Skip to main content

Duel

DUEL

DUEL. Duels were a major source of disorder and crime in the early modern period. Of course, dueling has a history that transcends the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. Trial by combat was common in the Middle Ages and was frequently prescribed and sanctioned by authorities as a means of settling criminal cases. The practice continued well into the modern period, especially between military men and even between public officials. The French statesman of the early twentieth century, Georges Clemenceau, is credited with twenty-two duels.

RISE OF THE DUEL IN EARLY MODERN EUROPE

There are reasons for concluding, however, that dueling, defined as ritualized combat over affairs of honor, has a special place in the culture of early modern Europe. For one thing, it was then that the code of honor was established as a cornerstone of aristocratic life. Out of the Renaissance emerged understandings, derived ultimately from ancient notions of glory and heroism, that vaunted an exalted sense of the aristocratic self. Schooled in the precise etiquette of social interactions between gentlemen, noblemen were taught that honor aggrieved could only be satisfied with blood. The well-known legal scholar Andrea Alciati (Alciato) wrote an early code on the duel; Girolamo Muzio's Il duello (1550) was one of the most widely read treatises on the subject and spawned many imitations. Even Baldessare Castiglione, who expressed disapproval of the practice, acknowledged that, once committed to a duel, a gentleman must not fail to demonstrate his courage.

Another reason dueling was more of a problem in the early modern period is that, for technological reasons, it simply became easier for gentlemen to draw swords when provoked. By the mid-sixteenth century the rapier, an Italian invention, began to appear throughout Europe. Lightweight and deadly, this needlepoint sword allowed gentlemen to walk about with weapons at their sides that could be drawn at the slightest imprecation or insult. Encounters that might have ended in mutual exhaustion with cumbersome broadswords now turned instantly fatal with the merest thrust. Even courtiers and aristocratic fops with no military experience and little physical bearing were now armed and dangerous.

These factors alone, however, are not sufficient to explain the duel's prominence in the early modern period. The heart of the matter relates to the anxieties and sensitivities that prompted aristocrats to cross swords so readily. Without embracing the discredited notion of a "crisis of the aristocracy," it still can be argued that a heightened concern for their statuses and privileges led many gentlemen to the duel. Two factors seem most salient. One was the so-called military revolution that, generally speaking, challenged the aristocracy's traditional role in society, that of "those who fight," by replacing cavalry with infantry at the crux of battlefield tactics. Aristocrats continued to serve as officers in the military, but now they were forced to reconsider their role in an enterprise that increasingly valued esprit de corps over individualism, patient strategizing over brute impetuosity, leadership over heroism, and training over birthright. Another factor was the inflation of honors and the sale of offices, which greatly increased the pool of privileged elites. Under James I (ruled 16031625), England saw a dramatic inflation of honors, after the long depression of Elizabeth I's (15581603) reign, an upturn that indeed coincided with an outbreak of the dueling mania. In France new titles were distributed throughout the sixteenth century and especially during the religious wars. In addition, the nobility of the robe, the class of magistrates ennobled mostly through positions in the realms' sovereign courts, the parlements, more than doubled in the period. These magistrates not only added to the already crowded field of privileged elites, they also challenged traditional aristocrats of the sword with a different aristocratic ethos, one that emphasized learning, civility, and royal service. This did not mean they were immune to the duel. Pierre de L'Estoile recounted that a son of a robe official slew a gentleman who dared question his rank. It did mean, however, that, as with the military revolution, competition from parvenus and outsiders could provoke anxiety and uncertainty among aristocrats, prompting them to seek relief in a ritual that, if nothing else, reaffirmed their self-images as great men whose senses of honor and sensitivities to injury set them far above others. The Venetian ambassador observed that the duel formed the greatest bond between French noblemen, and his observation attests to the importance of this custom as a paradoxical feature of class solidarity.

