Thinking about duels and violent gentlemen

My archival research this summer has (at last) begun to develop some sense of direction, and one of the themes is masquerading under the working title of ‘Gentlemen Behaving Badly’. And I may well be writing a lot more about this, because it encompasses a lot of tasty topics: masculinity, ‘class’ or social rank, politics, litigation, violence, rioting, drinking… [Indeed, it looks like this is going to turn into a proper little series of posts: see here and here, and this earlier post as well. Not to mention this, too. Exciting eh?]

(I suspect that I shall not, however, be taking my cue from this book.)

And right now it has me thinking about the subject of the duel, on which there’s been a good deal of research since the late 1980s (perhaps especially in the mid-90s). I realised that I have quite a bit of catching up to do, in fact. So what follows here is very provisional. I’m just thinking my way around it, but I have some issues about the ways in which ‘the duel’ seems to be discussed in the work that I’ve read so far. Key problems: the research seems to me to tend to decontextualise the practice and not really think much about the relationship between theory and practice.

Often, duelling and the concern with ‘honour’ that gives rise to duels is seen as something very specifically related to social and political elites. (Ute Frevert: duelling is “a phenomenon that sheds light on how Central European societies dealt with male violence and how and why they accepted it as long as it was practiced by the social elites according to certain rules”, in Spierenburg, ed, Men of Violence.){1} But although it has some distinctive features, just as honour for upper-class males contained particular elements, my argument would be that duelling was just one aspect of a broader context of confrontational masculine violence that was all about defending manhood, status, authority, reputation, maintaining ‘face’ and personal honour. (And was, as such, semi-tolerated by communities and authorities alike.)

It should be said that much of the work on duelling predates important recent publications on early modern masculinities and violence, such as the books by Alexandra Shepard and Garthine Walker and even the 1990s articles on violence of Susan Amussen. Even 1998 (the date of the Men and Violence book noted) is a long time ago in the historiography of early modern masculinity… So at the very least there seems to be a need to review duelling in the light of this research; Robert Shoemaker has done some good work for the eighteenth century (note especially an important argument about the taming of the duel which is placed in a broader context of changing attitudes to violence), but I haven’t yet found anything similar for the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (let alone a more long-term analysis).

Then, a good deal of published research on duelling – including the latest article and book by Markku Peltonen – is cultural (or intellectual) history, and it’s fair enough that it would focus on ideas and debates about duelling and honour. This is important. But the question of how duelling in practice related to what was written about it – in polemics, royal proclamations, in a ‘code duello‘ such as the famous late 18th-century one from Clonmel Assizes, etc – is less often addressed.

Even when you have a social history, such as James Kelly’s book on duelling in Ireland, it seems to start with the theory and tries to fit what men did into it and judge according to how it did or didn’t match up. No, rephrase that: it might be better to say that this work tries to fit responses and attitudes to ‘actual’ duelling – including what happened when duellists were put on trial – into that theory. (Shoemaker is, again, an exception, I think.) In particular, it seems to me that there is a tendency to regard the highly ritualised and formalised duel with pistols that became common in the eighteenth century as the archetypal duel. But sword duelling was around for two centuries before pistol duelling became the more usual method, and sword duels could be very different, much less disciplined affairs.{2} Does that mean they weren’t ‘real’ duels? Contemporaries wouldn’t have agreed with that, I suspect.

So, what I’m thinking of doing is to explore interpersonal violence (not always fatal) involving men described as gentlemen (or of higher status). Examining duels will be one aspect of that. There are a few court cases that might be interpreted as duels, and I need to pull together some other records. (If I can decipher it – the handwriting is awful – there is a late-16th-century personal account by John Salusbury of his duel with a rival. A first scan didn’t look as exciting as it might sound.) But there are also plenty of fights that probably aren’t duels (even when they use swords), as well as cases of gentlemen using violence to chastise social inferiors. (And I’d want to at least mention the plebeian fights that resemble duels between non-gentlemen, for comparison.)

Among other things, I think I can suggest that during the 17th century these gentry did start to become more ‘civilised’. But not by that much. At the end of the century, ‘gentleman’ still referred essentially to social rank and not to character. Does anyone know, by the way, of any good studies of the development and changing meaning of the concept ‘gentleman’?{3}


1. Other examples: VG Kiernan, The duel in European history: honour and the reign of the aristocracy (1988). (I haven’t yet read Frevert’s book on duelling.) Spierenburg’s own chapter in Men and violence, on knife fighting in early modern Amsterdam, is interesting but a bit peculiar; it presents the idea of ‘popular duels’, but only considers knife fights. This looks to me to be a slightly simplistic demarcation based purely on the weapon being used (i.e., knife = plebeian version of sword ?), because I can’t see anything particularly distinctive about the contexts or dynamics of the fights themselves. Hmm.

