Dueling in Europe

Dueling or Duel (from duellum, derived from duo) is a combat between two, at a time and place appointed in consequence of a challenge, and so is distinguished from an encounter taking place without any previous arrangement. The custom of dueling was derived from the Germans, Danes and Franks, who carried the practice of the judicial combat so far that none were excused except women, sick people, cripples and such as were over 60 years of age. Even ecclesiastics and monks were obliged to maintain their controversies by a champion in arms; and this singular species of jurisprudence was not confined to criminal accusations, but the titles to estates were decided in the same manner. At length, however, this mode of trial was limited to those accusations of capital offenses in which there was no other testimony and in which common fame pronounced the accused party to be guilty. The party vanquished was punished by hanging, beheading or mutilation of members. A judicial combat was authorized by Gundebald, king of the Burgundians, as early is 501 A.D. The practice of trying rights to land, as well as the guilt or innocence of an accused party, by combat under judicial authority, very naturally suggested the decision of personal quarrels in the same way, and all cases in which there was no adequate redress provided in the ordinary tribunals.

The example of Francis I of France and Charles V of Spain gave a sanction to this mode of arbitration. On the breaking up of the treaty between these sovereigns and the declaration of war by the French and English heralds at the court of Charles, 2 Jan. 1528, the emperor, in replying to the declaration of the French monarch, desired the herald to acquaint his sovereign that he would henceforth consider him not only as a base violator of public faith, but as a stranger to the honor and integrity becoming a gentleman. On receiving this message Francis immediately sent back the herald with a cartel of defiance, gave the Emperor the lie in form, challenged him to single combat and required him to appoint the time, place and weapons. Charles accepted the challenge; but after many messages concerning the arrangements for the combat, accompanied with mutual reproaches bordering on the most indecent scurrility, all thoughts of the duel were given up. But this affair, though it thus terminated without any encounter, is supposed to have had a great influence in producing an important change in manners all over Europe. Upon every insult or injury which seemed to touch his honor a gentleman thought himself entitled to draw his sword and to call on his adversary to give him satisfaction. Dueling raged with the greatest violence in France, where it is calculated that 6,000 persons fell in duels during 10 years of the reign of Henry IV. His celebrated minister, Sully, remonstrated against the practice; but the king connived at it, supposing that it tended to maintain a military spirit among his people. But afterward, in 1602, he issued a very severe decree against it and declared it to be punishable with death; and at the same time commanded any person who had suffered wrong or received an insult to submit his case to the governor of the province, in order that it might be considered by a tribunal consisting of the constables and marshals of France. This decree, however, accompanied by the institution of a tribunal of honor, did not put an end to duels in France. Richelieu was firm in carrying out all edicts by which he hoped to check the power of the nobility, and accordingly insisted on the strict observance of those against duels. Under his ministry the Count of Bouteville-Montmorency suffered death in 1627 for having violated a decree of the French Parliament against dueling. This had for a time the effect of deterring others from engaging in this practice. During the minority of Louis XIV the law was more feebly administered and more than 4,000 nobles are said to have lost their lives in duels. With the revolution of 1789 commenced the period of legal impunity for duels and a new class of duels became common, those, namely, between men engaged in politics. Bills, with a view to put down the practice, were brought forward in the Chambers in 1829 and 1830 and a similar proposal was made to the Council of State in 1832; but they were not accepted. At last, in 1837, the Court of Cassation determined to follow a new law with regard to duels, and protesting against the practice in the name of morality and law, it decided that in case of death or injury resulting from a duel the principal parties and the seconds should be proceeded against and punished in accordance with the general provisions of the code pénal. The French courts, however, reserve to themselves a discretionary power in dealing with cases of dueling, and the practice is by no means yet obsolete in France.

Single combats are said to have been introduced into England by the Normans. In the time of chivalry numerous single combats took place in England, which, in the proper sense of the term, can scarcely be called duels. It may be said that the duel, strictly so called, was introduced into England about the same time that it became common in France, such was the contagion of the example of Francis I and Charles V. In the reign of James I of England there were numerous cases of dueling, the most celebrated of which is that in which Lord Bruce and Lord Sackville (afterward Lord Dorset) were the principals and in which the former was killed. Cromwell was an enemy of the duel and during the protectorate there was a cessation of the practice. It came again into vogue, however, after the Restoration, thanks chiefly to the Gallican ideas that then inundated the court of Saint James. Some of the duels of that epoch are in perfect accord with the loose morality then prevalent. An instance of this is the duel in which the Duke of Buckingham killed the Earl of Shrewsbury, while the wife of the latter, the cause of the duel, who had accompanied the duke to the ground, witnessed the encounter in the dress of a page. A striking thing is that as society became more polished in England duels became more frequent. They were never more numerous than in the reign of George III. Among the principals in the fatal duels of this period were Charles James Fox, Sheridan, Pitt, Canning, Castlereagh, the Duke of York, the Duke of Richmond and Lord Camelford. The last-mentioned was the most notorious duelist of his time and was himself killed in a duel in 1804. Of all the duels which took place during the reigns of George IV, William IV and Queen Victoria, the most celebrated is that which was fought between the Duke of Wellington and Lord Winchelsea in 1829, the cause of which was certain animadversions which Lord Winchelsea had passed on the duke’s conduct in connection with the Catholic Emancipation Bill. The duel passed off without any injury being done to either of the parties engaged. The Duke of Wellington missed his aim, whereupon Lord Winchelsea fired into the air and apologized. Since 1844, when stringent regulations against the practice were passed, dueling has become extinct in the British army.

