The duel: a history of hand to hand combat


The duel is a rather peculiar form of combat, opposing two men and abiding by certain established codes. In general, two adversaries confront each other in a duel when one demands reparation for a wrong committed by the other. The word comes from the Latin duellum which, according to the encyclopedias, is the ancient form of one of two words: either bellum, meaning war, or duo (two). It is possible that the current term was derived from both of these origins, as the duel is indeed a form of war between two individuals. This said, the signification and the rules of the duel have changed over time; in fact, the development of weaponry and the rise of both royal and judicial power significantly changed the laws concerning duels in France.

From the judicial duel to the duel of honour

“The duel was born in Germany, in the heart of Europe. For, it is there that we find the trace of its origins. The Germans, who had never been subjugated, enjoyed, writes Montesquieu, an extreme independence; families waged war to avenge murders, theft and insult. This custom was modified by subjecting this war to certain rules. [Private war] was waged by order of a magistrate, which was preferable to giving general license to do harm (…) Upon invading Gaul, the Germans instituted the judicial duel. This combat took place in an enclosed field, around which a cord was drawn to contain the crowd (…) The combatant who had provoked the other would throw his glove in his direction, which the latter would retrieve to indicate that he accepted the challenge. Next, they chose one or several sponsors who were, in theory, simple witnesses, but whose mission was to later descend into the ring of combat to support their hero or avenge his death (…) Once the combat was over, the victor proceeded to the church to give grace to God, where he often suspended the corpse of the vanquished as an offering of thanksgiving.” Grand Larousse universel dictionary of the nineteenth century.

In the year 501, the King of Burgundy promulgated the Gombette Law, codifying the duel as a judicial combat.

“Why codify a custom that could already be seen as archaic? Because, in all barbaric kingdoms, disputes were settled either by arms, as was most often the case, or by oath, whenever a dispute was submitted to a tribunal. This last custom dictated that either the accused or the accuser, appearing in court, swore before God the exactitude of his accusation or refutation (…) But it soon became obvious that the multiplication of these oaths multiplied incidents of perjury in turn. And so, King Gondebaud introduced in Burgundy the law known as the Gombette Law (…) In truth, the Gombette Law did not abolish the concept of proof through oath or testimony. Rather, it stipulated that anyone who did not wish to abide by this system could choose the solution of the duel. And not only against the accuser but also against the witnesses of the accusation because, according to the law, [it] is just that he who has offered to swear an oath and who has declared that he knows the truth should not find it difficult to fight for it.Martin Monestier.

The Gombette Law also introduced the concept of the “champion”, that is, the replacement of one of the plaintiffs by someone more able in the art of combat.

In fact, the role of the medieval champion would later become a source of inspiration for film makers. In Anthony Man’s El Cid, we find Charlton Heston in the role of the king’s champion, as he defends the monarch’s honor in a jousting match. This scene belongs in the annals of the great duels in film.

The Gombette Law survived through a series of edicts that would clarify the rules of this type of combat. 

“In the Middle Ages, the duel was (always) highly codified. The judicial duel symbolized divine judgment and had legal validity. The concept of honor was at the heart of these rather particular combats, but there was also an element of spectacle and popular entertainment. People were attracted by means of publicity posters that indicated that a closed combat was scheduled to take place at a given time, in a given place. The codes regulating these combats of honor were quite simple: the knights were not submitting themselves to the mercy of the king but to God, and the loser must die, much as the person who used a champion to fight for him and represent him in his dispute.” Bob Heddle-Roboth, Duels en scene N°1.

In spite of this codification, the judicial duel was far from “just”. With the guiding principle that the victor was protected by divine judgment and that he owed his victory to God, a certain number of judicial errors began to be observed, errors that even the church condemned. 

This was the case of the incident that opposed, in the fourteenth century, two Norman gentlemen named, respectively, Jacques Legris and Jean Carrouge. It was this famous combat that would put an end to the concept of divine judgment. 

