Trial by Combat

Like most Americans, I am outraged by the pillaging of the Capitol on Wednesday by a mob incited by the President of the United States and his personal lawyer, once a serious figure, now a joke, who called for “Trial by Combat”. Tears and despair reigned on Wednesday and Thursday, but yesterday I was just mad: mad at so many things, but I think principally upset about the misuse of history by everyone on the wrong side of it. It’s really clear that there is massive ignorance of history in our country, enabling its constant exploitation. When you look at the scenes of the Capitol riots what do you see? Flags, so many flags: the Confederate flag was the most conspicuous, of course: we had never seen it in that building before. But there were several Revolutionary War flags as well, outrageously displayed in an ignorant attempt to establish some sort of equivalency or legitimacy. I’m used to the quasi-“medieval” emblems used by white supremacists, and I saw them on display as well: of course the Vikings never wore horned helmets—they are a Victorian creation—but these people don’t read so they don’t know. Anything medieval is just Game of Thrones fantasy to them, but how dare they use the “Appeal to Heaven” flag of the nascent U.S. Navy or the Gadsen “Don’t Treat on Me” flag.

A flag hangs between broken windows after President Donald Trump supporters tried to brake through police barriers outside the U.S. Capitol, Wednesday, Jan 6, 2021. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

That casual reference to trial by combat, which was archaic in the sixteenth century at the very least! As it evolved into the duel, monarchs wanted a monopoly on warfare, and so it was disdained, not celebrated, as it was on Wednesday (by the cowardly “generals” who of course did not accompany their “army” to the Capitol). And we’re supposed to be more civilized? I hardly think so. Trial by combat is already depicted as “orderly” and idealized in the fifteenth century: it’s on its way out then, only to be resurrected in the twenty-first.

Trial by combat as depicted in two late medieval manuscripts (British Library MS Royal 15 E VI and Royal 14 D I) and a Victorian reimagining.

Maybe it’s because I’m writing about the Renaissance now and completely focused on its messaging, but I feel like we can only move forward by looking back. We’ve got to learn our history, our real history. I think I’m also a bit concerned about this now because the Liberal Arts are being challenged across our nation at institutions of higher education, particularly public ones like the one at which I teach. I’m worried we are going to be transformed into a vocational school by our administration with its “bold” plan: offering instruction primarily in social service rather than social science. We excel at teacher education in several fields (including history, of course) because that is our history, and nothing is more important than that now. How can we move forward if we don’t know where we’ve been?

Oh, and those “backward” medievals always distinguished between trial by combat and pillage: that’s what happened on Wednesday.

Pillaging, BL MS Royal 14 D I

5 responses to “Trial by Combat

  • Helen Breen

    Hi Donna,

    Commiserations! I agree that those flags flying through the mayhem in the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday added to the surreal atmosphere. Leave it to you to analyze their differing meanings.

  • Nancy

    Well said, Donna. And, we don’t even have to turn the pages of history that far back! These last four years had me thinking of propaganda ministers, a wounded economy, and desperate people, a lethal combination for democracy.

  • Louis Sirianni

    Well said, Donna. Thank you

  • Brian Bixby

    Famously(?), the last trial to be settled by combat in Britain was in 1818: Ashford v. Thornton. The challenged party declined and therefore lost the case, so there was no actual combat. The option was outlawed the next year in the U.K.

    Probably the saddest bits of history to come out of this were the claims that this was the first time the Capitol had been sacked since 1814, that this breaks with the peaceful transfer of power that we’ve had for two centuries (well, at least 1.5 centuries), and that this is the first time the Confederate battle flag flew in the halls of Congress (which I actually doubt, as I imagine some Southern legislators could easily have brought some in for a Civil War “unity” celebration before the 1960s).

    • daseger

      Yes, Brian–relative to this last point, I think you’re right. We really need some public history perspectives on that flag and other confederate symbols in the Capitol: I was just chatting with a colleague about this today.

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