New Worlds: The Culture of Dueling

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Welcome back! If you missed last week’s New Worlds post due to the BVC outage, you can find it here on my own site, discussing “codes of honor” — chivalry, bushidō, and the like. Now, back to our regularly scheduled worldbuilding!

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When we started talking about honor, I mentioned defending that honor, in the form of a duel.

I feel like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical Hamilton does a good job of capturing the mentality behind that kind of confrontation: the driving sense that you have no choice but to put your life on the line to defend your reputation (or someone else’s). For most of us living today, that idea is absurd; we may care about our reputations, but we care about our lives more. But for quite a while there in Europe, that calculation produced a different result.

Up front, I should say I’m skipping over a key concept here, which is “wager of battle” or trial by combat. That underpins the idea of dueling for honor, at least in Europe, and I really ought to discuss it first. But I also intend to do an extended dive into legal matters in future essays, and after some consideration I decided to save trial by combat for when we discuss trial by ordeal, trial by jury, etc. So just take it as a given that one of the roots of dueling is that you’re defending not just your reputation but your innocence — that the alternative to risking yourself in a duel was to be hanged or beheaded. At which point, hey, why not give it a shot?

I say “at least in Europe” because dueling traditions are found all over the world — depending on how you choose to define them. What constitutes a duel? Is it any one-on-one confrontation, even if that confrontation happens in the middle of a battlefield, with other soldiers or warriors fighting all around you? Or does it have to be a formalized event, following terms like the code duello, to mark it out from ordinary fighting? Miyamoto Musashi fought and won dozens of duels; should we be imagining something along the lines of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, just with katana instead of pistols?

As you can probably guess from my phrasing, there’s flexibility in the concept, and people don’t always apply the term consistently. But for our purposes here, I’m going to say that a duel has to be ritualized in some fashion, whether that’s the code duello in Europe or tying the participants together with a sarong in Indonesia. (More on the mechanics of duels next week.)

In popular culture, we tend to have a number of misconceptions about duels. To begin with, the average layperson would probably cite “the Middle Ages” or maybe “Shakespeare’s time” as the height of European dueling . . . but in fact it was extremely widespread in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, too. Most countries didn’t outlaw the practice until the twentieth century — or at least, didn’t successfully outlaw it; there were many earlier attempts at prohibition that didn’t stick.

We also think of duels as being purely an affair for aristocratic men. There’s some truth to this, partly because swords were often restricted to the aristocracy, and also they could get away with it more easily if they killed their opponents. But women fought duels, too, especially in later periods. And judicial duels (which I said I wasn’t going to talk about — oops) could take place between commoners, armed with staves or cudgels or similar weapons. In many places around the world, duels were knife fights rather than fencing matches, and of course later on in England and America pistols became the dueling weapon of choice. But the further down the social scale you go, the less formalized such confrontations might be, blurring or even eliminating the line between dueling and assault or murder.

Speaking of which . . . duels weren’t always to the death. In a thirty-year period in late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century France, military officers fought an estimated ten thousand duels, and less than five percent of the participants died — a number which presumably includes those who perished later of infection, along with those who died outright. In many cases it was sufficient to draw first blood, or to incapacitate your opponent without killing them, or to concede the duel entirely — which would result in a loss of face, but you might get points for showing up, rather than just hiding like a coward.

When people did wind up dying, it could be a problem. Judicial duels weren’t considered murder, any more than an execution was, but dueling to protect your honor and reputation was a different matter. Even when duels were legal, actually killing your opponent could be tried as a crime. That’s the theory, anyway: in practice, noblemen in particular were often let off with a slap on the wrist. After all, the men judging them came from the same social class, and often had the same assumptions about what constituted proper manly behavior.

But not everyone felt that way. A great deal of the push to outlaw dueling in Europe came from religious sources; the Roman Catholic Church was largely against it from the start, and many sects after the Protestant Reformation felt even more strongly. The rise of police forces contributed to a decline in casual daily violence and gave people alternative routes for prosecuting offenses, while a culture of civility made displays of anger more unseemly, and the spread of print media gave people the option of fighting their conflicts with pens rather than steel.

And finally, there’s the class element to consider. I’ve already pointed out the leeway aristocratic men received in maiming and killing each other; as democratic movements took hold in various countries, people became more and more dissatisfied with a culture and a legal system that allowed the elite to get away with such crimes, while their social inferiors suffered the consequences. No single one of these forces probably would have sufficed to eliminate dueling, but taken en masse, they gradually stamped it out of existence.

. . . sort of. Men may no longer wear swords as a mark of their status as gentlemen and relative freedom within the legal system, but you can see echoes of that imbalance with guns in the United States, where some segments of our society consider it important to signal their willingness to defend themselves and their property with violence, and other segments (e.g. black men) are all too often killed just on the suspicion that they might be armed. And among gangs and other such groups, you can still find the kind of hyper-masculine mentality that says if someone insults your reputation, the only way to get satisfaction for that injury is to make them bleed for it.

Formal dueling may be gone, but some of the impulses behind it remain — and possibly always will.

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