“Jacques Legris had been accused by the wife of Jean Carrouge of having stolen into her castle by night, his face masked, and of having disguised himself as her husband --away in the Holy Land and whose return she was expecting-- in order to take advantage of her. He had protested his innocence and, upon the demand of Carrouge, the parliament declared that his honor had been offended and therefore ordered a duel. God’s judgment was not favorable to Legris, and the vanquished was finished off by attaching him to the gallows in the enclosure. Some time after, a criminal, who was being executed for other crimes, confessed to the odious act of which Legris had been accused. This horrible mistake led the parliament to systematically refuse to hear all demands for satisfaction by combat.

This was the end of judicial combat. From that moment forward, it was no longer a question of divine judgment but, rather, one of satisfaction to be obtained for an outrage against what one called the point of honor (…) Tribunals of honor appeared in seminal form under Louis XII and François I.” Grand Larousse universel Dictionary of the nineteenth century.

“On is struck by the gulf that, in such a short time, separated dueling authorized by the king, such as we find it throughout the sixteenth century, from the judicial combat of old. It was no longer a problem of already condemned defendants or rented-out champions coming together to fight before the court, thus dispensing the judges from conducting a trial for an accusation of murder or plunder. From this point on, one would bend to the new rules of the “code of honor”. Without losing ourselves in semantics, let us say that it is more a question of this insanity that has often preferred death to life, and that encompasses a certain generosity while exalting a courage that, of course, ignores the realization that the duel consists of taking the life of another.” Martin Monestier.

The duel's proliferation

It was thanks to a famous duel –between Jarnac and Châtaigneraie in 1547—that this combat would undergo a new transformation, a transformation that would change legislation and permit the practice to generalize to the point of excess.

There are, in the course of human existence, those events that sometimes provoke totally unforeseen chain reactions. We can see an example of this butterfly effect in the duel fought by the Baron of Jarnac and the Seigneur de la Châtaigneraie during the reign of Henry II. The ordeal dragged on for almost six hours in the presence of the king and his entire court, and –against all odds—Châtaigneraie, one of the finest blades of his time and the king’s favorite, succumbed to what would become known as Jarnac’s “famous blow”. In fact, there was nothing at all extraordinary or underhanded in the blow dealt by the latter. It was just an example of judiciousness and shrewdness that transformed Jarnac’s small stature into a lethal asset. By stabbing his opponent in the back of the knee, Jarnac effectively knocked Châtaigneraie out of the combat. The latter, suffering more from wounded pride than from a wounded knee, ripped off his bandages and let himself bleed to death. Henry II, aggrieved to watch his favorite die such a death and feeling a little responsible, resolved thenceforth to never again give his official assent to a combat of honor.

From that point forward, it became impossible to seek –by legal means, at any rate—authorization to fight in a duel. The duel was not exactly forbidden, simply unauthorized. Perversely, the absence of a legal framework contributed directly to the duel’s proliferation.

“Phillip le Bel’s goals to decrease judicial combat through its introduction in the penal code and, little by little, to transform it into a completely marginal form of justice, had finally become a reality. It had taken three centuries. But from this remedy emerged a terrible side effect. For, king and parliament having renounced their jurisdiction concerning judicial combat, and having closed all legal recourse for authorizing the practice, it happened that what had once been but an extraordinary procedure, both long and difficult, quickly became routine. Without a law to codify it, this combat found asylum in custom and became private, rather than judicial.” 
Martin Monestier.

Other social factors also helped to increase the number and frequency of duels. 

For one, the Italian Wars had brought new weapons that were lighter and easier to handle, such as the rapier. With this new sword, speed and technical prowess replaced brute force in hand-to-hand combat. The lightness of the rapier, with a shortened blade, radically changed the very method of attack. Henceforth, the attacker could thrust forward with the point of his sword rather than making swinging blows, the latter often requiring the use of both hands.

By becoming more technical, sword fighting became less accessible and had to be learned. Thus, the first maîtres d’arms, or fencing masters, appeared on the scene. In fact, our Jarnac won his duel thanks to the coaching of one of these masters. 