OPPOSITION TO THE DUEL

Authorities and critics bemoaned the dueling mania in part because de facto toleration of the practice seemed to concede that the nobility was above the law, subject to a code of conduct all its own. Disturbers of the public peace, duelists were thus obstacles to the goal of imposing civility, comity, and legal uniformity on early modern societies, a crucial task of early modern state making. But the real cost of dueling in terms of civil disturbance and lives lost was enough to make it a major concern. Precise figures are hard to come by, but it is clear that the bloodletting was significant. In the early seventeenth century the jurist Jean de Savaron commented that there were "few or no noble houses exempted from this carnage" (Traicté contre les duels, Paris, 1610, p. 49), while a preacher at the Estates-General in 1614 argued that dueling was responsible for twice as many deaths as the Wars of Religion. In Britain during the reign of George III (ruled 17601820) there were 172 reported duels, a somewhat modest figure except that 91 had fatal consequences. And if the comments of critics and reformers are any measure, dueling continued as a major source of criminality throughout the early modern period.

Attempts to curb the duel began in the mid-sixteenth century. The Council of Trent (15451563) condemned the practice. In 1566 unauthorized dueling was declared a capital offense in France; in 1576 it was deemed a treasonous act. James I, who had ample exposure to intramural brawling during his reign in Scotland, made extirpation of the duel a personal mission, even writing a treatise against it. Kings, however, often proved reluctant to prosecute a crime that stemmed from martial qualities they admired. Henry IV (15891610) of France was notoriously lax in backing up the royal ban. Cardinal Richelieu (15851642), on the other hand, encouraged Louis XIII (ruled 16101643) to remain steadfast in the execution of François de Montmorency-Bouteville (15301579), a well-known scion of one of the most prominent families in Europe, after he was convicted of breaking the law by dueling in broad daylight in a Parisian square. Religious reformers, secular moralists, and legal commentators continued to denounce the duel as a symptom of the egotism, lawlessness, irreligion, and other excesses, like drunkenness and libertinism, that seemed endemic to the aristocracy. In the Enlightenment, dueling, and especially the code of honor, came to be seen as a useless relic from a benighted age, unworthy of reasonable, truly sociable men. Charles-Louis de Secondat de Montesquieu (16891755), commenting on the practice of seconds in the duel, famously remarked on the folly of a "man who would have been reluctant to give someone else five pounds in order to save him from the gallows . . . would make no bones about going to risk his life for him a thousand times over" (Persian Letters, no. 90, p. 172).

And yet even in the age of reason the duel had its apologists. Some writers waxed nostalgic for the martial, heroic values it seemed to embody, especially in a time when refinement and the influence of women were hallmarks of high society. Others simply maintained the justice of recourse to the duel as a necessary, if dangerous, means of defending one's reputation in extremis. As Samuel Johnson (17091784) pronounced, "No, Sir, a man may shoot the man who invades his character, as he may shoot him who attempts to break into his house" (Boswell's Life of Johnson, quoted by Kiernan, The Duel, pp. 179180). If there was stubborn ambivalence with regard to the duel, this perhaps reflected the fact that the early modern period remained, despite all the changes, an aristocratic era dominated by notions of honor, a belief in the superiority of noble blood and lineage, and a sense of the legitimacy of private justice.

See also Honor .

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Billacois, François. The Duel: Its Rise and Fall in Early Modern France. Edited and translated by Trista Selous. New Haven, 1990. Translation of Le duel dans la société française des XVIeXVIIe siècles (1986).

Kiernan, V. G. The Duel in European History. Oxford, 19881989.

Montesquieu, Charles-Louis de Secondat. Persian Letters. Translated by C. J. Betts. New York, 1973.

Savaron, Jean de. Traicté contre les duels. Paris, 1610.

Schneider, Robert A. "Swordplay and Statemaking: Aspects of the Campaign against the Duel in Early Modern France." In Statemaking and Social Movements: Essays in History and Theory, edited by Charles Bright and Susan Harding. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1984.

