Dueling



The Eighteenth Century Duel:
Evolution and Ethics .


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