As a historian, I have done several years' research on the topic of informal everyday violence in late medieval and early modern Europe -- in essence, tavern brawls and knife fights. This topic has only fairly recently been picked up by crime historians, since about 1995. The history of crime is not so much concerned with written law codices, but more with how society copes with crime: what is considered a crime, how the persecution of criminals is organized, what punishments are applied, who is punished -- and who is not.
The Middle Ages are generally seen as a rather violent period. A late medieval city was a dangerous place by modern European standards; it was, however, considered safe by its citizens, compared to the hazards of the roads and forests around it.
Authorities tried to ban, unsuccessfully, the wearing of weapons in crowded places like taverns, brothels, bathhouses, and churches, where fights broke out frequently, mostly on holidays and weekends. Though daggers were often used, fights rarely ended in the death of one of the fighters; in most cases only superficial wounds were inflicted. Demonstrating one's courage and willingness to fight was often enough to keep face.
Men usually fought in defense of their personal honor, defined as the ability to protect one's personal space, reputation, family, home, possessions, rights and privileges. Insults in public escalated to brawls or knife fights. The goal was not to kill, but only to publicly defeat the other person.
Violent defense of personal honor was a necessity; if a man allowed his honor to be damaged, nobody would do business with him anymore, and he would lose social status. Therefore, even high city officials and nobles engaged in public fights, though only with their equals.
The concept of honor defines a group and differentiates it from other groups. Modern research suggests that the fight for honor constituted a form of self-regulation in a society that had no police and relatively weak central authorities. So, ritualized fighting was a constructive rather than a destructive element of society. It was used to make a point, to send a signal to the opponent as well as the "audience"; it was part of the communicative repertoire of adult men of all levels of society.
Everyday conflicts in the Middle Ages usually followed an unwritten code of conduct. The sequence of escalation started with insulting the other person, grabbing their lapels, knocking off their hat (a status sign), shoving them to the ground and, finally, drawing the dagger and fighting with fists and knife. Movements probably tended to be big and theatrical; a brawl was as much a display of fighting prowess for the benefit of spectators/witnesses as it was a real fight. The escalation sequence could be broken by intervention of bystanders.
The law treated these honorable fights in public places rather leniently. If somebody was wounded, his adversary had to pay a fine according to the seriousness of the wound. If a fighter was killed, the killer was banished from the city for several years. Cowardly murdering a person from behind, on the other hand, was a capital crime, and the murderer was usually executed. Theft was considered dishonorable and therefore much worse than public violence, and punishment was stricter. Also, punishment was always harsher for strangers than for citizens.
There also were other, more regulated forms of public fighting: tournaments, fencing schools and exhibitions, stage fights, wrestling contests, judicial combat and, later, duels.
Illustration 1: Training with fencing swords. The trainer/referee in the background can use his staff to break up the fight. On the floor there are other training weapons -- note the “messers” in the foreground with their special protective gloves. Woodcut from Weiss-Kunig (written ca. 1514, printed 1775) pg. 92a. CC BY-NC-SA Heidelberg University Library
To tournaments, fencing schools, and wrestling contests the term "combat sports" might be applied, though they do not really fit the modern definition of "sport". From the 13th century onwards, tournaments were staged in cities, as only a city could provide accommodation for the hundreds of participants and their retinue. Tournaments were colorful spectacles. During the day there would be contests, jousts in several varieties, mounted group combat (mêlée) and foot combat, in the evenings banquets, dances and masquerades. Only rich knights, nobles and patricians could afford to participate in a tournament.
On the other hand, the fechtschule (fencing contest) allowed commoners to show their skill in handling swords, daggers, staffs and other weapons. They fought without protective equipment, but the most dangerous techniques -- thrusting, pommel strikes, throws -- were forbidden. A referee stood ready to interfere if illegal means were used.
Staged show fights were performed by professional Klopffechter, who were despised by fencing masters for their ineffective but flamboyant style aimed at pleasing the audience. They were the predecessors of the English prize fighters of the 17th and 18th centuries, who probably used a style of fencing that produced bloody, but only superficial wounds.
In the Middle Ages, wrestling was a popular pastime for peasants and nobles alike. Wrestling is the only medieval fighting system that has, as folk tradition, survived hardly changed until today. Austrian Ranggeln and Swiss Schwingen, for instance, are direct descendants of medieval wrestling.
Trial by combat was part of the judicial system for hundreds of years, falling out of use in the 14th century. The basic premise of judicial combat as an ordeal was that God would help the innocent to gain victory. Opponents were often allowed to hire a fencing master to prepare them for battle, or even a champion to fight in their stead. Commoners usually fought in close-fitting linen garments, knights and nobles in full armor. A judge would preside over the fight. Judicial combat might end in the death of one fighter, but nightfall, leaving the combat area or the judge's intervention could also end the fight.
The duel probably evolved out of the trial by combat. A formal duel required a challenge and the presence of several witnesses. Many duels of the 16th and 17th centuries, however, were nothing more than street fights. University students were notorious to duel at the slightest provocation; fencing lessons therefore were an important part of their studies -- as well as dancing lessons, and often taught by the same teacher, because the footwork was similar.
In all of these forms of combat, spectators were present; and so, the defense and advancement of personal honor and reputation played a major part, and the presence of spectators certainly had some influence on the way the fight was conducted.
Combat was different depending on the situation and on the weapons used. Wrestling was the basis of fencing and might be applied whenever the opportunity presented itself. Dagger fighting was quite close to wrestling; the fighting distance was the same, and daggers were often used as levers to enhance wrestling throws and locks. There was a big difference between fighting unarmored or in full armor; against the latter, sword blows had almost no effect, so armor-breaking weapons like maces or war hammers or a special sword fighting style called "half-swording" were used.
Though in modern European societies personal honor is usually defended in court, and public fighting has been officially relegated to the realm of sports, today's youth gangs and other violence-prone male groups still adhere to the concept of male honor described above, along with violent rituals.
Hooligans, for instance, take part in "tournaments" outside stadiums. The number of "competitors" on either side is the same. The fights are organized according to strict rules -- either with "equipment" or without it. And thus, hooligans are equipped with baseball bats, knives, axes, machetes, chains, etc. Often referees are present to assure that those who are down are taken out of the fight, and to decide which side has won. To win such a fight means to gain international prestige; there are online leaderboards for hooligans. That is why hooligan groups train beforehand and organize sparring fights.
So, to summarize: in violence-prone societies, fighting is a form of communication. Winning a fight increases personal honor and social status; by participating in a fight, and losing, honor may at least be preserved. In the following part I will propose a few ideas how non-lethal combat might be integrated in a medieval or fantasy game world. In a modern game world, the basic ideas could still be used.