Robert A. Schneider

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Duel." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Apr. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Duel." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/duel

"Duel." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Retrieved April 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/duel

duel

duel, prearranged armed fight with deadly weapons, usually swords or pistols, between two persons concerned with a point of honor. The duel may have originated in the wager of battle, an early mode of trial in which an accused person fought with his accuser under judicial supervision (see ordeal). In 887, Pope Stephen VI prohibited the judicial duel and all forms of ordeal. Wager of battle was abolished in France in the mid-16th cent., and the duel of honor in part took its place. This institution, which emerged in the Italian Renaissance, spread to France and then to Great Britain and other European countries. It evolved in the 16th cent. and was very closely linked with the code of chivalry). Codified in various countries in the late 18th and early 19th cents., the duel of honor became a rare practice after World War I.

To initiate a duel the offended party would present a challenge to fight, which had to be accepted or the person challenged would be dishonored. Negotiations were conducted by seconds, who also observed the combat to see that all agreements of the complex ceremony were observed. The object of a duel was not necessarily to kill, and in most cases after the firing of a prescribed number of shots or drawing blood the fight would be stopped. Although dueling was opposed by the rulers and churches of various countries, it long persisted among aristocrats, army officers, and others. German students were especially noted for their duels. Duels were quite common in the United States, some fought by prominent Americans. For example, Alexander Hamilton was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr, and Andrew Jackson took part in several duels. In the United States, dueling persisted longest in the Southern states and on the Western frontier. Dueling today has been made illegal by statute in most countries. Killing in the course of a duel is usually considered willful murder, and all persons aiding the principals are guilty with them.

See studies by J. Atkinson (1964), R. Baldrick (1965), V. G. Kiernan (1986), K. McAleer (1994), J. B. Freeman (2001), B. Holland (2003), and J. Landale (2006).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"duel." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Apr. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"duel." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/duel

"duel." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved April 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/duel

duel

du·el / ˈd(y)oōəl/ • n. chiefly hist. a contest with deadly weapons arranged between two people in order to settle a point of honor. ∎  (in modern use) a contest or race between two parties: two eminent critics engaged in a verbal duel. • v. (du·eled , du·el·ing ; Brit. du·elled, du·el·ling) [intr.] fight a duel or duels: [as n.] (dueling) dueling had been forbidden for serving officers. DERIVATIVES: du·el·er (Brit. du·el·ler) n. du·el·ist / -ist/ (Brit. du·el·list) n. ORIGIN: late 15th cent.: from Latin duellum, archaic form of bellum ‘war,’ used in medieval Latin with the meaning ‘combat between two persons,’ partly influenced by dualis ‘of two.’ The original sense was ‘single combat used to decide a judicial dispute’; the sense ‘contest to decide a point of honor’ dates from the early 17th cent.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"duel." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Apr. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"duel." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/duel-0

"duel." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved April 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/duel-0

duel

duel single combat. XV. — It. duello or L. duellum, arch. form of bellum war, used in medL. for the official single combat.
Hence duellist XVI.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"duel." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Apr. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"duel." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/duel-1

"duel." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Retrieved April 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/duel-1

duel

dueldenial, dial, espial, Lyall, mistrial, myall, Niall, phial, trial, vial, viol •sundial •knawel, withdrawal •avowal, Baden-Powell, bowel, disembowel, dowel, Howell, Powell, rowel, towel, trowel, vowel •semivowel •bestowal, koel, Lowell, Noel •loyal, royal, viceroyal •accrual, construal, crewel, cruel, dual, duel, fuel, gruel, jewel, newel, renewal, reviewal •eschewal •artefactual (US artifactual), contractual, factual, tactual •perpetual •aspectual, effectual, intellectual •conceptual, perceptual •contextual, textual •habitual, ritual •conflictual • instinctual • spiritual •mutual • punctual • virtual • casual •audio-visual, televisual, visual •usual • gradual • individual •menstrual • actual •asexual, bisexual, heterosexual, homosexual, psychosexual, sexual, transsexual, unisexual •accentual, conventual, eventual •Samuel •annual, biannual, Emanuel, Emmanuel, manual •Lemuel •consensual, sensual •continual

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"duel." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Apr. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"duel." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/duel

"duel." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved April 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/duel