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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.


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.


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 .


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

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Duels, combats between two armed individuals, are usually associated with affairs of honor. The duel had its roots in the medieval* practice of trial by battle, a method often authorized by officials to settle disputes between gentlemen in a public arena. This type of dueling ended by the mid-1500s. Thereafter, dueling came under fire and efforts were even made to prosecute duelers. At the Council of Trent (1545–1563), the Roman Catholic Church condemned dueling. In 1566 France declared unauthorized dueling punishable by death. James I of England waged a personal crusade against dueling and even wrote a treatise* against it.

None of these measures ended dueling, which continued to be popular in the late 1500s and early 1600s. According to estimates of the day, hundreds of European noblemen died every year in duels. The greatest number of duels took place in Italy, France, and England. The practice was rare in Spain, and only became popular in Germany and Holland in the late 1600s. Stage plays of the time, particularly in England, frequently featured scenes involving duels.

Many people criticized dueling, but others defended and glorified it. Despite the church's position, the Jesuits* tended to support the practice on the grounds that a man's honor was as valuable as his property and should be defended. French philosopher Jean Bodin believed that dueling offered an outlet for aristocrats and kept them from rebelling against the government.

Why did dueling become so popular during the Renaissance? Part of the answer is the elaborate code of honor developed by Italian humanists* of the 1400s and 1500s. The code specified how gentlemen should relate to each other, described various levels of insults, and explained how to respond to them. It became a mark of noble birth to settle matters of personal honor by dueling. Another factor in the increase in dueling was the development of the rapier—a light, thin, needle-sharp sword. Easier to handle than older, heavier swords, the rapier enabled gentlemen to walk around armed, to draw at a moment's notice, and to inflict grave injury.

Changes in the status and role of the aristocracy* also contributed to the growth of dueling. On the battlefield, military training and teamwork became more important than individual heroism and noble birth. Common foot solders, rather than nobles on horseback, now decided battles. At the same time, the ranks of the nobility grew as kings handed out many new titles. James I of England, for example, raised money in the early 1600s by selling titles to many commoners. Aristocrats worried about losing their special status. Dueling allowed them to show their nobility through a concern for personal honor, which would set them above the rest of society.

(See alsoAristocracy; Chivalry; Honor; Violence; Warfare. )

* medieval

referring to the Middle Ages, a period that began around a.d. 400 and ended around 1400 in Italy and 1500 in the rest of Europe

* treatise

long, detailed essay

* Jesuit

refers to a Roman Catholic religious order founded by St. Ignatius Loyola and approved in 1540

* humanist

Renaissance expert in the humanities (the languages, literature, history, and speech and writing techniques of ancient Greece and Rome)

* aristocracy

privileged upper classes of society; nobles or the nobility

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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.

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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

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Duel ★★★ 1971 (PG)

Spielberg's first notable film, a truly scary made-for-TV exercise in paranoia. A docile traveling salesman is repeatedly attacked and threatened by a huge, malevolent tractor-trailer on an open desert highway. Released theatrically in Europe. 90m/C VHS, DVD . Dennis Weaver, Lucille Benson, Eddie Firestone, Cary Loftin, Jacqueline Scott, Lou Frizzell, Gene Dynarski; D: Steven Spielberg; W: Richard Matheson; C: Jack Marta; M: Billy Goldenberg. TV

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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.

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