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Episode
254

En Garde! A History Of Duelling

Apr 15, 2022
History
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21
minutes

For much of human civilisation, people have fought each to the death as a way of resolving arguments.

In this episode, we'll explore the curious and bloody history of one-on-one combat, from ancient Rome to 20th century France.

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English. 

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we’re going to be talking about the history of duelling, the practice of two individuals settling an argument by fighting in physical combat and sometimes, to the death. 

[00:00:38] In this episode we’ll meet Romans, Vikings, Germanic tribes, Medieval knights, Renaissance thinkers, Queen Victoria and even an American president.

[00:00:50] It is a fascinating story, and I hope you’ll enjoy it.

[00:00:54] OK then, duelling. 

[00:00:58] Now, there are probably people you have come across in your life, people you have known, who you haven’t particularly liked. 

[00:01:07] Perhaps you’ve had an argument with them, you’ve had a disagreement with them.

[00:01:11] Perhaps you might even have got in a fight. 

[00:01:14] It’s ok, we're all human beings, these things happen.

[00:01:19] But you have probably not ever felt the need to challenge them to a duel, to meet them at a specified time and place, bringing swords or guns, and fighting until one of you surrenders or dies.

[00:01:35] At least I hope you haven’t.

[00:01:37] And you might well think that this seems all very archaic, something from so long ago that it’s hard for us to understand, but let me tell you that if you are older than 55, you were actually alive when the last duel took place in Europe.

[00:01:56] If that surprises you, it might surprise you even more to find out that one of the men who took part in this duel was a candidate for the President of France, a man called Gaston Defferre, who beat another French politician, a man named René Ribière in a duel in France in 1967. 

[00:02:20] And if you don’t believe me, there’s even a video of the two men duelling on YouTube. 

[00:02:26] This might have been the last known duel in Europe, but the history of duelling is long, sometimes bloody, and varied; people fought for very different reasons during different periods.

[00:02:41] Of course, people fighting each other is as old as time.

[00:02:46] Going back to Homer, Livy, and even the Bible, there is the concept of “champion warfare”, where two opposing armies would each propose a single, strong soldier. 

[00:03:00] These two soldiers would fight each other instead of the entire armies fighting each other, and that would be a way to resolve a military dispute.

[00:03:11] Think David and Goliath in the Bible, or if you need a more modern cultural reference, think of the start of the film Troy, where Brad Pitt as Achilles runs up and kills a very big champion from Thessaly.

[00:03:28] If we fast forward a few thousand years, we see the concept of one to one fighting starting to emerge as a way to settle disputes between two people, unfortunately usually men.

[00:03:44] The word “duel” didn’t enter the English language until the 17th century, but in early Medieval Europe these “duels” had become quite prevalent in society.

[00:03:57] And, there was a very specific term for it, “Trial by combat”.

[00:04:03] See, duelling was a legally accepted way to resolve arguments, it was an alternative to a legal process, a trial.

[00:04:14] The logic goes something like this.

[00:04:17] It was pretty difficult to find evidence of a crime, so it’s hard to say whether someone is innocent or guilty.

[00:04:25] If one person has accused another of committing a crime and that person does not admit that it was them, you can’t collect DNA or look at CCTV, we are talking about over a 1000 years ago. 

[00:04:40] There wasn’t even street lighting so if the crime took place at night probably nobody saw it anyway!

[00:04:47] But there is someone who sees everything. God is all powerful and everything that happens in the world is because God wills it to happen.

[00:04:57] You can’t ask God to reveal the truth about a crime, but if the two men fight, God will determine the outcome of the fight and justice will be done.

[00:05:10] This practice was enshrined in Germanic legal codes - it meant that “justice”, or at least theoretical justice, could be achieved more quickly than some complicated legal process that was unlikely to ever result in any kind of resolution.

[00:05:30] Medieval France, Germany, and even England saw duelling as an integral part of the legal system.

[00:05:37] It tended to be restricted only to free people, though, so in a feudal system this limited it to knights and those at the top of society. 

[00:05:49] A peasant couldn’t challenge a knight, and there would be no need for a knight to challenge a peasant, because the word of the knight would always be trusted above that of the peasant.

[00:06:02] How the duels actually worked in practice varied greatly, but contrary to what you might think the idea wasn’t always to kill the other person in the duel. 

[00:06:15] One person just needed to surrender, or give up, meaning that they had lost.