2. Interesting reading, related to this point: Jeremy Horder, ‘The duel and the English law of homicide’, Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, 12 (1992).

3. I should probably re-read some of Anna Bryson’s work on courtesy and civility, come to think of it. Must dig out this one: ‘The rhetoric of status: gesture, demeanour and the image of the gentleman in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England’, in L Gent and N Llewellyn, Renaissance bodies: the human figure in English culture, c.1540-1660 (London, 1990)

Online samples of referenced books

Shepard, Meanings of manhood

Walker, Crime, gender and social order

Peltonen, Duel in early modern England: Google Print; publisher’s sample chapter.

Kelly, ‘That damn’d thing called honour’: Google Print)

Next stuff to read

Jeremy Horder, Provocation and responsibility (legal-historical studies)
Frank Henderson Stewart, Honor (anthropology)

Maybe this: Roger Manning, Swordsmen: the martial ethos in the three kingdoms (also viewable at Google Print)

23 thoughts on “Thinking about duels and violent gentlemen”

  1. Fascinating – just a thought that crossed my mind: is the extreme litigiousness of the 16th and 17th-century related to this? Was taking out huge numbers of what often look like frankly frivolous cases the alternative to duelling for the old, the weak and the female? Just a thought.

  2. Hmmm . . . There’s some work on the duel in C19th Latin America which might be usefully theorised. Can’t remember who wrote it and where, though, which I admit is sod all use.

    This looks like a job for Norbert Elias, doesn’t it? Shame he’s dead. But have any of his followers worked on it (aside from Spierenburg)? That Dutch-language journal of Eliasian sociology ‘Amsterdams Sociologisch Tijdschrift’ might be some help – the abstracts at least and some of the articles are in English.

  3. Masculinity and violence seems to be a hot topic in early modern studies at the moment – Andy Wood at UEA is doing interesting work, and so is Paul Griffiths at Iowa State. I think you are right, that trying to fit duelling into a model of elite civility is like trying to fit the proverbial quart into a pint pot – there’s a lot that won’t go in, and it would certainly be interesting to look at duelling in terms of the control of violence rather than in terms of the rise of civility. And maybe looking beyond the ‘archetypal’ duel would call into question some assumptions about the decline of duelling; who knows?

    Perhaps not precisely what you’re looking for, but there’s a whole lot of stuff about duelling in SP46/75, including masses of very detailed depositions relating to the death of John Egerton, son of a Cheshire gentleman, in a duel in 1610. (One of the deponents in the case, incidentally, was the occult philosopher Robert Fludd.) I looked at it years ago and remember thinking ‘someone should do some work on this’, but I never got around to doing anything with it and I don’t think anyone else has either – I don’t think Peltonen mentions it in his HJ article (though I haven’t read his book, so maybe it’s in there).

  4. Natalie: not really, in any straightforward way (the reasons for the litigiousness of 16th-17th-century European – not just British – people are pretty complicated…). It’s true that women went to the courts a lot with sexual defamation suits, but doing that didn’t exclude other more, um, physical defences of honour. You find women fighting in similar contexts sometimes too (less often than men, but they do do it). And men also used the courts for similar purposes. A lot of the recent work on defamation has focused on sexual defamation suits in the church courts, but there is an interesting article by Richard Suggett on slander litigation in the Welsh Great Sessions. Generally, research on the litigation side of early modern courts’ work has lagged behind work on criminal prosecutions (which is a pity but understandable if you look at how much more complicated the civil side business tended to be and the sheer amounts of paperwork it generated).

    Chris: well it gives me some pointers, doesn’t it? (I’m coming across someone called David Parker on Google doing stuff in that area. Ring any bells?) And I’ll look into that sociology journal.

    Arnold: that Cheshire reference sounds great, just the sort of thing I’m after, thanks. And I’ve just noticed for the first time (duh) that SP46 includes material from the Council in the Marches, too. (Is that SP class calendared?) I feel a week in the PRO coming on…

  5. Parker? Not sure, sorry. I really need to sort out my filing system.

    Some more references are to be found in Wiener’s _Men of Blood_ and Emsley’s _Hard Men_, but there aren’t any in Carter Wood’s _Violence and Crime_.

    Re the above – us modernist types appear to have worked on masculinity and violence quite a bit. Usually the earlymods get in first.

    What’s Paul working on in Iowa, then?

  6. Hi Sharon. Pablo Piccatto (maybe Piccato or Picatto) has a seminal article on dueling in Mexico that is very historicist. I know it’s not your region of interest, or period, but it may provide an interesting model. I came to be very interested in dueling in Mexico because it keeps on cropping up in XIXth century fictions that I’m working on. By the way, Picatto has a book on crime in XIXth century Mexico published by Duke University Press as well. If you have trouble finding his article through your library’s databases, and want a copy, please email me.

