Today I’m talking about one of my favorite subjects: dueling. I managed to put a duel into my Georgian romance novel, Only Scandal Will Do, and I so enjoyed that research that I’m happy to share it with you. 🙂
Dueling grew out of a form of single combat where two warring factions sent out their best fighter to settle the matter. But according to “Man Knowledge: An Affair of Honor–The Duel,” dueling, as we think of it now, became popular because the kings of France and Spain challenged each other to a duel during the early Renaissance period. Well, it never quite came to fighting, still, the idea of settling matters of honor this way became the rage in Europe.
Until the late 18th century, dueling was primarily accomplished with swords. And there were substantial sets of rules for dueling that evolved into a written document called the Code Duello. The first of these “codes” was written in Ireland in 1777 and was used as the “official” handbook for dueling. It set out all the rules and regulations (26 in all) for a duel to be performed in an honorable manner.
These rules ranged from specifying the way in which the challenge is to be given, “When you believe yourself aggrieved, be silent on the subject, speak to no one about the matter, and see your friend (second), who is to act for you, as soon as possible;” to spelling out the dimensions of the field of honor, “The usual distance is from ten to twenty paces, as may be agreed on; and the seconds in measuring the ground, usually step three feet;” and when the duel is satisfied, “If swords are used, the parties engage until one is well-bloodied, disabled or disarmed; or until, after receiving a wound, and blood being drawn, the aggressor begs pardon.”
It was the responsibility of the “second” (usually a friend who stands with the duelist) to attempt a reconciliation between the two parties before the duel. The primary second was also charged with checking the swords for equal balance, sharp blade, and equal length. In the case of a duel with pistols, the seconds would prepare and load the pistols for the duel and pace off the distance of the field. In some instances, the seconds also agreed to fight along side the primary combatants. Traditionally, a duelist could have up to three
seconds to help with the event.
The “Man Knowledge” article also states the primary rule of dueling: “The first rule of dueling was that a challenge to duel between two gentlemen could not be refused without the loss of face and honor.” As honor was paramount in previous centuries, duels were fought at an alarming rate. During a 10-year period, it is estimated that 10,000 men lost their lives in duels in France alone.
A challenge had to be accepted and acted upon within 48 hours of the insult. The Code also specified the different kinds of insults, how severe they were, and how a duel should be fought based on the type of insult rendered. Depending on the offense, duels could be fought to first blood only. But the more egregious the dishonor, the greater the possibility of a fight to the death. In his article “How Duels Work,” Ed Grabianowski states that the Code Duello frowned on the fight to the death, because “the ultimate goal is about recovering honor, not killing.” I suspect sometimes the duelists got so carried away, they kept fighting until one was mortally wounded.
Duels were usually fought, as I mentioned earlier, with swords and pistols. However, a wide variety of weapons have been used in duels, including billiard balls, sabers, and blunderbusses. According to The British Newspaper Archive, the blunderbuss incident was a duel held in France in gas balloons. The combatants rose in the air and began firing at each other’s balloon. One volley hit the others’ balloon and it plummeted back to earth, killing the duelist and his second.
Dueling waned in the mid-to-late 19th century. Stricter anti-dueling laws were enacted; the American Civil War and England’s War with France made young men think twice about engaging in swordplay or pistols on the field of honor. People were busy trying to rebuild their lives that they had little time for such meetings. They turned instead to the law courts to settle disputes. And the pen became mightier than the sword.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my ramblings about one of my favorite topics to research. I’d love a comment with your thoughts on duels–are they romantic or not?