Real History Behind Game of Thrones' Epic Duel

Trial by combat really happened in medieval times

By Kevin Spak,  Newser Staff

Posted Jun 4, 2014 1:24 PM CDT

(Newser) – The Game of Thrones duel between Oberyn "The Red Viper" Martell and Gregor "The Mountain" Clegane might seem like an outlandish fantasy construction. But believe it or not, the scene actually echoes some real-life incidents. Longwood University medieval history professor Steven Isaac breaks down the real events that might have inspired George RR Martin in this post. Some highlights:

  • Trial by combat was indeed a real thing; Isaac cites several, and you can read more about the practice on this Wikipedia page.
  • Perhaps the most vivid parallel came in Flanders in the unrest of 1127-28, when a man called Iron Herman accused one Guy of Steenvoorde of killing a count. Both men fought for themselves, and Guy seemed to have the upper hand, at times toying with Herman. After a long combat, Herman lay on the ground, seemingly done for. But when Guy moved to deliver the final blow, Herman grabbed his testicles in one hand and pushed him away with the other. Guy had his "lower parts broken apart," and admitted defeat—and was thus convicted and hanged.
  • In the 1150s, two nameless champions faced off to resolve a dispute between Stephen of Massy and the monks of Saint-Germain-des-Près. The monks' champion ended the duel by gouging the other man's eye out.
Some aspects of Martin's duel are indeed fanciful, however. In almost no case were combatants allowed such mismatched armor and weaponry as Clegane and Martell used, and most champions were actually anonymous. But Isaac is OK with that. "Since the line in the Middle Ages between fact and imagination was occasionally blurry," he writes, "one has to forgive Martin if he mixes and matches likewise." For more, read Isaac's full post.

A screenshot from the official preview video for Game of Thrones Season 4, Episode 8, "The Mountain and the Viper."   (YouTube/HBO)
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