When two men at arms consented to face each other in a limited and controlled deed of arms on foot in the 14th or 15th century, how far were they allowed to go? As it turns out, they were allowed to go pretty far.
That definition excludes the most extreme form of chivalric combat, the judicial duel or gage of battle, in which the defendant was compelled to either fight or be killed as a criminal. It also excludes other combats to the utterance or uttermost, that might be fought by consent, but would at least in theory continue until one side or the other was defeated, dead or fled. That leaves the most common form of chivalric foot combat by consent during the period, a limited combat that would end as soon as a specified number of blows had been struck by one side or the other. Such combats include the challenges at Vannes in 1380 described by Froissart, and the 15th c. passages of arms of Charlemagne’s Tree, the Pass of the Pilgrim, and the Fountain of Tears.
Perhaps the best modern parallel is heavyweight boxing, where the rules are intended to prevent death or permanent serious injury, but the contestants are expected to risk a great deal of punishment short of that. 19th c. prizefighting was probably closer to the medieval norm.
There seems to have been less restriction on where and how an opponent could be struck in foot combat than when mounted. This was probably both because rapidly moving horses added considerable force to a blow, and because low blows were also likely to endanger a valuable mount. The challenge issued by Michel d’Oris in 1400 specified that blows with the lance on horseback would only be struck above the waist, but set no similar restriction for combat on foot.
As far as edge blows on foot were concerned, or strokes with the hammerheads or backspikes of pollaxes, there seems to generally have been no limits on where a properly equipped opponent could be struck. Against a fully armored opponent such blows could stun, or injure a man’s hands so that he could no longer fight that day, but had little chance of killing or causing permanent injury unless the attacker wound up with his pollaxe behind his back like a pickaxe. However, such blows were slow and in single combat against an opponent capable of defending himself they risked being forestalled by a quicker counterstroke.
Froissart claims that limbs were not a legitimate target at Vannes, but there is no evidence that he was present, and he seems to have misunderstood his sources. Cabaret d’Orville presents an alternative account that more plausibly reports that legs were not to be struck in only one combat, and that because an English knight was unable to wear legharness because of an injury, and asked his opponent to fight him on equal terms.
The only other explicit restriction I have found on target area in foot combats of the period was in a challenge issued by the seneschal of Hainault in 1402, that specified that “all the blows of the deed of arms will be struck from the bottom of the plates (i.e. the body armor) upwards.” This restriction may have been included because the deed of arms included both foot and mounted combat, and he wanted a single standard for both, or because he was concerned about blows to the groin through or up from beneath a mail skirt.
Against the plate harness of the era, the point offered a much greater risk of causing death or mayhem than the edge. In spite of this, there seems to have been little formal restriction on where one could thrust. In Cabaret d’Orville’s account of Vannes one Englishman was stabbed in the shoulder through his mail between breastplate and rerebrace and another between his rerebrace and vambrace. Ordinarily, good mail in good condition might be expected to withstand a thrust on foot without breaking a link. If it held, an acute point could still be expected to penetrate some ways into a ring, but the wound would be relatively shallow
Thrusts against an exposed face or within a visor’s eyeslot would seem to offer an extreme risk of injury. However, Jaques de Lalaing, fighting by consent against opponents in open helmets, stabbed at least two in the face. Fighting against Diego de Guzman, he managed to penetrate the sight of his visor three times, wounding him each time on the brow or cheek. There is no indication in the records of these combats that there was anything illicit about any of these blows.
There is, however a world of difference between stabbing someone in the cheek or brow and stabbing him in the eye. That Lalaing stabbed Guzman three times through his eyeslots without hitting his eyes once suggests that he was making a deliberate effort to avoid that target. Limited deeds of arms were freely undertaken to test the courage and skill on both sides. Those that undertook them also thought of their opponents as companions: brothers in arms with whom they would share their bread. Putting out your companion’s eyes in a test of skill and courage was excessive even for a hard age that considered bearbaiting good clean fun. I suspect there was at least a gentleman’s agreement for contestants in combats for a set number of blows to avoid stabbing each other’s eyes, although I know of no explicit prohibition.
It also seems likely that there was some variation in just how aggressive judges and opponents expected these contests to be. In a combat between John de Merlé and the lord de Chargny in 1435, Merlé fought with his visor raised, and “the like had not been before seen”. Although Merlé was praised for his bravery, “de Chargny was much displeased that his adversary did not close his visor” De Chargny may have felt that his opponent was imposing an improper risk of serious injury on the contest, or alternatively, that it was improper for him to stab his opponent in the exposed face, and Merlé was both imposing on his forbearance and gaining the advantage of greater visibility by doing something he would not do in an actual mortal combat.