Secondly, this new sword was so light that one could wear it on one’s belt and carry it everywhere and in any occasion. It thus became a distinctive sign of nobility, as, from this point, it was obvious that only gentlemen had the means to carry such an arm and to offer themselves lessons in its handling. And so, it became so easy to simply unsheathe one’s sword, on any street corner or patch of grass, in order to meet the challenge of some adversary or to avenge one’s honor scorned.

The reigns of François II, Charles IX and especially Henry III saw duels multiply, and a certain barbarism took hold of the royal court. 

“Memoirs from the epoch show that one played with death, one’s own as much as that of others. Someone’s throat is cut on the Pré-aux-Clercs, another is stabbed on some street corner… Henry III even carried a rosary that had death’s heads for beads, a design that one could even find on his shoe laces.

This was also the epoch of the publication of those famous treatises on fencing by the finest masters of the French and Italian schools. And it was this crucible of scandal and intrigue that turned out the finest duelists, those “belles epées” and “fine blades” that one sees in bloody encounters. This was the epoch of terrible duels, carried to excess by the most well-known swashbucklers such as Bussy d’Amboise, Mouÿ, Châteauvillain, Vitaux and the Chevalier de Guise, who merrily risked their lives for the most futile of causes.” Martin Monestier.

“The duel became so frequent a phenomenon in the French Court at the end of the sixteenth century, that it became a veritable behavioral norm. A sort of code of sacrifice, the gift of one’s own life, would even push the Darlings of Henry III to provoke challenge after challenge in order to prove their love to the Prince’s person, triggering veritable hecatombs.” Pascal Brioist.

With the arrival of Henry IV on the throne of France and Navarre, duels would have another reason to proliferate. 

“The civil wars of previous reigns had profoundly divided the nation. In fact, it was not over. Not only that, but the long period of chaos had engendered a sort of anarchy among the nobility, and of unpunished banditry, where individual action reigned as insolently as during the darkest times of the feudal era.

The law’s impotence as much as the king’s leniency ensured that, once Henry IV was installed in the Louvre, a multitude of duels flared up. The king himself practiced swordsmanship regularly, but he called upon the services of the French fencing master Pierre Duportal, thus breaking with the traditional monopoly of the Italian masters. As one contemporary wrote, The Court was the nest, or rather the mortal source, of these combats whose rivers of blood drenched the entire kingdom.” Martin Monestier.

The seventeenth century: the dueling century

The transformation of France from a feudal state to a royal state, begun under Henry IV, was completed during the reigns of Louis XIII and Louis XIV. During this period, royal power extended its grasp over a nation that was becoming ever larger with wider prerogatives. The kings found themselves increasingly liberated from the compromises that they had theretofore been forced to make with the nobility. Faced with what was to become absolute royal power, the nobility found, in the duel, a means to defy this royal authority and maintain an illusion of independence.

“The duel was, for the nobleman, the manifestation of a fanatical individualism that duped institutional constraints. One sought, by the same gesture, to strengthen his reputation for valiance while reaffirming his aristocratic identity. The absolutism of the monarchy, which was taking form in the seventeenth century, had to confront this attitude.” 
L’escrime—Collection Découvertes de Gallimard.

Curiously, this was also the epoch in which edicts forbidding duels became more and more severe. On might even say that the two phenomena went hand-in-hand; and it was under Richelieu, who legislated the most virulently against duels, that the latter saw their apogee.

“The Historiettes of Tallemand des Réaux are full of such anecdotes. At that time, even ecclesiastics frequented the academies d’armes (…) Men of letters also got into the act. The most incorrigible of them all, Cyrano de Bergerac, called out anyone who looked at him and anyone who didn’t look at him. The duel’s contagion even infected women.” 
Grand Larousse universel Dictionary of the nineteenth century.

Indeed, Alexander Dumas’ novel The Three Musketeers –which takes place during the reign of Louis XIII and Richelieu—begins with an injunction from d’Artagnan’s father to participate in a duel.

