The practice of duelling – formal combat between two people with weapons to settle a disagreement - now seems incomprehensible to us.
Yet for almost 500 years, (mostly) men of the elite classes settled their disputes with sword or gun, with an elaborate protocol involving a formal challenge and the appointment of seconds in a contest fought according to strict rules.
Instead of a spontaneous scrap, the encounter was formally organised, drained of passion, made elegant, and yet lethal.
Deaths were frequent. Then in the second half of the 19th century, the practice declined and quickly disappeared.
As Joseph Farrell explains in a recent book on the culture of duelling, normally at stake in the traditional duel was the question of honour.
The practice has its roots in the medieval joust, though in that case the contestants often fought for a prize, usually before an admiring public.
Gunfights or shoot-outs in the American Wild West extended the tradition into the New World.
It was not easy to stamp out. As early as 1613, King James issued a Proclamation prohibiting the publishing of reports or writing of duels.
The Attorney General at the time, Francis Bacon, described the duel as nothing more than a brutal urge for revenge dressed up in ‘Italian affectations’.
And yet royal pardons continued to be granted to culprits, who were mostly aristocrats.
In France, Louis XIV similarly prescribed the death penalty for duelling, but no duellist was ever executed.
And that was because the honour code often related not just to personal, but also to social, and even national dignity.
Giacomo Casanova understood the concept perfectly.
In 1766, he fought a duel with Franciszek Branicki. Following a theatre performance in Warsaw, Casanova and Count Branicki clashed over who had precedence to visit a dancer in her dressing room.
When Casanova yielded, Branicki called him a ‘poltroon’ for doing so and, what’s more, a ‘Venetian poltroon.’
‘There is not a man,’ Casanova wrote in his account of events, ‘who can pardon a word which slanders his nation.’
The argument, though trivial, was highly visible. Casanova knew that his response would determine how others might think of him. It would be dishonourable to allow a man to slander both him and his homeland.
So, Casanova issued a challenge.
Duels were illegal in Poland and punishable by death. Secret negotiations to arrange the encounter began.
Casanova first objected to using pistols because they were ‘too dangerous’, then accepted when Branicki asked that he do so as ‘a favour to a friend.’
Casanova, it seems, engaged Branicki in polite small talk as the two drove in the Count’s coach to the secluded place where either or both of them might end up dead.
After the two men fired simultaneously from the regulation distance of ten paces, Branicki fell to the ground with a bullet in his chest. His ‘second’ rushed at Casanova with drawn sword, but it was the wounded Branicki who cried, ‘Respectez ce chevalier.’
Casanova’s honour was thus re-established.
Casanova, who had been wounded in the hand, kissed Branicki on the forehead. Afterwards, both men continued to enquire after each other’s health on a daily basis.
Such post-duel camaraderie was a common phenomenon. The ordeal of facing death together seemed to create a mutual respect that set aside whatever differences had given rise to the dispute.
The duel was thus a form of personal combat for an elite band.
Some were drawn to it as people today might be drawn to extreme sports.
Sir Walter Scott, Alexander Dumas, Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, Joseph Conrad and Luigi Pirandello have all written famous duel scenes.
The duel in Pushkin’s poem Eugene Onegin tragically prefigured the Russian poet’s own fatal duel, fought in 1837.
My own favourite duel scene comes from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. After Settembrini fires in the air, it seems that his opponent, Naphta will finish him off. Instead, in an unanticipated move, Naphta raises the gun nobly to his own head and shoots.
As in Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the blood from the fatally wounded protagonist in Mann’s novel produces a vivid and cinematically satisfying red stain in the snow.
In modern times, the legacy of the duel persists in the sublimated form of sport, most notably in the ‘grudge match’: in tennis (Borg vs McEnroe), in boxing bouts (Ali vs Foreman), chess games (Fischer vs Spassky), motor racing (Hamilton vs Verstappen), even Presidential debates (Trump vs Clinton).
These contests, too, have their own elaborate rules and codes of behaviour.
The popularity of sporting events, TV competitions such as X-Factor and The Voice, films such as The Hunger Games, or the fights with light sabres in Star Wars are evidence that audiences still enjoy seeing people engage in ceremonial battle.
Schools prepare students for competitive events, including sporting challenges and mental duels such as debating and exams.
In a sense, the most common duel in today’s world is not fought with a visible opponent, but perhaps more often with oneself.
The narrative of self-improvement and self-optimisation, whether conducted in reality or online, is a strong one in contemporary culture. It can generate a healthy sense of competition, but it can also result in a lot of pressure and stress.
The key is to encourage ambition and aspiration while also supporting students, ensuring we are there to catch them when they fall, the teacher’s red pen operating as a safe and correcting echo of blood staining the student’s snow-white page.
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