[00:06:21] The person who lost the duel would be punished according to the legal system, which would often mean that they would be executed in any case.

[00:06:30] So, it worked something like this.

[00:06:33] There would be a situation in which one person had accused the other of having committed some offence against them. 

[00:06:41] An agreement couldn’t be reached, and they would be ordered to fight a duel. 

[00:06:46] Alternatively, one knight could challenge another to a duel by throwing down his glove, which is where we get the term “to throw down the gauntlet”. 

[00:06:57] To throw down the gauntlet means to challenge someone to something, and similarly to “take up the gauntlet” means to accept the challenge.

[00:07:08] No matter how the duel had been agreed and arranged, the duellists would be required to pay for the organisation of the duel - the judge, the seating, all of the logistics to do with its organisation. 

[00:07:23] It was, after all, a trial open to the public.

[00:07:28] Then the two men would fight each other, typically with swords and shields, and the duel would be over when one person gave up, they surrendered, or when they were killed.

[00:07:41] The person who gave up or was killed would be considered guilty, and the winner innocent. 

[00:07:48] By the 13th century, however, duelling as a way to settle legal disputes had already started going out of fashion.

[00:07:57] For starters, the church didn’t like it. It was like the duellists were challenging God to spring into action and sort out trivial problems on Earth, daring God to choose the right person.

[00:08:12] What’s more, important knights were being killed, and kings and queens who needed their knights to, well, be knights, to fight in real battles didn’t want them being injured or dying in small legal disputes.

[00:08:28] It lasted for several centuries though, and this concept of Trial by Combat had also been exported further north, to Scandinavia. 

[00:08:39] In Medieval Scandinavia it had been turned into a concept called “holmgang”, where one person could challenge another to a fight, regardless of that person’s status in society. 

[00:08:53] It was slightly different to the original, and it worked something like this.

[00:08:59] Firstly, these holmgang were fought in a specific location known as a holm, or a small island. 

[00:09:08] The word for this Scandinavian duel, this Viking duel is thought to have come from the Old Norse word for a small island, holm, so “holmgang” means “going to the holm.” 

[00:09:23] The holms were a controlled space where both opponents would step into a small fenced off square. They would then take turns to hit each other, normally with a sword or an axe.

[00:09:37] They were allowed shields, and each person had a ‘shield bearer’, a person who would give them a new shield when theirs got destroyed, up to a limit of three shields. 

[00:09:49] If all three of their shields were destroyed, the dualists had to use their weapons as a shield.

[00:09:57] If blood was drawn, if one person was killed, or if someone ran out of the arena, they lost the Holmgang. 

[00:10:05] Like the “trial by combat” in mainland Europe, holmgangs also fell out of favour, a bit earlier, in fact, in the early 11th century.

[00:10:16] Duelling was, to state the obvious, not an effective way to actually solve legal disputes, because it didn’t tell you anything about who should actually have won the dispute, it just revealed who was better at fighting.

[00:10:30] So, duelling for legal reasons went out of the window, it stopped, and duelling moved onto its second phase, duelling for the purposes of honour.

[00:10:42] Of course, honour was not a new concept, or one restricted to a particular period in history or indeed a particular part of the world. 

[00:10:52] Pretty much every society has some concept of honour, but it was during the Renaissance in Europe that honour became the main reason to duel.

[00:11:03] “Trial by combat” was partly based on honour, of course. 

[00:11:07] If I said that you had insulted my wife or killed my brother, I would regain my honour by killing you in a duel.

[00:11:16] But the difference was that in the “trial by combat” system, if I killed you in the duel, this was a legal way of saying “yes, Alastair was right”. 

[00:11:27] But if you killed me or I surrendered, legally I would be punished, because my loss in the duel would mean that I had been lying.

[00:11:37] Anyway, back to the Renaissance.

[00:11:40] There was an increasing concept of the importance of honour as something that needed to be preserved at all costs. 

[00:11:48] Any insult on a man’s honour needed to be dealt with, and an effective and popular way of restoring your honour would be by challenging the person who had offended you to a duel.

[00:12:02] The rules of the duel were similar to those of trial by combat, but because there was no legal rationale for the duel, they tended to be more private affairs. 

[00:12:16] A time and a place would be set, a doctor would normally be requested to attend, and each duellist would choose a second, a man who would take his place if he wasn’t able to duel. 

[00:12:30] That person was also responsible for things like carrying spare weapons, and ensuring that the fight was honourable and true.