  7. i am an 18 year old a level student and have been given the task to research duelling for the play ‘The Rivals’ by Richard Sheridan. Every site i possibly link to involves me buying a book or modern fencing. Do you have anything that could help me out?

  8. Ellie, is this for historical background for a drama/literature class? What sort of level of detail do you need? Wikipedia has some useful information, at a fairly basic level but it looks quite reliable: But there isn’t too much online that I’d want to rely on heavily, unless anyone else knows of anything…

    The chapter on duels in Robert Shoemaker’s recent book The London Mob is useful and readable, if you can get hold of it. Oh, and it also sounds as though you might read up on Sheridan’s own experiences of duelling. If you need more specialist works, you’ll need to follow up the references in this post (and the others I wrote on duelling which are linked near the top) in a library.

  9. Sharon, have you seen Jennifer Low’s Manhood and the Duel (Palgrave, 2003)? It is a cultural study of aristocratic masculinity and the duel that draws on plays, but also on anti-duelling pamplets and fencing manuals. I found Low’s book fascinating, since it discusses also that broader context of confrontational masculine aggression you mention, specifically aspects of gentlemanly bodily posture, and devotes attention to gender as well as class.

  10. Thanks for reminding of that one. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s somewhere on my list (I have a whole pile of things that I need to go up to the National Library of Wales for, and other stuff keeps getting in the way…).

  11. You probably knowthis already but in case you haven’t come across it: oaths of office in Kentucky, (officeholders, notaries, lawyers) require the oathtaker to swear that he or she has never taken part in a duel.

    Kentucky’s Oath of Office

    I do solemnly swear (or affirm, as the case may be) that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of this Commonwealth, and be faithful and true to the Commonwealth of Kentucky so long as I continue a citizen thereof, and that I will faithfully execute, to the best of my ability, the office of …. according to law; and I do further solemnly swear (or affirm) that since the adoption of the present Constitution, I, being a citizen of this State, have not fought a duel with deadly weapons within this State nor out of it, nor have I sent or accepted a challenge to fight a duel with deadly weapons, nor have I acted as second in carrying a challenge, nor aided or assisted any person thus offending, so help me God.”

  12. Sorry, Matt, I almost missed this comment… this is really a current oath? I’m amazed. And slightly entertained. (How do people do that bit and keep a straight face? Or do they still fight a lot of duels in Kentucky?)

  13. Morning all
    Ellie, may I reccommend Carl Thimm’s “A Complete Bibliography of Fencing and Duelling (1896)”, Arthur Wise’s “The Art and History of Personal Combat” (1971) and Chris Amberger’s “The Secret History of the Sword” (1998) which while idiosyncratic is fascinating including its rare (in English) treatment of modern German fraternal duelling, which the auther has experienced.

    Sharon. Another person to get hold of is my collaborator Jean Marshall in History at Oxford who’s doing her doctorate on this sort of this at the moment.

    I must say I remain unconvinced that, particularly in the early early-modern the boundaries between pre-arranged and spntaneous violence or between social equals or unequals were as firm as it may seem. Have you read Donald McBane’s autobiography, a soldier and pimp in Marlbrough’s army, he deals with these kinds of issues.

    University of kwaZulu-Natal
    South Africa

  14. Thanks, Perry. Must confess I’d never heard of McBane before, I’ll look into that, and see if I can contact Jean Marshall later.

    And will just add that I’ve just seen a review of a book over at Philobiblon – sounds like a less “academic” treatment (and focuses on the end of duelling, so not so useful for me) but still interesting.

  15. Hi Sharon
    McBane’s full title is
    “The Expert Sword-man’s Companion; or the True Art of Self-Defence. With all Account of the Author’s Life and his Transactions during the Wars with France. To which is annexed, The Arts of Gunnerie. Illustrated with 22 etched copper plates. By Donald McBane. Published Glasgow, 1728.” It was reprinted a year or two ago in an anthology under ISBN 1-891448-15-3

    Haven’t come across that book you mentioned but it’s pretty well past the period I’m working in (17th c Spain and France).

  16. Hi Sharon,
    I don’t know if it might help you in your work but there is a brant new book about duel in early modern France: Pascal Brioist’s Croiser le fer. If you want a more complet bibliography (and if you read French of course), just ask so.

  17. very interesting work. I am working on, among other things, pamphlets about Royalist pickpockets in the 1640s and 1650s but also on those bored soldiers called The Hectors who were involved in serious violent behavior at the same time. Lots of bloody heads and broken limbs!

  18. Try looking at Linda Pollock’s work, esp. “Honor, gender and reconciliation in elite culture, 1570-1700”. Journal of British Studies, vol. 46, Jan 2007. She focuses mostly on the social pressures that allowed men NOT to duel, even when circumstances might suggest an offense had taken place. DM

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.