16 Brutal Realities of Trial By Combat Fighting Throughout History

A painting depicting Holmgang by Johannes Flintoe. Wikimedia.

15. Vikings Practiced a Form of Trial By Combat Called Holmgang

No one loved a good fight like the Vikings of early Scandinavia. It is perhaps natural, then, that the Germanic law practice of trial by combat was warmly accepted and woven into the Viking legal tradition. Holmgang, meaning “to walk on a small island,” in reference to the small mats or leathers on which the fights would be waged, was practiced throughout Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark in the medieval era. Scraps of medieval Scandinavian law writings still exist that detail the requirements for issuing a holmgang challenge.

Holmgang challenges were not bound by any form of social class or order, as was common in other countries with trial by combat. A low ranking male could challenge his own master to holmgang if an offense were given. Holmgang were most often fought over honor, property rights, debts, or avenging women and friends. Holmgang were done within three to seven days of a challenge being issued, on small mats of three meters or less that forced the combatants to stay close. If the accused fail to show, he was rendered an honorless man and stripped of many rights. Weak or ill men were allowed to choose a champion to fight in their stead.