[00:12:39] But another responsibility of the second which is less well-known was to try to stop the duel from happening in the first place.

[00:12:48] See, it all comes back to the concept of honour. If two men accept to fight each other, that they are literally prepared to die for their honour, then it shows that they are honourable men. 

[00:13:01] They don’t actually need to fight each other, and many duels were called off, they were cancelled, after the seconds had managed to arrange between each other, negotiating on behalf of the duellists, for the argument to be settled in a way in which both men thought their honour could be restored.

[00:13:22] Indeed, as a celebrated Italian master of fencing, of sword-fighting, used to say “It is not the sword or the pistol that kills, but the seconds.”

[00:13:34] Of course, sometimes there was no way of settling a dispute, and a duel would be the only way for honour to be restored.

[00:13:44] The weapons needed to be agreed in advance, and both duellists, both men needed to fight using the same weapon.

[00:13:52] Swords were considered to be more gentlemanly, but in the 18th and 19th centuries pistols were increasingly used.

[00:14:02] Swords tended to result in fewer fatal duels, fewer deaths, because after blood had been drawn, after one person had been cut, they would typically surrender

[00:14:15] This was about honour after all, it wasn’t about chopping someone’s head off - the duellists thought of themselves as civilised men not gladiators.

[00:14:25] And indeed there are records of men who would duel all the time. 

[00:14:31] There were two French officers in Napoleon’s army, one named François Fournier-Sarlovèze and the other named Pierre Dupont de l’Étang, who are reported to have duelled at least 30 times over the course of 19 years.

[00:14:48] They even drew up a contract to ensure that they kept on fighting whenever they could.

[00:14:55] This contract stated that, firstly, every time they were within a hundred miles from each other - about 160 km, that they needed to meet in the middle and fight. 

[00:15:09] Secondly, if one couldn’t meet in the middle because he had army duties, the other needed to come and meet him.

[00:15:17] Thirdly, the only reason to not accept to fight was if they had military duties.

[00:15:23] And finally that there was no alteration, no changes possible, to this contract.

[00:15:30] And it certainly doesn’t sound like they were friends. In their last duel, Dupont, one of the officers, ran his sword right through Fournier-Sarlovèze’s neck.

[00:15:43] Duelling had also been exported to the United States of America, which embraced this old European tradition, especially its army officers. 

[00:15:54] So much so, in fact, that George Washington condemned it because so many of his officers were being killed needlessly in duels.

[00:16:04] And duelling went all the way to the White House.

[00:16:08] In 1806, the future 7th president of the United States, Andrew Jackson was accused by a fellow plantation owner of going back on his word about a bet on a horse race. 

[00:16:22] This plantation owner, a man named Charles Dickinson, had also insulted Jackson’s wife.

[00:16:29] It was too much, and on May 30th of 1806 the two men met in Kentucky, complete with pistols and their seconds.

[00:16:41] On the signal from the seconds to fire their guns, Dickinson pulled the trigger. The bullet from his gun went straight into Jackson’s chest, narrowly missing his heart.

[00:16:54] Jackson managed to not fall over, and instead pulled his hand to cover the wound and stop the bleeding, pulled his pistol up, took aim and shot Dickinson dead.

[00:17:09] And there was even a sitting vice-president, Aaron Burr, who killed his former Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, in a duel. 

[00:17:19] The two men reportedly had disliked each other intensely for a long time, and this battle to the death was simply the culmination of a long-standing political rivalry.

[00:17:32] If this is ringing some distant bell for you, yes this Alexander Hamilton is the one on which the popular musical “Hamilton” is based.

[00:17:43] But back to our story. Society, both in the United States and Europe, was turning against duelling. 

[00:17:51] In Britain, Queen Victoria declared in 1844 that any military officer found to have fought in a duel would lose their pension and be kicked out of the army.

[00:18:03] And although there are some records of duels in Britain in the mid 19th century, the practice had all but died out during the second half.

[00:18:14] In continental Europe it took slightly longer, but the events of the two World Wars in the early 20th century were enough, firstly to put some real perspective on the fragility of life and more practically to reduce the number of “honourable” male army officers who had previously engaged in duelling because, well, they were killed in a real war.

[00:18:40] And the legacy of duelling is something that is alive and well, in poems, literature, and now films and TV. If you’ve read much Tolstoy, Chekhov, or Maupassant, you’ll find duels throughout the stories. 

