Dueling In 18th Century Throughout time, the image of the duel has transcended into our collective consciousness, so that there is hardly a person today who does not understand what the word means, even though there are practically no modern day duels.
Anyone asked to define the word would be able to conjure up the image of two men standing face to face, for the purpose of settling a dispute and very likely leaving one of the men dead. The portrait of the duel has remained a constant in literature through centuries and even in the modern day can be found in the mediums of television and cinema. These fictional duels are usually pretty clear cut, with good and evil coming together for a final face off where, ideally, the just side will prevail. The myth of the duel is not consistent with the reality of the duel as seen through facts of history and of literature of the time period.While the literature of the time period sensationalized the duel to some degree. it is partially through literature that it is possible to examine aspects of dueling; the ethics behind the encounters, public opinion, and unspoken rules. As V.G.
Kiernam states in his book The Duel in European History “What has been remembered of the duel has been mostly of an anecdotal kind. It may be surmised that a good many of the countless stories connected with it lost nothing in the telling and retelling; some have a decidedly novelistic flavor” (7). The reality of the duel is that it was not a clear cut event, but rather an ambiguous one, with many rules and regulations, and open only to certain sections of society.The purpose for a duel was not as justifiable as it is for the duel’s fictional counter part; historical duels have been fought for any number of reasons, some being entirely trivial. Most importantly, in the fictional duel, the just almost always prevail, which is definitely not true to life. Literature tends to embellish, simplify, and romanticize the duel and while it is possible to look to literature to glean some information, it is important to take that information and look beyond the myth for a more complete picture. The duel evolved through centuries. Some form of the duel can be found in almost any society at any given time.
In biblical times, there is the well known battle of David and Goliath and even in the American old west there were shoot-outs at high noon on main street. The duel that we are examining for the purpose of this paper is the institution as it is found in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the forms of it that led up to it in earlier ages. There are several different definitions that apply to this phenomenon, but most that reflect some bias for the time that they were stated, for even in the minds of those who practiced the living duel, there was a dichotomy surrounding it.
One definition comes from Francois Billacois’ book The Duel, where the author states that the duel was “a fight between two or several individuals..equally armed, for the purposes of proving either the truth of a disputed question or the valor, courage and honour of each combatant.” (5) This was an encounter between two men who both claimed to be just. The duel’s purpose was to decide who the victor in the dispute would be, either using rapiers, swords, or pistols.There was a challenger and an offended party, with the offended party commonly being allowed to choose the weapons that would be used to fight with. One party would usually end up dead at the end of the battle, but not always.
Sometimes the victor would spare the life of the other party, instilling more honor upon himself. The reasons behind duels were so numerous that it would be impossible to list all, but several reasons did include women, long standing rivalries, politics, legal cases, and honour. (Billacois 77) Honour was probably the most important reason, for even if a duel was fought for another reason, such as a woman, honour was almost always hiding in the background.The modern duel evolved from trial by combat of the early middle ages. “Ordeal by battle was common to all Germanic people, and served as a touchstone of honour, or as a settlement of legal disputes.” (Kiernan 29) The idea of fighting for honour is a very old one, for if an individual’s honour was questioned, the only real way for that individual to restore his honour was by fighting for it. Put in that situation, it was almost impossible for an individual to back down, for if he did, his honour would suffer even more and he would risk rejection from society. Since one’s honour was also intricately bound to the honour of his family, it made backing down more difficult.
Kiernan states that when he writes that one was “often caught in a fatal dilemma, between two choices, each destructive” (28).Though the form of the duel would change in the centuries that followed, the idea of honor and reputation remained constant. “The latter day duellist, compelled against his will and conscience to take the field, was the heir to a dark curse with its beginnings in the blood-stained cradle of aristocracy” (28).
For those challenged to fight, even in the earliest times, there was hardly ever an easy way out. Trials of the early middle ages often included such things as torture, made widespread by barbaric laws, and if the defendant was lucky enough to survive the ordeal alive, then he was proclaimed innocent As Christianity grew trial by ordeal grew to become judicial combat. In judicial combat, the victorious party wins by divine intervention, for the victorious party was thought to be the just party in the eyes of the Lord. In the book Field of Honor. Ben Truman states “the appeal to arms, as we may justly term the judicial combat, was an appeal to high heaven, or to God” (10).God revealed the truth through battle by allowing the victor to win. This idea is clearly demonstrated in the literature of the period.
In the Middle English poem “Amis and Amiloun”, Amis is a knight who has been accused of ruining the daughter of the Duke who is his patron. After Amis denies this charge, the Duke declares “It shal be proved in batail, / And sen bitven hem to” (863-864). The Duke says this because he believes that God will reveal the truth through battle. Amis agrees to this, but when he is alone, he states “Ich have that wrong and he the right- / Therefor Icham aferd to fight” (940-941), for even though Amis has denied the charge, it is true and he is afraid that if he fights he will lose because God knows that he is guilty.
The problem is further compounded by the fact that the Duke’s wife and daughter back up Amis, which means if he loses the battle, they also will die. In an attempt to sneak around the technicalities of judicial combat, Amis has his friend, Amiloun, fight for him in disguise. Since Amiloun is innocent of the crime, for he has never slept with the Duke’s daughter, he is victorious in battle, but he does have his fair share of misfortune, for he must repent for trying to cheat God. Judicial combat was not limited to any particular group of people. Kiernan reflects this when he states “heavenly justice being open to all, individuals of any rank could claim the right to ordeal by battle.” (34) One major exception to this was women, who had to find champions to fight for them.
If a woman could not find a champion, she would automatically be thought guilty. Examples of this can me found in Morte Darthur. In Book XVIII, chapter three (of the Caxton Printing), the Queen is accused of treason by Sir Mador, who claims that she tried to poison several knights. King Arthur states “some good knight shall put his body in jeopardy for my queen rather than she be brent in a wrong quarrel.” (790) The only way the queen can be cleared of the charges brought against her is for a knight to fight for her and win, otherwise she will be executed. This is an occurrence that remains intact through the history of the duel.Even in the eighteenth century, if a woman’s reputation was questioned, a man would have to duel for her with the individual who put her reputation in question in order for her honour to be restored. Although judicial combat was open to anybody, it was more likely that to be practiced by the knightly and noble classes, for they are the ones who would be trained in and accustomed to using weapons.
With the tapering off of chivalry, judicial combat moved from the religious to the secular and evolved into the duel. In his book That Damn’d Thing Called Honour, James Kelly states “‘though the ritualized, sanctioned combats of the middle ages declined, the sentiments that impelled them remained vibrant” (9). In the midst of civil war, religious strife, and reformation, the aristocracy took on the duel as an identifying marker of its class. Kiernan states “It was admist the chronic warfare of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that the modern duel took shape” (6).With the reigns of the law in the hands of the monarchy, an increasingly more powerful middle class, and an increasingly less powerful noble class, the aristocracy created its own code of honour to define itself by.
Kiernan also states “Dueling provided a warrant of aristocratic breeding…a certificate of legitimate descent from the nobility from the nobility of the sword of feudal times” (53). With the eformation, the aristocracy found the lines between classes blurring. Dueling was created among the ‘true’ noble class at a time when the middle classes were gaining money and prestige and dueling established a distinction between lineage or lack of.
Kiernan reflects upon this when he states “the noble class announced its solidarity by insisting on the privilege – or liability – of its members to exchange blows with one another” (53).This strife between classes can easily be found in the literature of the eighteenth century. The middle classes, who were trying to move up in the world, specifically into the noble classes, emulated the aristocracy in their actions, including that of dueling. For a true noble to duel with a member of a lower cla …