“It is by his courage, listen well, by his courage alone, that a gentleman makes his way today (…) You are young, you must be brave for two reasons: first, because you are a Gascon, and second, because you are my son. Have no fear of circumstances and seek out adventure. I have taught you how to handle a sword; you have legs of iron, a fist of steel; fight whenever provoked; more, fight because duels are forbidden and, consequently, it requires twice the courage to fight.”

D’Artagnan followed his father’s recommendation to the letter from the very moment of his arrival in Paris. Indeed, it is through his first three duels that the hero makes the acquaintance of the three musketeers, his future comrades. 

And yet, the edict of 1626 was rather severe in its condemnation of dueling.

“It would become a terrible weapon in the hands of Richelieu, who seized upon it and wouldn’t let go. The Duke of Praslin will live on in history as the one who first dared to break the edict by launching a challenge. He was stripped of all his commissions: his position as the king’s lieutenant in Champagne, his bailiffship in Troyes and his governorship of Marans. A few weeks later, there was a rumor that a disagreement had arisen between the Duke of Halluin and the Seigneur de Cressias, and that the latter had been challenged by the former through the mediation of the Seigneur Liancourt. Based on this simple rumor, the Duke of Halluin was banished from the Court, and the Seigneur of Liancourt lost his commission as first gentleman of the King’s Chamber. Heads would also fall, and not the least noble either.” 
Martin Monestier.

The Cardinal also used the anti-dueling edict to further his political designs. Hence, his position concerning dueling is not as clear as it would seem. 

“The edict sponsored by the Cardinal, and which reintroduced penalties of varying severity, allowed him to blow hot and cold. While he did not hesitate to lop those heads that seemed to rise above the others, at the same time, he showed himself to be quite tolerant of the occasional little skirmish among the nobility. He was particularly lenient with the young aristocrats that served him and who were called “The Cardinal’s Guard”. However, they seized upon the slightest pretext to raise their swords against the King’s Musketeers. The hatred and rivalry that divided these two elite corps matched the deftness of their swordsmanship.” Martin Monestier.

However, Richelieu’s attitude was not entirely cynical. Along with Louis XIII, he appreciated the duelists’ valor and courage. 

“One might be surprised by the enthusiasm of the King, and of Richelieu in particular, for Corneille’s Cid. Doubtlessly, the Cardinal noticed [the play’s] arguments against dueling and, like the King, approved the lines which spoke about absolute power. But, like Louis XIII, he probably admired the character of Rodrigo as well. He who had worked throughout his ministry to reinforce royal power, who waged war on the nobility’s independent spirit, was still a gentleman who appreciated the duelists’ valor (…) This admiration for the duelist (…) was therefore shared not only by society in general, but also by those who held power. The King himself lived this contradiction between civil and religious law on one hand and social custom on the other: for, the duel was a crime of lèse-majesté, but he could not help admiring those who committed the crime. It is probably this contradiction, as well as a desire to recompense the war-time service of the nobility, that explains the King’s lack of consistency in the campaign against the duel.” Mariette Cuenin-Lieber, Duel en scène N° 1.

This admiration that the two most powerful men in the kingdom held for the duelists found its expression in the confrontations between the Cardinal’s Guard and the King’s Musketeers. Indirectly, Louis XIII and Richelieu encouraged this rivalry. It is no doubt because Alexander Dumas could not resist the temptation to exploit this paradox that he brought his d’Artagnan to life twenty years earlier than the historical figure. The opportunity was just too irresistible!

It was with the Sun King that the number of edicts prohibiting duels reached its paroxysm. But, this plethora of edicts was powerless to stop the practice…

“Under Louis XIV, eleven edicts were issued against the duelists: in 1643, 1644, 1646, 1651, 1653, 1668, two in 1679, 1704 and 1711. 

The edict of 1643 established the corps of marshals, supreme judges and sovereign arbiters of affairs of honor. That of 1679 lifted the statute of limitations for the crime of dueling and instituted the death penalty not only for participants, but also for second and third parties, with confiscation of all or part of their property. The edict of 1704 defined appropriate and legitimate measures for satisfying one’s insulted honor. Public refutation, striking with the fist or with a cane were punished with imprisonment. Anyone who slapped his adversary received a slap in return. The goal was to eliminate the duel by smothering it under a mountain of laws; but it scoffed at this arsenal of punishments. Two gentlemen even had the audacity to draw their swords within the Palace of Versailles!” 
Grand Larousse universel Dictionary of the nineteenth century.

