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The Duel in European History: Honour and the Reign of Aristocracy

by V.G. Kiernan
Oxford University Press, 348 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Victor Kiernan is one of the most versatile of British historians. He has written learned monographs on British Diplomacy in China, 1880–1885, on Metcalfe’s Mission to Lahore, 1808–1809, on The Revolution of 1854 in Spanish History, on American imperialism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, on imperialism generally, and on state and society in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. He has also written about Wordsworth, nineteenth-century England, central Asia, Africa, India and Pakistan, and about relations between Portugal and Britain. He has translated volumes of Urdu poetry.

The story goes that he was once asked by a journal for an article on British imperialism in China. He replied that he had rather lost interest in that subject, but he could let them have a piece on the Jesuits in Paraguay. The article they finally got was on English Evangelicism and the French Revolution. What we are all waiting for is his big book on Shakespeare.

The Duel in European History ranges through recorded history, from Gilgamesh, Homer, and Beowulf to the present century. “What has been remembered of the duel,” Kiernan begins, “has been mostly of an anecdotal kind”; and at first sight his seems an anecdotal book. It is stuffed with excellent anecdotes, but there is a steady and consistent theme running through it, implicit rather than explicit. In trying to draw this theme from the material I have quoted freely, since I cannot match Kiernan’s incisive prose. The duel for Kiernan is a conflict between two men, usually accompanied by an “elaborate etiquette…upheld by ‘seconds.’ ” It was, he writes,

amidst the chronic warfare of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that the modern duel took shape. During that time of transition from medieval to modern, State power and the reign of law were being established by absolutist monarchy; but aristocracy, its half-brother, survived in altered guise, a permanent anachronism, and often canker, in the life of Europe. Private warfare between baronial families or factions was suppressed with difficulty; in France in the second half of the sixteenth century, with religious combustibles added, it flared up into civil war. Madrid in the next century was still disturbed by brawling among noblemen and their retinues…. Compared with these manifestations of the unruly aristocratic temper, the duel can be viewed as an advance towards a more limited trespass on law and order. It can be viewed too as a more decent reprisal than assassination, the poisoning of opponents for instance so much a matter of use and wont in the Italy of the Borgias.

By comparison with the blood feud and gang warfare, or with judicial trial by combat, “a well-conducted duel might be deemed part of a civilizing process.” But the emphasis here is on “well-conducted”: a certain level of political organization and enforcement of order is an essential preliminary.

So for Kiernan the duel assumed the ascendancy of aristocratic classes, military by vocation or “at least never forgetful of a sword-bearing ancestry.” Liability to the ordeal of the duel was “a burden imposed on itself by the élite and the gage of its right to be considered a higher order.” Dueling and its code of honor “came to form a powerful link between all noble ranks, and ‘strengthen their sense of belonging to a single privileged class.’ ” For the man of noble birth it was all the more natural to put himself above the law because “he, as seigneur, had been in command of justice in his own domain. On a reduced scale he was so still in France down to 1789, in England as a J.P. [Justice of the Peace] far longer.”

Members of an élite class claim respectful treatment from one another; as their class matures and learns to cultivate the art of living, its manners—within its own ranks—become more polished…. The duel itself grew into a ritual, as formal as a church service. [It could] uplift and ennoble the most banal dispute, the most blockish combatant, somewhat as the royal uniform transformed its commonplace wearer…. Gentlemen must be ready to fight, but with decorum and dignity, not like the noisy plebeians they had too often resembled. Everything in the ceremonies of the duel was of a kind to stamp it as the affair of an élite.

Swift paid tribute to the duel as the gentleman’s means of upholding his right to be treated civilly.

Hence the importance of seconds in preparing for a duel. They were not merely assistants to the main combatants: they were also “delegates of the class to which all concerned belonged and whose standards of conduct all of them were taking the field to vindicate.” They were at once partisans and neutral umpires; it was an accepted part of their duty “to examine the facts of the case, and cooperate in seeking a peaceful solution if this could comport with the self-respect of both disputants.”

Kiernan insists on the social exclusivity of the duel. In matters concerning honor,

the gentleman stood outside any social contract binding on the common man; he belonged to a superior social order which made its own rules. Absolute monarchs compelled their nobles in early modern Europe to submit to many restraints, but noblemen obstinately insisted on keeping one area of freedom, symbolically vital to them if practically meaningless….

Kings and governments might feel safer if they left their nobles “free to work off discontents by fighting one another.” The ultimate hallmark of gentility was “the right of gentlemen to kill each other.”

