duel is an arranged engagement in combat between two people, with matched weapons, in accordance with agreed-upon rules. Duels in this form were chiefly practiced in early modern Europe with precedents in the medieval code of chivalry, and continued into the modern period (18th to late 19th centuries, if not beyond) especially among military officers.
During the 17th and 18th centuries (and earlier), duels were mostly fought with swords (the rapier, and later the small sword), but beginning in the late 18th century in England, duels were more commonly fought using pistols. Fencing and pistol duels continued to co-exist throughout the 19th century.
The duel was based on a code of honor. Duels were fought not so much to kill the opponent as to gain “satisfaction”, that is, to restore one’s honor by demonstrating a willingness to risk one’s life for it, and as such the tradition of dueling was originally reserved for the male members of nobility; however, in the modern era, it extended to those of the upper classes generally. On occasion, duels with pistols or swords were fought between women.
Legislation against dueling goes back to the medieval period. The Fourth Council of the Lateran (1215) outlawed duels, and civil legislation in the Holy Roman Empire against dueling was passed in the wake of the Thirty Years’ War. From the early 17th century, duels became illegal in the countries where they were practiced. Dueling largely fell out of favor in England by the mid-19th century and in Continental Europe by the turn of the 20th century. Dueling declined in the Eastern United States in the 19th century and by the time the American Civil War broke out, dueling had begun to wane even in the South. Public opinion, not legislation, caused the change. Research has linked the decline of dueling to increases in state capacity.
Offense and satisfaction
The traditional situation that led to a duel often happened after a perceived offense, whether real or imagined, when one party would demand satisfaction from the offender. One could signal this demand with an inescapably insulting gesture, such as throwing his glove before him.
Usually, challenges were delivered in writing by one or more close friends who acted as “seconds”. The challenge, written in formal language, laid out the real or imagined grievances and a demand for satisfaction. The challenged party then had the choice of accepting or refusing the challenge. Grounds for refusing the challenge could include that it was frivolous, or that the challenger was not generally recognized as a “gentleman” since dueling was limited to persons of equal social status. However, care had to be taken before declining a challenge, as it could result in accusations of cowardice or be perceived as an insult to the challenger’s seconds if it was implied that they were acting on behalf of someone of low social standing. Participation in a duel could be honorably refused on account of a major difference in age between the parties and, to a lesser extent, in cases of social inferiority on the part of the challenger. Such inferiority had to be immediately obvious, however. As author Bertram Wyatt-Brown states, “with social distinctions often difficult to measure,” most men could not escape on such grounds without the appearance of cowardice.
Once a challenge was accepted, if not done already, both parties (known as “principals”) would appoint trusted representatives to act as their seconds with no further direct communication between the principals being allowed until the dispute was settled. The seconds had a number of responsibilities, of which the first was to do all in their power to avert bloodshed provided their principal’s honor was not compromised. This could involve back and forth correspondence about a mutually agreeable lesser course of action, such as a formal apology for the alleged offense.
In the event that the seconds failed to persuade their principals to avoid a fight, they then attempted to agree on terms for the duel that would limit the chance of a fatal outcome, consistent with the generally accepted guidelines for affairs of honor. The exact rules or etiquette for dueling varied by time and locale but were usually referred to as the code duello. In most cases, the challenged party had the choice of weapons, with swords being favored in many parts of continental Europe and pistols in the United States and Great Britain.
It was the job of the seconds to make all of the arrangements in advance, including how long the duel would last and what conditions would end the duel. Often sword duels were only fought until blood was drawn, thus severely limiting the likelihood of death or grave injury since a scratch could be considered as satisfying honor. In pistol duels, the number of shots to be permitted and the range were set out. Care was taken by the seconds to ensure the ground chosen gave no unfair advantage to either party. A doctor or surgeon was usually arranged to be on hand. Other things often arranged by the seconds could go into minute details that might seem odd in the modern world, such as the dress code (duels were often formal affairs), the number and names of any other witnesses to be present and whether or not refreshments would be served.
Field of honor
“Field of honor” redirects here. For other uses, see Field of Honor.
The chief criteria for choosing the field of honor were isolation, to avoid discovery and interruption by the authorities; and jurisdictional ambiguity, to avoid legal consequences. Islands in rivers dividing two jurisdictions were popular dueling sites; the cliffs below Weehawken on the Hudson River where the Hamilton–Burr duel occurred were a popular field of honor for New York duellists because of the uncertainty whether New York or New Jersey jurisdiction applied. Duels traditionally took place at dawn, when the poor light would make the participants less likely to be seen, and to force an interval for reconsideration or sobering-up.
For some time before the mid-18th century, swordsmen dueling at dawn often carried lanterns to see each other. This happened so regularly that fencing manuals integrated lanterns into their lessons. An example of this is using the lantern to parry blows and blind the opponent. The manuals sometimes show the combatants carrying the lantern in the left hand wrapped behind the back, which is still one of the traditional positions for the off hand in modern fencing.
At the choice of the offended party, the duel could be fought to a number of conclusions:
- To first blood, in which case the duel would be ended as soon as one man was wounded, even if the wound was minor.
- Until one man was so severely wounded as to be physically unable to continue the duel.
- To the death (or “à l’outrance”), in which case there would be no satisfaction until one party was mortally wounded.
- In the case of pistol duels, each party would fire one shot. If neither man was hit and if the challenger stated that he was satisfied, the duel would be declared over. If the challenger was not satisfied, a pistol duel could continue until one man was wounded or killed, but to have more than three exchanges of fire was considered barbaric, and, on the rare occasion that no hits were achieved, somewhat ridiculous.
Under the latter conditions, one or both parties could intentionally miss in order to fulfill the conditions of the duel, without loss of either life or honor. However, doing so, known as deloping, could imply that one’s opponent was not worth shooting. This practice occurred despite being expressly banned by the Code Duello of 1777. Rule XII stated: “No dumb shooting or firing in the air is admissible in any case… children’s play must be dishonourable on one side or the other, and is accordingly prohibited.”
Practices varied, however, but unless the challenger was of a higher social standing, such as a baron or prince challenging a knight, the person being challenged was allowed to decide the time and weapons used in the duel. The offended party could stop the duel at any time if he deemed his honor satisfied. In some duels, the seconds would take the place of the primary dueller if the primary was not able to finish the duel. This was usually done in duels with swords, where one’s expertise was sometimes limited. The second would also act as a witness.
For a pistol duel, the two would typically start at a pre-agreed length of ground, which would be measured out by the seconds and marked, often with swords stuck in the ground (referred to as “points”). At a given signal, often the dropping of a handkerchief, the principals could advance and fire at will. This latter system reduced the possibility of cheating, as neither principal had to trust the other not to turn too soon. Another system involved alternate shots being taken, beginning with the challenged firing first.
Many historical duels were prevented by the difficulty of arranging the “methodus pugnandi”. In the instance of Richard Brocklesby, the number of paces could not be agreed upon; and in the affair between Mark Akenside and Ballow, one had determined never to fight in the morning, and the other that he would never fight in the afternoon. John Wilkes, “who did not stand upon ceremony in these little affairs,” when asked by Lord Talbot how many times they were to fire, replied, “just as often as your Lordship pleases; I have brought a bag of bullets and a flask of gunpowder.”
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