Generally on the continent of Europe the practice obtains among the great conscriptionist nations. An anti-dueling league has been formed, in which one of the leading spirits is the Infanta Alfonso, a member of the Spanish royal house, and its operations embrace France, Belgium, Germany, Austria and Spain. Dueling is still practised in Germany and is recognized as having a defined position in the army. As an illustration of the military viewpoint the following case may be cited. Dr. Sambeth, an army officer, in May 1912 was challenged by a brother officer, but as he was a Catholic he refused to accept it, the Church having pronounced against it. On the question being submitted to him, the Emperor William decided as follows: “The refusal to fight a duel based on religious conviction is not a subject for examination by a court of honor, but the medical officer who in this respect holds opinions contrary to those of his fellow officers, cannot be allowed to remain in the service.” Accordingly, he was dismissed from the army. A resolution against dueling passed by the Reichstag In 1912 was negatived by the Bundesrath in 1913. There were 13 duels fought by army officers in the latter year. Dueling is still practised at the universities in Germany and to a less extent in Russia, but these are very seldom serious affairs, being rather fencing matches with sharp weapons than duels proper. The combatants are generally padded all over the body except the face and sword-arm. The late Emperor Francis Joseph of Austria exercised his influence against dueling, counseling (1913) aggrieved officers to seek redress in the law courts. General Kuropatkin is a notable opponent of dueling in Russia, Victor Immanuel III of Italy some years ago directed an officer who had provoked a duel to be dismissed from the army and sentenced the principals and seconds to terms of imprisonment.

See Also

Further Reading

  • Douglas, ‘Duelling Days in the Army’ (1887);
  • Massi, ‘History of Duelling in All Countries’ (1880);
  • Milligen, ‘History of Duelling’ (1841);
  • Sabine, ‘Notes on Duels and Dueling’ (1855);
  • Steinmetz, ‘The Romance of Duelling’ (1868);
  • Truman, ‘The Field of Honor’ (1884).
  • Baldick, Robert. The Duel: A History of Duelling. London: Chapman & Hall, 1965.
  • Banks, Stephen. Duels and Duelling, Oxford: Shire, 2012.
  • Banks, Stephen. A Polite Exchange of Bullets; The Duel and the English Gentleman, 1750–1850, (Woodbridge: Boydell 2010)
  • Banks, Stephen. “Very little law in the case: Contests of Honour and the Subversion of the English Criminal Courts, 1780-1845” (2008) 19(3) King’s Law Journal 575-594.
  • Banks, Stephen. “Dangerous Friends: The Second and the Later English Duel” (2009) 32 (1) Journal of Eighteenth Century Studies” 87-106.
  • Banks, Stephen. “Killing with Courtesy: The English Duelist, 1785-1845,” (2008) 47 Journal of British Studies 528-558.
  • Bell, Richard, “The Double Guilt of Dueling: The Stain of Suicide in Anti-dueling Rhetoric in the Early Republic,” Journal of the Early Republic, 29 (Fall 2009), 383–410.
  • Cramer, Clayton. Concealed Weapon Laws of the Early Republic: Dueling, Southern Violence, and Moral Reform
  • Freeman, Joanne B. Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001; paperback ed., 2002)
  • Freeman, Joanne B. “Dueling as Politics: Reinterpreting the Burr-Hamilton Duel.” The William and Mary Quarterly, 3d series, 53 (April 1996): 289–318.
  • Frevert, Ute. “Men of Honour: A Social and Cultural History of the Duel.” trans. Anthony Williams Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995.
  • Greenberg, Kenneth S. “The Nose, the Lie, and the Duel in the Antebellum South.” American Historical Review 95 (February 1990): 57–73.
  • James Kelly. That Damn’d Thing Called Honour: Duelling in Ireland 1570–1860″ (1995)
  • Kevin McAleer. Dueling: The Cult of Honor in Fin-de-Siecle Germany (1994)
  • Morgan, Cecilia. “‘In Search of the Phantom Misnamed Honour’: Duelling in Upper Canada.” Canadian Historical Review 1995 76(4): 529–562.
  • Rorabaugh, W. J. “The Political Duel in the Early Republic: Burr v. Hamilton.” Journal of the Early Republic 15 (Spring 1995): 1–23.
  • Schwartz, Warren F., Keith Baxter and David Ryan. “The Duel: Can these Gentlemen be Acting Efficiently?.” The Journal of Legal Studies 13 (June 1984): 321–355.
  • Steward, Dick. Duels and the Roots of Violence in Missouri (2000),
  • Williams, Jack K. Dueling in the Old South: Vignettes of Social History (1980) (1999),
  • Wyatt-Brown, Bertram. Honor and Violence in the Old South (1986)
  • Wyatt-Brown, Bertram. Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South (1982),
  • Holland, Barbara. “Gentlemen’s Blood: A History of Dueling” New York, NY. (2003)
  • Duels and Duelling (Stephen Banks) 2012.
  • The Code of Honor; or, Rules for the Government of Principals and Seconds in Duelling, John Lyde Wilson 1838
  • The Field of Honor Benjamin C. Truman. (1884); reissued as Duelling in America (1993).
  • Savannah Duels & Duellists, Thomas Gamble (1923)
  • Gentlemen, Swords and Pistols, Harnett C. Kane (1951)
  • Pistols at Ten Paces: The Story of the Code of Honor in America, William Oliver Stevens (1940)
  • The Duel: A History, Robert Baldick (1965, 1996)
  • Dueling With the Sword and Pistol: 400 Years of One-on-One Combat, Paul Kirchner (2004)
  • Duel, James Landale (2005).
  • Ritualized Violence Russian Style: The Duel in Russian Culture and Literature, Irina Reyfman (1999).
  • A Polite Exchange of Bullets; The Duel and the English Gentleman, 1750-1850, Stephen Banks (2010)