[00:18:55] You’ll also find duelling in the works of Alexander Pushkin, and if you’ve ever thought, “I love Pushkin but I’ve read all of his books”, well perhaps if he hadn’t been killed in a duel at the age of 37 then there would be some more Pushkin for you to read.

[00:19:14] To you or me it might seem absurd that two normal adults would decide that literally the only way to solve an argument was to try to kill, or at least badly hurt, each other. 

[00:19:28] But for a large part of history, this was how society worked. 

[00:19:34] Whether it was for the purposes of legally resolving a dispute or for regaining your honour, a duel was the way to do it.

[00:19:43] Fortunately, we’ve decided that lawyers might be expensive, and it isn’t much fun to be insulted in public, but hiring a lawyer or turning the other cheek when someone insults you is certainly preferable to being shot in the chest or stabbed in the neck with a large sword.

[00:20:04] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Duelling.

[00:20:09] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:20:13] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:20:16] I normally ask whether you have any personal experience with the subject of the episode, but I guess that isn’t so relevant now.

[00:20:25] Although if you have ever fought in a duel, I absolutely do want to know everything about it. 

[00:20:31] For those of you who haven’t fought in a duel, and I have to confess that I am also in this category, I would love to know your thoughts on duelling.

[00:20:40] Why do you think it went on for as long as it did?

[00:20:43] Why do intelligent people, and intelligent societies, do things that we now look back on as completely, well, mad?

[00:20:52] I would love to know.

[00:20:54] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:21:02] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:21:08] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]

Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English. 

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we’re going to be talking about the history of duelling, the practice of two individuals settling an argument by fighting in physical combat and sometimes, to the death. 

[00:00:38] In this episode we’ll meet Romans, Vikings, Germanic tribes, Medieval knights, Renaissance thinkers, Queen Victoria and even an American president.

[00:00:50] It is a fascinating story, and I hope you’ll enjoy it.

[00:00:54] OK then, duelling. 

[00:00:58] Now, there are probably people you have come across in your life, people you have known, who you haven’t particularly liked. 

[00:01:07] Perhaps you’ve had an argument with them, you’ve had a disagreement with them.

[00:01:11] Perhaps you might even have got in a fight. 

[00:01:14] It’s ok, we're all human beings, these things happen.

[00:01:19] But you have probably not ever felt the need to challenge them to a duel, to meet them at a specified time and place, bringing swords or guns, and fighting until one of you surrenders or dies.

[00:01:35] At least I hope you haven’t.

[00:01:37] And you might well think that this seems all very archaic, something from so long ago that it’s hard for us to understand, but let me tell you that if you are older than 55, you were actually alive when the last duel took place in Europe.

[00:01:56] If that surprises you, it might surprise you even more to find out that one of the men who took part in this duel was a candidate for the President of France, a man called Gaston Defferre, who beat another French politician, a man named René Ribière in a duel in France in 1967. 

[00:02:20] And if you don’t believe me, there’s even a video of the two men duelling on YouTube. 

[00:02:26] This might have been the last known duel in Europe, but the history of duelling is long, sometimes bloody, and varied; people fought for very different reasons during different periods.

[00:02:41] Of course, people fighting each other is as old as time.

[00:02:46] Going back to Homer, Livy, and even the Bible, there is the concept of “champion warfare”, where two opposing armies would each propose a single, strong soldier. 

[00:03:00] These two soldiers would fight each other instead of the entire armies fighting each other, and that would be a way to resolve a military dispute.

[00:03:11] Think David and Goliath in the Bible, or if you need a more modern cultural reference, think of the start of the film Troy, where Brad Pitt as Achilles runs up and kills a very big champion from Thessaly.

[00:03:28] If we fast forward a few thousand years, we see the concept of one to one fighting starting to emerge as a way to settle disputes between two people, unfortunately usually men.

[00:03:44] The word “duel” didn’t enter the English language until the 17th century, but in early Medieval Europe these “duels” had become quite prevalent in society.

[00:03:57] And, there was a very specific term for it, “Trial by combat”.

[00:04:03] See, duelling was a legally accepted way to resolve arguments, it was an alternative to a legal process, a trial.

[00:04:14] The logic goes something like this.

[00:04:17] It was pretty difficult to find evidence of a crime, so it’s hard to say whether someone is innocent or guilty.

[00:04:25] If one person has accused another of committing a crime and that person does not admit that it was them, you can’t collect DNA or look at CCTV, we are talking about over a 1000 years ago. 