So the duel had to be regulated by accepted codes of conduct, of “honor,” whose acceptance was the test of a gentleman. Hence government reactions to the duel were ambiguous. From time to time there would be a feeble attempt to suppress dueling—by James I in England, by Louis XIV more successfully in France; but normally the monarchy’s bark was worse than its bite. All but the very lowly or the very unlucky could expect to be pardoned for infringing laws against dueling.

As the wealth of intermediate sections of society increased, laws regulating extravagance on religious or moral grounds became ineffective. Class distinctions in apparel were impossible to enforce, and “formal manners have been more and more important as a supplement to fine dress.” As newly rich parvenus aspired to gentility, the obligation to fight duels in order to defend their “honor” became an acid test. “One may wonder,” Kiernan comments ironically, “how many impoverished scions of old families relieved their feelings by picking a quarrel with bourgeois gentilhommes.”

So as Kiernan sees it, the duel “cannot be made to look rational in terms of the individual, but only as an institution from which a class, a social order, benefited.” In the army two officers who quarreled had to fight, whether they wanted to or not, because otherwise the regiment was dishonored. The “penalty for rejecting a challenge was far more severe than any condemnation by the élite of its members’ lapses from the morality of parsons.” Justice was unattainable in this imperfect and unequal world; all that a gentleman could hope to win, at a high price, was the respect of his equals. “Any failure of nerve on the part of a member of the élite,” Kiernan concludes, “reflected on the whole body, and if often repeated would undermine it. There can be detected here the instinct of a garrison, such as any dominant class in a sense is, encamped in the midst of a population always passively or actively hostile, a lurking premonition of a day of wrath.”

In time the elaborate punctilios of the duel became increasingly out of place in modern society. Kiernan puts it harshly:

the willingness of so many men, young men in particular, to risk death, maiming, or exile, on the spur of the moment, suggests an infantile mentality, minds incapable of serious thought, and reacting to any stimulus like automata. Such minds belonged to a class bereft of any social function, or any healthier one than war, that could not be better performed by others, and drying up mentally or morally well in advance of its material decline.

The irrationality of the duel came to be rejected by “middle-class elements, urban and rural, feeling their growing strength and resentful of the ascendancy of those above them: their creed, in the years before they were strong enough to compel blue blood to accept them as a partner, was Puritanism.”

Dueling and standing armies arose together, Kiernan thinks, with the army regiment as a main forcing house for the duel. We sometimes forget how socially important armies were—not only in continental absolute monarchies but also in Great Britain.

Armies were of crucial importance for purposes of order—or repression—at home and of chronic warfare abroad; rulers could not afford to fall out with the men who led them. Since their wars were as foolish or immoral as any duels could be, in fact very much like duels on an international scale, they were in a poor position to preach.

Most heads of state also commanded the army, nominally or in fact.

War and the duel thus fulfilled analogous functions.

Chinese Boxers, fanatic Mahdists, Zulus, brought to bay by more advanced military forces, made up for what they lacked by priding themselves on spirit and endurance, and threw themselves against Europe’s machine guns. In no very different way the military section of Europe’s upper classes, falling behind in education and intelligence, pinned their faith to “character,” most easily defined as ability to face shot and shell, or the duelling sabre or pistol, undaunted. It was a philosophy not without practical returns, over a long period. Small European forces conquered a great part of the world; what mattered much more, almost all attempts at revolution inside Europe were crushed.

The duel “helped to build up the morale which made these achievements possible.”

The decline of the duel is thus for Kiernan inextricably linked with the rise of a capitalist economy. Holland, “the most middle-class country of Europe” after its successful war of independence against Spain, was the one least inclined to dueling. In the Dutch East Indies there was a death penalty for dueling—and it was enforced. France was the country of the duel par excellence, despite literary opinion opposed to it (Rabelais, Montaigne, Corneille, Pascal) and occasional attempts to curb it. In Spain and Italy duels were less punctilious: Spaniards preferred assassination, a French lady was told in the late seventeenth century. But Cervantes in Don Quixote was one of the earliest to mock dueling. The Catholic church, to its credit, always opposed dueling, though bishops and parish priests were as responsive as Protestant clergy to the pressure of aristocratic patrons, and Pascal made much of Jesuit casuistry’s softness on the subject. In Sweden the Protestant hero Gustavus Adolphus made dueling a capital crime. He is said to have notified two senior officers preparing to fight that the survivor would be executed. That worked. Dueling in Sweden “dropped out curiously quickly” after the brief seventeenth-century age of Swedish military glory had passed.

