Gentlemen’s Blood – A History of Dueling from Swords at Dawn to Pistols at Dusk (Bloomsbury, 2003) is a witty, well-written look at this historical reality which remains embedded in the masculine psyche.
Not only of historical interest, dueling is central to an understanding of human, or at least male, social response. Written by an elderly woman, Barbara Holland, who expanded an article she originally wrote for The Smithsonian magazine, it is a non-academic look at the subject.
Some reviewers thought they should be reviewing a different book. They said there are not enough footnotes (although there is a bibliography) or it didn’t promulgate some currently fashionable social agenda. In its keen and penetrating way, the book eviscerates these criticisms with the dance of its blade upon the foibles and attitudes that men, especially, are still subject to and promote. At the heart of dueling are the same impulses that lead to the social acceptability of war. Some men, many men, don’t feel fully alive unless they are threatening their own lives or the lives of those around them.
I emphasized the age and gender of Barbara Holland above, not as a way of discounting what she says, but as a way of appreciating that those personal facts allow her exactly the right position for the incisive, and often funny, commentary she makes. She is able to look at dueling as if it were the odd, violent, and nonsensical display of another species. It took me a few chapters into the book to get there, though. At first, I was nonplussed at such a history being written by someone who’s never even been in a bar fight.
But then I’ve never been in a bar fight either, despite practising a variety of martial arts over the years, including fencing, the sporting descendent of sword dueling. The other martial arts I’ve practised come from Oriental tradition. There is a recognition in the Oriental tradition, at its best, of the need for transcendence. The sword must be transformed into an inner sword, and the only cuts that ultimately matter are those you use to free yourself from your bonds of fear and hate.
But in the West, that tradition never seemed to arise, or if it did in the rare master or inspired swordsman, it always fell back without enduring cultural significance. And certainly nothing of the sort ever occurred to anybody firing at each other with pistols.
To start at the beginning, in the West dueling as a social institution seems to have arisen out of trial by combat as a way to adjudicate disputes. In a pious climate, if you won God was obviously on your side, and if you didn’t, it was God’s judgement. For instance, in England in 1096, one noble accused the other of conspiring against William II. They fought in front of the king and court. The accused noble lost and was castrated and had his eyes poked out. God had chosen.
With this kind of result a possibility, obviously the noble dueling class sought to give God the right view: they hired proxies to battle for them.
Holland writes, “The principals in the fight were kept out of sight of the actual fighting, with ropes around their necks, and the man whose proxy lost was notified of his guilt and hanged on the spot.”
These trials by combat eventually became tied into chivalric tournaments, and the purely judicial trial by combat grew rare after the fifteenth century. Duels moved from being solely ordained and sanctioned by royalty to an occasion all the classes could enjoy.
A masculine sense of honor began to rise to the fore. As Holland puts it, whatever honor was, only gentlemen had it. I was surprised to understand that our notion of “being a gentlemen” little resembles its original meaning. In those days, having good manners had nothing to do with it, and actually indicated that you probably deserved any lack of respect shown you. You were a gentleman because you were born one, and your son would be too. It was a status bequeathed by your bloodline. You had been gentled to the service of your king.
“Gentlemen were careful not to enter into duels with non-gentlemen because, if they lost or got killed, it stained the family honor backward and forward for generations.”
Courage, not manners, distinguished a gentleman. “As the duel epidemic spread, courage came to mean a thin skin and an unruly temper, the thinner and more unruly, the more gentlemanly. … An easygoing temperament meant your blood was slow, and cold, and lowly.”
The officer classes of the military took up this code of honor with great fervor. As just one example, in Russia until 1894 the czar ordered that army officers must fight not just when they felt themselves insulted, but when anybody else felt that they were. As Holland puts it, “The possibilities for mischief from bystanders were rich.”
The requirements for starting a fight and a gentleman’s ensuing conduct, the whole matter of honor, were codified and made official. The most famous of these codes arose in Ireland in 1777. It became quite technical: “I. The first offense requires the first apology, though the retort may have been more offensive than the insult. …” And so on.