[00:04:40] There wasn’t even street lighting so if the crime took place at night probably nobody saw it anyway!

[00:04:47] But there is someone who sees everything. God is all powerful and everything that happens in the world is because God wills it to happen.

[00:04:57] You can’t ask God to reveal the truth about a crime, but if the two men fight, God will determine the outcome of the fight and justice will be done.

[00:05:10] This practice was enshrined in Germanic legal codes - it meant that “justice”, or at least theoretical justice, could be achieved more quickly than some complicated legal process that was unlikely to ever result in any kind of resolution.

[00:05:30] Medieval France, Germany, and even England saw duelling as an integral part of the legal system.

[00:05:37] It tended to be restricted only to free people, though, so in a feudal system this limited it to knights and those at the top of society. 

[00:05:49] A peasant couldn’t challenge a knight, and there would be no need for a knight to challenge a peasant, because the word of the knight would always be trusted above that of the peasant.

[00:06:02] How the duels actually worked in practice varied greatly, but contrary to what you might think the idea wasn’t always to kill the other person in the duel. 

[00:06:15] One person just needed to surrender, or give up, meaning that they had lost.

[00:06:21] The person who lost the duel would be punished according to the legal system, which would often mean that they would be executed in any case.

[00:06:30] So, it worked something like this.

[00:06:33] There would be a situation in which one person had accused the other of having committed some offence against them. 

[00:06:41] An agreement couldn’t be reached, and they would be ordered to fight a duel. 

[00:06:46] Alternatively, one knight could challenge another to a duel by throwing down his glove, which is where we get the term “to throw down the gauntlet”. 

[00:06:57] To throw down the gauntlet means to challenge someone to something, and similarly to “take up the gauntlet” means to accept the challenge.

[00:07:08] No matter how the duel had been agreed and arranged, the duellists would be required to pay for the organisation of the duel - the judge, the seating, all of the logistics to do with its organisation. 

[00:07:23] It was, after all, a trial open to the public.

[00:07:28] Then the two men would fight each other, typically with swords and shields, and the duel would be over when one person gave up, they surrendered, or when they were killed.

[00:07:41] The person who gave up or was killed would be considered guilty, and the winner innocent. 

[00:07:48] By the 13th century, however, duelling as a way to settle legal disputes had already started going out of fashion.

[00:07:57] For starters, the church didn’t like it. It was like the duellists were challenging God to spring into action and sort out trivial problems on Earth, daring God to choose the right person.

[00:08:12] What’s more, important knights were being killed, and kings and queens who needed their knights to, well, be knights, to fight in real battles didn’t want them being injured or dying in small legal disputes.

[00:08:28] It lasted for several centuries though, and this concept of Trial by Combat had also been exported further north, to Scandinavia. 

[00:08:39] In Medieval Scandinavia it had been turned into a concept called “holmgang”, where one person could challenge another to a fight, regardless of that person’s status in society. 

[00:08:53] It was slightly different to the original, and it worked something like this.

[00:08:59] Firstly, these holmgang were fought in a specific location known as a holm, or a small island. 

[00:09:08] The word for this Scandinavian duel, this Viking duel is thought to have come from the Old Norse word for a small island, holm, so “holmgang” means “going to the holm.” 

[00:09:23] The holms were a controlled space where both opponents would step into a small fenced off square. They would then take turns to hit each other, normally with a sword or an axe.

[00:09:37] They were allowed shields, and each person had a ‘shield bearer’, a person who would give them a new shield when theirs got destroyed, up to a limit of three shields. 

[00:09:49] If all three of their shields were destroyed, the dualists had to use their weapons as a shield.

[00:09:57] If blood was drawn, if one person was killed, or if someone ran out of the arena, they lost the Holmgang. 

[00:10:05] Like the “trial by combat” in mainland Europe, holmgangs also fell out of favour, a bit earlier, in fact, in the early 11th century.

[00:10:16] Duelling was, to state the obvious, not an effective way to actually solve legal disputes, because it didn’t tell you anything about who should actually have won the dispute, it just revealed who was better at fighting.

[00:10:30] So, duelling for legal reasons went out of the window, it stopped, and duelling moved onto its second phase, duelling for the purposes of honour.

[00:10:42] Of course, honour was not a new concept, or one restricted to a particular period in history or indeed a particular part of the world. 

[00:10:52] Pretty much every society has some concept of honour, but it was during the Renaissance in Europe that honour became the main reason to duel.