In England, which followed the Netherlands on the capitalist road, the number of recorded duels declines after around 1620, and then more swiftly after the civil war of the 1640s. Puritans opposed dueling. After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 the practice revived: a demoralized aristocracy, Kiernan says, “was bent on reasserting itself.” Charles II issued a proclamation against dueling, but went on pardoning offenders. It was “a cheap way of rewarding loyalists and humouring the Cavalier faction at large.” That good bourgeois Pepys disapproved. The short-sighted scientist William Petty, when challenged to a duel, exercised his right to choose weapons by opting for axes in a dark cellar. That worked too. When in the eighteenth century the British Empire demanded larger and larger armies and navies, dueling revived. Kiernan attributes this to middle-class youths, now able to obtain commissions, aspiring to gentility.

In post-Restoration Ireland dueling became “an everyday occurrence” among “the landowning class created by what in all its stages was a very brutal colonial conquest.” Even in the eighteenth century if a magistrate tried to enforce the law against dueling, he was liable to be challenged himself. Lawyers were known to quit the court-room “to take a shot at one another.”

In the slave plantations of the West Indies “Europe’s worst instincts found a natural habitat,” since “ideas of the superiority of class or of race have much in common…. In societies based on violence and inhumanity men might well be readier to hazard their lives in the heat of the moment. It was an atmosphere not unlike Ireland’s, only far worse.” Early British India also reminds Kiernan of Anglo-Ireland “in many bad ways.” In India a duel “enabled middle-class Britons to see themselves as part of a nobility of race, a Sahib-log or—a later term with the same meaning—Herrenvolk.” (In the twentieth century, Kiernan observes, fascism “resurrected duelling, along with so much other debris from the past.” It was legalized in Hitler’s Germany, and “smiled on” in Mussolini’s Italy.)

In England, as in France, men of letters were divided, but more often in opposition to dueling. Shakespeare, Kiernan suggests, thought courage was better shown on behalf of one’s country than of oneself, and foreshadowed the enlargement of “honor” from personal to public or patriotic. (Here I cannot help wondering why in one of Shakespeare’s last plays, Cymbeline, the most urgently patriotic speeches are given to the two nastiest characters—the Queen and Cloten.) The fact that Swift was a dean did not affect his approval of dueling. Richardson was critical; Defoe, Smollett, and Sheridan thought dueling ridiculous; Fielding and Goldsmith were more ambiguous. Johnson was predictably pertinacious in favor, though worried sometimes about squaring it with Christianity. Adam Smith, less predictably, regretted the inevitable decline of warlike spirit in civilized societies: “a coward,” he wrote, “a man incapable either of defending or of revenging himself, evidently wants one of the most essential parts of the character of a man.”

Jeremy Bentham brings us into the modern world. He saw reputation as “a kind of fictitious object of property,” as Hobbes had seen it as “an argument and sign of power.” Characteristic of the transition is Walter Scott, to whose influential ambiguity on the subject Kiernan devotes a chapter. Byron saw the ludicrous side of dueling, though he was capable of threatening a challenge in a moment of anger. The duel was fair game for Dickens, who reveled in “ridicule of a foppish, effete aristocracy.” Gilbert and Sullivan, and Lewis Carroll, finally laughed the duel off the stage it had held for so long.

Abandonment of the duel,” Kiernan concludes, was “a not insignificant symptom of the approaching demise of the long-drawn aristocratic ascendancy in England…the sharp decline of land rents, from the 1870s, completed its supersession by a very mixed tutti-frutti plutocracy.”

Fine points of “honour” wilted in the climate of cotton-mill and Stock Exchange, and pecuniary satisfaction was preferred to that of the pistol: damages obtainable from the courts for libel, or wife-enticement, or breach of promise.

By the end of the century “it may well be that a good many duels really were fought for no better motive than to get into the news, to cut a dash.” The death rate was not alarming. A mid-nineteenth-century authority calculated from a sample of two hundred British duels that there was one death in every fourteen cases, and one man wounded in every six.

It was perhaps easier for Englishmen to give up the duel, Kiernan reflects, because of their country’s “unique accumulation of other aristocratic institutions or symbols or ceremonies, presided over by the monarchy and ensuring the desired continuity.” But the duel died hard even in England. In 1804 occurred the only recorded encounter between two dukes: fortunately bloodless. Six prime ministers fought in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, including Pitt and Wellington (both while prime minister), Fox, and Canning; Peel was twice a challenger.

