A Matter of Honour: The Duelling Tradition

Duel after Capoferro
Duel after Capoferro

by Victoria Pritchard:

If someone insulted your family, what would you do? Cast a glove at their feet and challenge them to a duel? Probably not. Yet, for gentlemen living between the eleventh and nineteenth centuries, duelling was the only way to defend your family’s honour. Men who didn’t ‘throw down the gauntlet’ were seen as cowards.

Only the upper classes fought duels. If a gentleman was offended by a social inferior, he would beat him with a riding crop, or get a servant to do it for him. If a gentleman insulted a lower class man – well, he’d asked for it. Very rarely, women fought duels against men. After all, it was the man’s responsibility, not the woman’s, to defend family honour.

So, the duel itself. On acceptance of a challenge, the duellists would agree a place and time for the fight. Duels remained illegal, so were frequently held at dawn to avoid discovery. The light was often so dim, the duellists would hold a lantern in their non-sword hand to see their opponent more clearly, even using it to parry his attack or blind him.

When the gentlemen met for the fight, their seconds, who acted as referees, would check their weapons were equal. The duellists would then remove their coats, take their positions and salute each other. One of the seconds would call ‘allez!’ and the duel would begin.

Duels could be fought to first blood, serious injury, or even death. It was up to the offended gentleman to decide how far to go. At the end of the fight, if both fencers were able, they would shake hands, as a sign of reconciliation.

The most popular weapons were rapiers, small-swords and pistols, although some were more eccentric. In one duel, two men hurled billiard balls at each other. Rudolf Virchow arrived at another with two sausages. When his opponent, Otto von Bismarck, heard one of them was infected with cholera, he pulled out.

Famous duels include the Elizabethan playwright, Ben Jonson, against Gabriel Spencer. Jonson killed Spencer with a blade that was ten inches shorter than his opponent’s. In the ‘Petticoat Duel’ between Lady Almeria Braddock and Mrs Elphinstone in 1792, Lady Braddock threw down the gauntlet when Mrs Elphinstone suggested she had lied about her age. The women began with pistols and moved on to swords until Mrs Elphinstone took a wound to her arm and agreed to write Lady Braddock an apology.

Legal or not, duelling was considered an honourable way of settling arguments between gentlemen until it was eventually stamped out in the mid-1800’s. The duelling tradition lives on in modern epee, which has no right-of-way rule and the whole body is valid target. So the next time you challenge a fellow epeeist to a bout, just be thankful that the referee uses electric lights, rather than blood, as proof of victory.