[00:11:03] “Trial by combat” was partly based on honour, of course. 

[00:11:07] If I said that you had insulted my wife or killed my brother, I would regain my honour by killing you in a duel.

[00:11:16] But the difference was that in the “trial by combat” system, if I killed you in the duel, this was a legal way of saying “yes, Alastair was right”. 

[00:11:27] But if you killed me or I surrendered, legally I would be punished, because my loss in the duel would mean that I had been lying.

[00:11:37] Anyway, back to the Renaissance.

[00:11:40] There was an increasing concept of the importance of honour as something that needed to be preserved at all costs. 

[00:11:48] Any insult on a man’s honour needed to be dealt with, and an effective and popular way of restoring your honour would be by challenging the person who had offended you to a duel.

[00:12:02] The rules of the duel were similar to those of trial by combat, but because there was no legal rationale for the duel, they tended to be more private affairs. 

[00:12:16] A time and a place would be set, a doctor would normally be requested to attend, and each duellist would choose a second, a man who would take his place if he wasn’t able to duel. 

[00:12:30] That person was also responsible for things like carrying spare weapons, and ensuring that the fight was honourable and true.

[00:12:39] But another responsibility of the second which is less well-known was to try to stop the duel from happening in the first place.

[00:12:48] See, it all comes back to the concept of honour. If two men accept to fight each other, that they are literally prepared to die for their honour, then it shows that they are honourable men. 

[00:13:01] They don’t actually need to fight each other, and many duels were called off, they were cancelled, after the seconds had managed to arrange between each other, negotiating on behalf of the duellists, for the argument to be settled in a way in which both men thought their honour could be restored.

[00:13:22] Indeed, as a celebrated Italian master of fencing, of sword-fighting, used to say “It is not the sword or the pistol that kills, but the seconds.”

[00:13:34] Of course, sometimes there was no way of settling a dispute, and a duel would be the only way for honour to be restored.

[00:13:44] The weapons needed to be agreed in advance, and both duellists, both men needed to fight using the same weapon.

[00:13:52] Swords were considered to be more gentlemanly, but in the 18th and 19th centuries pistols were increasingly used.

[00:14:02] Swords tended to result in fewer fatal duels, fewer deaths, because after blood had been drawn, after one person had been cut, they would typically surrender

[00:14:15] This was about honour after all, it wasn’t about chopping someone’s head off - the duellists thought of themselves as civilised men not gladiators.

[00:14:25] And indeed there are records of men who would duel all the time. 

[00:14:31] There were two French officers in Napoleon’s army, one named François Fournier-Sarlovèze and the other named Pierre Dupont de l’Étang, who are reported to have duelled at least 30 times over the course of 19 years.

[00:14:48] They even drew up a contract to ensure that they kept on fighting whenever they could.

[00:14:55] This contract stated that, firstly, every time they were within a hundred miles from each other - about 160 km, that they needed to meet in the middle and fight. 

[00:15:09] Secondly, if one couldn’t meet in the middle because he had army duties, the other needed to come and meet him.

[00:15:17] Thirdly, the only reason to not accept to fight was if they had military duties.

[00:15:23] And finally that there was no alteration, no changes possible, to this contract.

[00:15:30] And it certainly doesn’t sound like they were friends. In their last duel, Dupont, one of the officers, ran his sword right through Fournier-Sarlovèze’s neck.

[00:15:43] Duelling had also been exported to the United States of America, which embraced this old European tradition, especially its army officers. 

[00:15:54] So much so, in fact, that George Washington condemned it because so many of his officers were being killed needlessly in duels.

[00:16:04] And duelling went all the way to the White House.

[00:16:08] In 1806, the future 7th president of the United States, Andrew Jackson was accused by a fellow plantation owner of going back on his word about a bet on a horse race. 

[00:16:22] This plantation owner, a man named Charles Dickinson, had also insulted Jackson’s wife.

[00:16:29] It was too much, and on May 30th of 1806 the two men met in Kentucky, complete with pistols and their seconds.

[00:16:41] On the signal from the seconds to fire their guns, Dickinson pulled the trigger. The bullet from his gun went straight into Jackson’s chest, narrowly missing his heart.

[00:16:54] Jackson managed to not fall over, and instead pulled his hand to cover the wound and stop the bleeding, pulled his pistol up, took aim and shot Dickinson dead.

[00:17:09] And there was even a sitting vice-president, Aaron Burr, who killed his former Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, in a duel. 

