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…

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