It was all the more futile to try to suppress the duel in light of the fact that, during the same epoch, the art of swordsmanship was becoming rather sophisticated thanks to the development of a French style of fencing and the quality of fencing masters. In fact, the government’s position on this matter was rather ambiguous because Louis XIV did not hesitate to knight fencing masters, thus indirectly encouraging a practice whose possible excesses he knew all too well. 

“In becoming an office of the Royal Household, the function of fencing master acquired a nobility that was symbolic if not real. At the same time masters and servants, fencing teachers sometimes became part of the households of the gentlemen they taught. Treatises added to this new distinction; fencing passed itself off as a science founded on geometry, physiology and the theory of passions. This conception (…) fueled the arms masters’ pretensions of nobility. In 1656, Louis XIV granted a coat of arms to the Parisian community of arms masters and hereditary nobility to six of its oldest members. However, this measure marks an apogee rather than the beginning of a new status.” Hervé Drévillon.

As during the reign of Louis XIII, there was a contradiction between the law and the spirit of the times, all the more so in that the duel was the most emblematic expression of noble blood. Challenging someone to a duel, to face death without fear, requires courage and panache. This is what separates the noble from the commoner. 
When Molière produced a play about a bourgeois who wanted to become a gentleman, he did not hesitate to show the character’s cowardice in the face of sword fighting. His bourgeois does not learn the art of fencing in order to learn how to fight like a nobleman, but rather in order to save his own skin. To his master who is demonstrating a technique, he responds: “So, in this way, a man without heart is sure to kill his adversary without being killed himself?”

A gentleman would never make such a remark! For, the nobleman is filled with nostalgia for the heroic time of dueling knights, that golden age of chivalry.

The nineteenth century: the duel's apotheosis

Up to the Revolution, a succession of kings signed edicts condemning duels, which continued to proliferate despite the prohibition. A number of famous duelists marked the eighteenth century, such as the Duke de Richelieu. 

“From duel to duel, from impunity to grace, the Duke de Richelieu became the most famous duelist during the reign of Louis XV. His reputation for deftness and courage was further enforced by his participation in all the wars of the kingdom. He ended his life decorated with commissions and distinctions. Although, according to the laws in force, he should have been decapitated five times over and stripped of his titles, commissions and all his family possessions, he was nonetheless successively ambassador, Marshal of France, governor general of Languedoc, then of Guyenne and Languedoc, before being elected to the French Academy and, ultimate irony, president of the honor court of the marshals of France in 1781, under Louis XVI.” Martin Monestier.

Another example is that of the Chevalier of Saint Georges, a mulatto admired for his talents as a duelist, musician and seducer, defined by La Boessière as “perhaps the most extraordinary man ever known in the art of swordsmanship”. 
Finally, a more curious example is that of the Chevalier (or chavalière!) of Eon. This strange individual raised eyebrows by switching back and forth between a male and female identity, and who was also one of the “finest blades” of his (or her?) time.

The nineteenth century brought major modifications to the duel, without, however, slowing the activity itself. The dull-tipped saber and the pistol took their places alongside the epee. More, the duel was no longer strictly an affair of the nobility. A new social class took up the duelist’s sword, notably journalists, politicians, writers and artists. 
“Thenceforth, the duel belonged to all parties; it became a widely shared mode of expression and was no longer the sole privilege of the nobility or the partisans of some outdated legitimism.” 
Hervé Drévillon & Pierre Serna.