[00:17:19] The two men reportedly had disliked each other intensely for a long time, and this battle to the death was simply the culmination of a long-standing political rivalry.

[00:17:32] If this is ringing some distant bell for you, yes this Alexander Hamilton is the one on which the popular musical “Hamilton” is based.

[00:17:43] But back to our story. Society, both in the United States and Europe, was turning against duelling. 

[00:17:51] In Britain, Queen Victoria declared in 1844 that any military officer found to have fought in a duel would lose their pension and be kicked out of the army.

[00:18:03] And although there are some records of duels in Britain in the mid 19th century, the practice had all but died out during the second half.

[00:18:14] In continental Europe it took slightly longer, but the events of the two World Wars in the early 20th century were enough, firstly to put some real perspective on the fragility of life and more practically to reduce the number of “honourable” male army officers who had previously engaged in duelling because, well, they were killed in a real war.

[00:18:40] And the legacy of duelling is something that is alive and well, in poems, literature, and now films and TV. If you’ve read much Tolstoy, Chekhov, or Maupassant, you’ll find duels throughout the stories. 

[00:18:55] You’ll also find duelling in the works of Alexander Pushkin, and if you’ve ever thought, “I love Pushkin but I’ve read all of his books”, well perhaps if he hadn’t been killed in a duel at the age of 37 then there would be some more Pushkin for you to read.

[00:19:14] To you or me it might seem absurd that two normal adults would decide that literally the only way to solve an argument was to try to kill, or at least badly hurt, each other. 

[00:19:28] But for a large part of history, this was how society worked. 

[00:19:34] Whether it was for the purposes of legally resolving a dispute or for regaining your honour, a duel was the way to do it.

[00:19:43] Fortunately, we’ve decided that lawyers might be expensive, and it isn’t much fun to be insulted in public, but hiring a lawyer or turning the other cheek when someone insults you is certainly preferable to being shot in the chest or stabbed in the neck with a large sword.

[00:20:04] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Duelling.

[00:20:09] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:20:13] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:20:16] I normally ask whether you have any personal experience with the subject of the episode, but I guess that isn’t so relevant now.

[00:20:25] Although if you have ever fought in a duel, I absolutely do want to know everything about it. 

[00:20:31] For those of you who haven’t fought in a duel, and I have to confess that I am also in this category, I would love to know your thoughts on duelling.

[00:20:40] Why do you think it went on for as long as it did?

[00:20:43] Why do intelligent people, and intelligent societies, do things that we now look back on as completely, well, mad?

[00:20:52] I would love to know.

[00:20:54] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:21:02] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:21:08] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English. 

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we’re going to be talking about the history of duelling, the practice of two individuals settling an argument by fighting in physical combat and sometimes, to the death. 

[00:00:38] In this episode we’ll meet Romans, Vikings, Germanic tribes, Medieval knights, Renaissance thinkers, Queen Victoria and even an American president.

[00:00:50] It is a fascinating story, and I hope you’ll enjoy it.

[00:00:54] OK then, duelling. 

[00:00:58] Now, there are probably people you have come across in your life, people you have known, who you haven’t particularly liked. 

[00:01:07] Perhaps you’ve had an argument with them, you’ve had a disagreement with them.

[00:01:11] Perhaps you might even have got in a fight. 

[00:01:14] It’s ok, we're all human beings, these things happen.

[00:01:19] But you have probably not ever felt the need to challenge them to a duel, to meet them at a specified time and place, bringing swords or guns, and fighting until one of you surrenders or dies.

[00:01:35] At least I hope you haven’t.

[00:01:37] And you might well think that this seems all very archaic, something from so long ago that it’s hard for us to understand, but let me tell you that if you are older than 55, you were actually alive when the last duel took place in Europe.

[00:01:56] If that surprises you, it might surprise you even more to find out that one of the men who took part in this duel was a candidate for the President of France, a man called Gaston Defferre, who beat another French politician, a man named René Ribière in a duel in France in 1967. 

[00:02:20] And if you don’t believe me, there’s even a video of the two men duelling on YouTube. 

[00:02:26] This might have been the last known duel in Europe, but the history of duelling is long, sometimes bloody, and varied; people fought for very different reasons during different periods.

[00:02:41] Of course, people fighting each other is as old as time.

[00:02:46] Going back to Homer, Livy, and even the Bible, there is the concept of “champion warfare”, where two opposing armies would each propose a single, strong soldier. 

