‘so that they could handle their shield and mace’.[4] The maces are described as being made of hardwood (medlar for d’Escouchy – mellier bien nouteilleux and de la Marche – mesplier). After a few exchanges of bloody mace blows and throwing sand in the eyes, both men wrestled on the ground; one gouged out both his opponent’s eyes, and broke his limbs and back.

The ‘famous’ master-at-arms Hans, hired by the town

The town provided both the grounds and security for the combat, and took all necessary measures to ensure a fair fight. Both men were held in custody before their trial. The town supplied the weapons (wooden shield and mace) and installed barriers around the designated duel space. Each combatant was permitted to paint holy symbols on their shields at their own cost. Two masters at arms were hired to offer training to the combatants. The duration of this training for trials-by-combat (usually six weeks) is given by other contemporary sources.[5] The master attributed to Mahienot Coquel is named ‘Hans’ in the Chronique of Chastellain.[6] The other master was Jean de Bourges, apparently less experienced. We do not have any other information regarding these masters. With a little bit of imagination, one could argue that ‘Hans’ may have been Hans Talhoffer.[7] He was a contemporary fencing master active in Southern Germany who specialised in trial by combat and authored several fight books (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Detail of a trial by combat with mace and shield, Hans Talhoffer, Fight Book, 1448. Gotha, Forschungsbibliothek, Hs Chart A558, fol. 42r.

Trial by combat in towns at the end of the Middle Ages

Trial by combat is seen as an anachronistic procedure, gradually fading in oblivion at the end of the Middle Ages. The old-fashioned tradition of defending one’s honour by right of arms is cared for by the aristocracy, and mostly reserved for them in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. However, it rivalled new judicial procedures at the end of the Middle Ages as the state developed more administration for its judicial apparatus, such as requiring combatants to present proofs. This is the picture painted by chronicles and the study of judicial and normative documents in places such as France, but neighbouring kingdoms and states also followed the same practices.[8] This representation is not always quite accurate, but it certainly followed the official position of the authorities, religious and secular alike. Several regions preserved this practice throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth century. trial by combat was still regulated by customary laws, especially in franchised towns. It can involve commoners, clergy men, and even women.

In Swiss towns there are also traces of judicial combat procedures. For example, the custom of Moudon ruled trial by combat in the towns of the Pays de Vaud (western part of Switzerland). By 1468, one noble and seventeen commoners (including one monk and one woman) had been implicated in the custom.[9] Apparently, most of these serious ventures were not seen through to the end. The authorities usually tried to force compromise upon the parties before trial by combat could take place. It was also a costly endeavour, and took a long time to plan. For the case of Valenciennes, it was a franchised town under the realm of the Duke of Burgundy. The Duke tried to avoid the practice for two years (a first schedule for the trial was August 1454), but was forced to allow it by law when the parties did not come to any agreement, despite concerted efforts to do so. After this episode, the Duke gradually revoked the privileges for the trial by combat in the towns of his duchy. We find contemporary descriptions of similar events in England as well, where chroniclers also showed disgust when relating any trial by combat involving commoners.[10] Duels were about to disappear, or at least undergo a profound transformation into ‘duels of honour’, which decimated both nobles and commoners alike across the next century.

Cite this article as: Daniel Jaquet, "‘Une piteuse bataille’: A trial by combat between commoners in Valenciennes, 1455," in Martial Culture in Medieval Town, 07/12/2021, https://martcult.hypotheses.org/1511.

[1] The Duke was forced to let this be carried out, according to Georges Chastelain in the manuscript additional fragments of his chronicle (London, British Library, MS 54156), edited by Jean-Claude Delclos, Chronique de Georges Chastellain. Les fragments du Livre IV (Geneva: Droz, 1991), p. 325.

[2] Olivier de la Marche, Mémoires, ed. by Henry Beaune and J. d’Arbaumont (Paris: Renouard, 1884), t. II, p. 406-7.

[3] Elodie Lecuppre-Desjardin, La villes des cérémonies. Essai sur la communication politique dans les anciens Pays-Bas bourguignon (Turnhout: Brepols, 2004), pp. 311-7. For a review of the historiography regarding the Valencienne case, see also Elodie Lecuppre-Desjardins, ‘Le Duel Judiciaire dans les villes des anciens Pays-Bas bourguignons: Privilège urbain ou acte de rébellion?’, in Agon Und Distinktion. Soziale Räume Des Zweikampfs Zwischen Mittelalter Und Neuzeit, ed. by Uwe Israel and Christian Jaser (Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2015),pp. 187-88, note 28.

[4] Ilz avoient les testes raises, les piedz nuz, et les ongles coppez des mains et des piedz; et au regard du corps, des jambes et des bras, ilz estoient vestuz de cuyr bouilly, cousu estroictement sur leurs personnes. Olivier de la Marche, ed. by Claude-Bernard Petitot (Paris: Foucault, 1825), vol. 9, p. 404. […] deux bassins plains de gresse, dont les habillemensfurent oingtz et engressez, affin que l’ung d’eulx ne peust prendre prinse sur l’autre. […] deux bassins de cendres, pour oster la gresse de leurs mains, afin qu’ilz puissent mieulx tenir leurs escuz et leurs bastons. Olivier de la Marche, p. 405.

[5] Daniel Jaquet, ‘Six Weeks to Prepare for Combat. Instruction and Practices from the Fight Books at the End of the Middle Ages, a Note on Ritualised Single Combats’, in Killing and Being Killed: Bodies in Battle Perspectives on Fighters in the Middle Ages, ed. by Jörg Rogge (Biefeld: Transcript, 2017), pp. 131–64.

   [6] Or ont eu ces deux gens-icy par longue espace leurs maistres emprès eux, qui leur ont appris leurs envayes et deffenses, et tout ce en quoy il les espèrerent à sauver, et avoit Mahienot empès lui un nommé Hans, le meilleur qu’on savoit en nul pays, […] Chastelain, ed. Kervyn de Lettenhove (Bruxelles: Heussner, 1863), pp. 44-5.

  [7] Eric Burkart, ‘Die Aufzeichnung Des Nicht-Sagbaren. Annäherung an Die Kommunikative Funktion Der Bilder in Den Fechtbüchern Des Hans Talhofer’, Das Mittelalter, 19.2 (2014), 253–301.

[8] Claude Gauvard, ‘De Grace Especial’: Crime, État et Société En France à La Fin Du Moyen Age (Paris: Publ. de la Sorbonne, 1991)

[9] Claude Berguerand, ‘Le Duel Judiciaire au Moyen Âge dans le Pays de Vaud au travers du duel d’Othon de Grandson’, in Duel et Combat Singulier en Suisse Romande: De l’Antiquité au XXe Siècle: Actes du colloque des 7 et 8 Mai 2010, ed. by Olivier Meuwly, Nicolas Gex, and Georges Andrey (Bière: Cabédita, 2012), pp. 59–67.

[10] Ariella Elema, ‘Trial by Battle in France and England’ (unpublished PhD thesis, University of Toronto, 2015). See also Jacob Deacon, ‘‘Falsely Accused by the Villain’?: A Fishy Trial by Combat in Fifteenth-Century London’, Martial Culture in Medieval Towns, 2019 <https://martcult.hypotheses.org/404> [accessed 20.08.2021].

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