Dueling was a way for the upper class
Holland, Barbara. Gentlemen's Blood. New York: Bloomsbury, 2003. Print.
to retain and defend their honor. Only rarely was dueling a sport for the peasants and slowly emerging middle class.[1] Even then it was more often a brawl than an actual duel. Dueling was widespread across all of Europe, except for perhaps Spain, which was still at war as well as usually content with a bull fight instead of a duel. [2]

Dueling was the sport of ‘gentlemen,’ as they were called at the time. Although it is important to note that in the 1700s gentleman was a title, just as lord and duke were titles. Gentlemen would never bother, of course, fighting with the lower class.[3]

Starting a Duel

  • Throwing a glove at a man’s face wouldn’t necessarily start a duel, but it was certainly offensive [4]
  • Flicking a glove at a man’s face was of a similar standing [5]
  • Slapping a man in the face cried duel [6]
  • Discrepancy over bravery, ancestry, military victories, wives and sometimes women, money, debt on occasion, amount and quality of livestock could all lead to duels [7]
  • Calling someone a liar was especially offensive the 1600s [8]
  • Even jostling someone could lead to a duel, especially if a young man was in desperate hopes of starting one [9]

How it Went

Originally, gentlemen had to go to the king and ask his permission to duel with another. This disappeared around the time of King Francois I in the 1540s. Landowners began to rent out their fields and build up bleachers for spectators.[10]

Unless a man was out to insult people with the intent of starting a duel, and even then sometimes this did apply, a challenge was usually prelude by a span of time where the insulted would ask the aggressor for an apology or an explanation. This span could be anywhere from a day to several years and resulted in either forgetting the insult or arranging a duel.[11] Ultimately, the duel could be arranged either orally, as was more preferred by the 1700s, or the a written challenge in the form of a cartel, which continued to be very popular in Italy for a long time.[12]

Most always, for it to be a formal duel, gentlemen brought seconds, who weren’t supposed to fight even if they sometimes did, but were instead there as witnesses and negotiation.[13] Gentlemen also sometimes a doctor. Although there was a little taboo against a doctor treating a man who had been injured because just this could ruin a man’s honor.[14]
Holland, Barbara. Gentlemen's Blood. New York: Bloomsbury, 2003. Print

The challenging chose the weapons—except in Britain where it was the challenged—the challenged chose the place and distance if pistols were involved, the seconds chose the time and terms of firing. Before the duel took place, if swords were being used, the gentleman would send his sword to the opponent so it could be looked over. This way there would hopefully be no cheating and the duel would be fair. Thus one swordsman wouldn’t have a longer or sharper sword.[15]

If a sword was being used, it was probably a rapier, especially in the 1600s. They were light enough to be manageable, but still sharp and good for thrusting. It was roughly three to four feet long and much more reasonable than a battle sword, which was hardly elegant.[16] Sometimes a dagger was used at the same time. However, by the mid-1700s the rapier was traded for a court sword, which was even lighter still.[17] Even later still the thin, flexible foil—good for defense—was introduced. Other swords included the épée de terrain—which could cripple an opponent but didn’t often break skin—the épée—which was good for counterattacks—and curved sabers—which was good for offensive and was better for slash wounds rather than thrusting.

Dueling was illegal in many places, but most survives got off with only manslaughter and small fine, which meant next to nothing at the time.[18] The more duels a man had fought the more he was protect from having to fight another, the more honor he had, and the more favorable he was to ladies.[19]

Laws and Documents

  • Malta had old laws that could send people who refused a worthy duel to prison [20]
  • Norway had similar documents which could strip men of their citizenship [21]
  • Swedish laws said if an insulted man didn’t arrive to the duel he wasn’t allowed any sort of legal testimony thereafter. If an aggressor didn’t arrive then they were infamous. If they both arrived and the insulted was killed than the aggressor paid a fine. If the aggressor was killed the insulted walked home free.[22]
  • In Prussia, under King Gustaf Adolph (1611-1632), dueling was declared a capital offence [23]

Works Referenced

Holland, Barbara. Gentlemen's Blood. New York: Bloomsbury, 2003. Print.

1 Barbara Holland p. 22
2 Ibid 23
3 Ibid 26
4 Ibid 27
5 Ibid 27
6 Ibid 27
7 Ibid 34
8 Ibid 40
9 Ibid 38
10 Ibid 19
11 Ibid 48
12 Ibid 49
13 Ibid 52
14 Ibid 28
15 Ibid 50
16 Ibid 59
17 Ibid 60
18 Ibid 35
19 Ibid 39
20 Ibid 31
21 Ibid 31
22 Ibid 31
23 Ibid 32