Holland tells many good, and ridiculous, stories about duelists and duels. Most are too long and involved to describe here. But the tenor of things may be indicated by this quote from a distinguished Irish duelist: “No young fellow could finish his education till he had exchanged shots with some of his acquaintances. The two first questions always asked as to a young man’s respectability and qualifications, particularly when he proposed for a lady wife, were ‘What family is he of?’ and ‘Did he ever blaze?'”
The times had moved on, civilization became modern. That meant dueling with pistols rather than old-fashioned swords. Now you didn’t have to be particularly skillful to participate, although of course it helped to survive.
Dueling was an important cultural institution, ignored and downplayed now, in the history of the United States. There’s the famous Aaron Burr – Alexander Hamilton duel, of course, all bound up in the presidential politics following the birth of the nation. Both men expected to be president one day. Thomas Jefferson wasn’t too keen on either of them, and made little effort to intercede. Burr shot Hamilton to death. As was the usual result with duels, although he was charged with murder in two states, the case against Burr was ultimately dismissed or he was acquitted.
The places where duels were fought themselves became famous. Outside Washington, DC was located the Bladensburg Dueling Ground. The brook beside the preferred spot was called Blood Run. Naval hero Stephen Decatur died in a duel at Bladensburg. The navy didn’t forbid dueling until 1862.
New Orleans had The Dueling Oaks, where under their wide canopy, space for 20 duels at once could be contemplated.
“Sometimes two or three hundred people hurried from the city to witness these human baitings. On the occasion of one duel the spectators could stand no more, drew their swords, and there was a general melee.”
Many duels were over political points of honor, and insult; but increasingly the press became involved. That is, an editor had better be a fair hand with a pistol because he would be challenged. For example, a dispute about whether or not to send aid to the snowbound Donner party caused General James Denver, secretary of state of California, to kill Edward Gilbert, editor of the newspaper Alta California. Denver continued with a successful political career.
In Europe, they had the apocryphal legend of the “American duel.” This was accomplished, it was said, by the combatants drawing straws and the loser shooting himself. No doubt this permitted the Europeans to imagine their dueling customs to be far advanced beyond the suicidal colonials.
As Holland notes, the Germans saw the duel as preparation for war and for their warrior class. In the 1840s in Leipzig, 400 duels were fought in a single year, although with only two deaths. This lack of mortality was partially due to the use of sabres, an edged weapon which often provided more cuts and bruising than vital organ puncture.
Students at university had the curious custom of the Mensur. Groups of students would slash away at each other, two at a time. Without scars, says Holland, you were nobody.
“Apparently the combatants mostly wanted to mark their opponents’ faces as a sign of their prowess and to have their faces marked in turn as a sign of participation. A Renommierschmiss, it was called or ‘bragging scar,’ and it took you a long way in government and the professions; it was rare to meet an unmarked man of any importance.”
So where does all this leave us? Rather than our usual notion of dueling as a quaint and vaguely criminal social custom of bygone eras, dueling was often central to the conduct of government and business. And Holland, paradoxically enough, after long and often caustic retelling of the irrational causes and ludicrous results of this formal violence, at the end of her book comes to the conclusion that, if properly regulated, a return to dueling might serve a social purpose. She recommends a return to the use of the sword. “Under supervision, it need cause no more bloodshed… than we inflict on each other with road rage.”
She pleads her case: “Politicians would save untold sums of money by facing each other at the appointed place instead of buying television time to trade insults.”
Holland notes that in 2002, the Iraqi vice-president challenged the American president and vice-president to a duel with himself and Saddam Hussein. The vice-president said: “A duel takes place, if they are serious, and in this way we are saving the American and Iraqi people.”
“Neither of the challenged Americans replied,” Holland says. “Still it was a thought.”
[Note: For a review of a similar book, see this post on By the Sword by Richard Cohen.]