The duel was far less deeply rooted in southern than in northern Europe; and this was reflected in its greater prevalence in Anglo-Saxon America than in the Latin countries. Racial mixing, as in Mexico or Brazil, made the practice “less congenial.” In the US, Kiernan suggests, “desire to impress the black man” led to “a hypertrophied version of the desire in Europe to impress the lower orders.” In Russian nineteenth-century literature dueling looms large, from Pushkin and Lermontov onwards. Kiernan has some fascinating remarks about them, and about Dostoevsky, Herzen, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Chekhov.

Dueling, Kiernan points out, was predominantly (though not absolutely exclusively) a male institution. It emphasized “the gulf between the sexes, as well as the classes.” It made man appear as “woman’s natural guardian, protector, possessor.” And he wonders, apropos Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield, “how many ‘shotgun weddings’ took place under threat of a challenge from truculent brothers or fathers.”

Gentlemen normally wore swords to show that they were gentlemen. Pistols were a product of advancing European technology. They came to replace the sword—“earliest in unmartial England”—because fencing had become “so skilled an art that a tiro had little chance.” Smollett noted that the pistol was an equalizer. There were other consequences. “Unlike modern Americans,” Kiernan suggests, “gentlemen were not likely to have pistols in their pockets all the time.” Pistols rendered impromptu duels less likely: some preparatory formalities were required that allowed time for reflection.

The unexpected aperçus which the author throws off from time to time are part of the charm of his book. Pursuing the analogy between war and the duel he suggests that “the calamitous faith in the offensive, accepted by the army planners before 1914, may be…seen as cognate expressions of the aristocratic spirit,” which steeled men to fight duels. Or again: “The ‘phoney war’ on the western front in 1939–1940…was not without some resemblance to a duel preceded by an agreement to fire in the air.”

More speculatively, Kiernan remarks that “the formative period of the duel, and of the classes which practised it, also inaugurated the modern theatre…. This was the great age of modern tragic drama,” especially in England and in France. This can hardly be mere coincidence. In tragedy the purgation by ritual violence of morbid social emotions, more than usually tempestuous in that age of change and dislocation, was apotheosized:

Aristocracy…like monarchy…grew more and more into an actor, playing an elaborate part. Its mannered style of living, not without elements of permanent human value, could dazzle the aspiring bourgeois, as could its bravery in war….

Certainly a man schooled to behave politely to someone about to try and shoot him might well be capable of civility in any circumstances.

Reverting to the analogy with war, Kiernan notes that “a good part of the vocabulary of war and diplomacy was coming to be French; a remoter parallel may be detected in the French passion for imposing fixed rules on the drama, with which also the duel had so much in common.”

This is an ambitious and daring book, with whose main thesis not everyone will necessarily agree, though I find it convincing myself. It is packed with intriguing and often amusing detail, and it is well argued. Kiernan’s main achievement is to relate the duel consistently to the societies in which it flourished and declined. The book is full of ideas, and it is spiced with sardonic wit: “If the chief ordinary occupation of members of the duelling class was killing animals, it might be felt as no great departure if they occasionally tried to kill each other, by way of a change.” And, “at the end of a day competing in the chase, men spent the night trying to drink one another under the table. A gentleman could no more flinch from the bottle than from the bullet.” The book contains a formidable number of obscure pieces of useful information. How many of us knew that in 1985 a successful appeal was made in a Scottish law court for the right to have a case decided by battle, a right never formally abolished in that country?

Kiernan is no sentimental devotee of the duel—far from it. Yet his deep sense of social history enables him to make a case of sorts for it in its time. It was

a remarkable manifestation of the refusal to compromise…. This unyielding temper could feed the self-admiration of a class, but it could soar higher. It had its roots in a physical courage which was for Shakespeare, if not the supreme virtue, the ark of the covenant of all virtues, and which a sympathetic philosopher might think of as the crude adolescence of moral courage. With the coming of the bourgeois era of utilitarianism, cash nexus, and scramble for money, there was value in anything that could remind men of higher motives, stemming from concern for the social whole…. The concept of honour lay open to all Falstaff’s gibes, but it derived from a very old emotion of obligation to community or country, like that of Shakespeare’s republican Romans.

That is a thought for Mrs. Thatcher’s England, and possibly for other countries. Kiernan is not only a very good historical technician, as well as poet and literary critic: he is also a moralist who tries to understand men and women of the past in their own terms, without allowing moral disapprobation to color his judgment, in the hope that history may teach us something.

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