Almost all the big names of the century participated in at least one duel, and although the reasons for issuing a challenge were often ridiculous, a refusal to fight would have been shameful. 
Among those who practiced the duel, certain remained lucid as to the dilemma presented by the practice. Victor Hugo, just a few months after having fought in a duel himself, wrote: “The duel is not only contemptible but odious. That’s what I think. However, to complete my thought, I must add that there are times when even a man of the highest breeding cannot refuse himself recourse to this foolish habit.” 
Among those implicated in one or more duels were men of letters like Thiers, Lamartine, Alexander Dumas, Victor Hugo and Saint Beuve, not to mention the socialist Jean Jaurès and a president of the Republic, Georges Clémenceau, to name just a few. The Chamber of Deputies and newspaper columnists –a new power—were major contributors to this cohort of duelists that populated the middle and late nineteenth century. For the former, insults and altercations frequently fused on the assembly floor. As for the latter, the virulence of many a newspaper article was ample cause for a challenge.

“The most lucid observers point out that the political sparring of the Revolution was transformed into a duel of parliamentarians and journalists. Terms directly from fencing made their way definitively onto political tracts. To hit home, feint, thrust, death-blow [all fencing terms]… entered into the stylistic register of writers. This duel of words took on a terrible aspect and henceforth exercised its influence on the violence of crossing swords.” 
Hervé Drévillon & Pierre Serna.

New acts of parliament attempted to stem the rising hecatomb but without result and, on the contrary, opened up a sort of legal no man’s land that invited all sorts of excesses. The nineteenth century, too, had its famous duelists. The hot-headed Paul Cassagnac was one of them. This Gascon journalist, whom one could call a natural inheritor of the spirit of the musketeers, came from a family of duelists. Cassagnac was a provocateur as well as a confirmed fencer. He even wrote an essay on the duel entitled “Allez, Messieurs!”.

All his duels made it into the newspapers and he fought twenty-two times between 1880 and 1889. Some encounters were rather incredible, like the one with a certain Flourens. 
“Flourens, one of the heads of the community, during an electoral campaign, judged certain comments from Cassagnac to be intolerable; unable to hold himself back, he provoked him in the following terms: You have insulted the Republic, my mother, and you will be held accountable! To which Cassagnac quickly replied: I’m busy with your father, the People. As soon as I have finished, I will be at your disposal!

The rendezvous was decided, but Paul de Cassagnac, gravely ill, requested a postponement. This request was interpreted by Flourens as a form of cowardice, and he crowed in his political tract: ‘At the thought of meeting me, Monsieur de Cassagnac has a stomach ache…’ One can imagine the reaction of the Gascon musketeer. He sent his witnesses to schedule the event for the next day and, more dead than alive, he had himself carried to the dueling spot on a stretcher. When he saw his adversary’s face contorted in pain, Flourens proposed a further postponement, to which Cassagnac responded: ‘If you don’t fight immediately after the words you have written, I will slash your face.’

Barely in the en garde position, the two men rushed at each other in a furious assault and even rolled together on the ground. Flourens received a deep wound above the belt; as for Cassagnac, he lost consciousness from exhaustion. He had just made the effort to fight with a powerful case of typhoid … Which did not prevent him from wheezing, as the stretcher of his unfortunate victim passed, ‘Well, Citizen Flourens, the stomach ache is contagious!’ ” 
Robert Castagnon.

It was therefore in this context that the cape and sword novel appeared on the scene in the middle of the nineteenth century, which constituted a sort of defense of the duel, and of sword dueling in particular.

The duel disappeared with the First World War. 
“It was out of place in the cataclysm that half the planet was living through. With the return of peace, a kind of disgust for blood and violence took hold of the European countries who had been bled white. ‘Never again!’ one heard everywhere. From that point on, the duel appeared for the vast majority as an archaic behavior, without reason, out of place, even humiliating.” Martin Monestier.

From that point forward, with few exceptions, the duel left street and field for the cinema screen. Like a phoenix, it miraculously emerged from its ashes and began a new international career. 

Though the duel was the indisputable star of swashbuckler films, it also appeared in other film genres. Even James Bond took up the duelist’s sword briefly in 2003, despite all the sophisticated weaponry for which the spy is famous. In the end, it was fiction –whether in novels or in film—that reconciled the duel with its detractors. Fiction has rendered the duel inoffensive while not taking away its most precious element: its panache!