[00:03:00] These two soldiers would fight each other instead of the entire armies fighting each other, and that would be a way to resolve a military dispute.

[00:03:11] Think David and Goliath in the Bible, or if you need a more modern cultural reference, think of the start of the film Troy, where Brad Pitt as Achilles runs up and kills a very big champion from Thessaly.

[00:03:28] If we fast forward a few thousand years, we see the concept of one to one fighting starting to emerge as a way to settle disputes between two people, unfortunately usually men.

[00:03:44] The word “duel” didn’t enter the English language until the 17th century, but in early Medieval Europe these “duels” had become quite prevalent in society.

[00:03:57] And, there was a very specific term for it, “Trial by combat”.

[00:04:03] See, duelling was a legally accepted way to resolve arguments, it was an alternative to a legal process, a trial.

[00:04:14] The logic goes something like this.

[00:04:17] It was pretty difficult to find evidence of a crime, so it’s hard to say whether someone is innocent or guilty.

[00:04:25] If one person has accused another of committing a crime and that person does not admit that it was them, you can’t collect DNA or look at CCTV, we are talking about over a 1000 years ago. 

[00:04:40] There wasn’t even street lighting so if the crime took place at night probably nobody saw it anyway!

[00:04:47] But there is someone who sees everything. God is all powerful and everything that happens in the world is because God wills it to happen.

[00:04:57] You can’t ask God to reveal the truth about a crime, but if the two men fight, God will determine the outcome of the fight and justice will be done.

[00:05:10] This practice was enshrined in Germanic legal codes - it meant that “justice”, or at least theoretical justice, could be achieved more quickly than some complicated legal process that was unlikely to ever result in any kind of resolution.

[00:05:30] Medieval France, Germany, and even England saw duelling as an integral part of the legal system.

[00:05:37] It tended to be restricted only to free people, though, so in a feudal system this limited it to knights and those at the top of society. 

[00:05:49] A peasant couldn’t challenge a knight, and there would be no need for a knight to challenge a peasant, because the word of the knight would always be trusted above that of the peasant.

[00:06:02] How the duels actually worked in practice varied greatly, but contrary to what you might think the idea wasn’t always to kill the other person in the duel. 

[00:06:15] One person just needed to surrender, or give up, meaning that they had lost.

[00:06:21] The person who lost the duel would be punished according to the legal system, which would often mean that they would be executed in any case.

[00:06:30] So, it worked something like this.

[00:06:33] There would be a situation in which one person had accused the other of having committed some offence against them. 

[00:06:41] An agreement couldn’t be reached, and they would be ordered to fight a duel. 

[00:06:46] Alternatively, one knight could challenge another to a duel by throwing down his glove, which is where we get the term “to throw down the gauntlet”. 

[00:06:57] To throw down the gauntlet means to challenge someone to something, and similarly to “take up the gauntlet” means to accept the challenge.

[00:07:08] No matter how the duel had been agreed and arranged, the duellists would be required to pay for the organisation of the duel - the judge, the seating, all of the logistics to do with its organisation. 

[00:07:23] It was, after all, a trial open to the public.

[00:07:28] Then the two men would fight each other, typically with swords and shields, and the duel would be over when one person gave up, they surrendered, or when they were killed.

[00:07:41] The person who gave up or was killed would be considered guilty, and the winner innocent. 

[00:07:48] By the 13th century, however, duelling as a way to settle legal disputes had already started going out of fashion.

[00:07:57] For starters, the church didn’t like it. It was like the duellists were challenging God to spring into action and sort out trivial problems on Earth, daring God to choose the right person.

[00:08:12] What’s more, important knights were being killed, and kings and queens who needed their knights to, well, be knights, to fight in real battles didn’t want them being injured or dying in small legal disputes.

[00:08:28] It lasted for several centuries though, and this concept of Trial by Combat had also been exported further north, to Scandinavia. 

[00:08:39] In Medieval Scandinavia it had been turned into a concept called “holmgang”, where one person could challenge another to a fight, regardless of that person’s status in society. 

[00:08:53] It was slightly different to the original, and it worked something like this.

[00:08:59] Firstly, these holmgang were fought in a specific location known as a holm, or a small island. 

[00:09:08] The word for this Scandinavian duel, this Viking duel is thought to have come from the Old Norse word for a small island, holm, so “holmgang” means “going to the holm.” 

[00:09:23] The holms were a controlled space where both opponents would step into a small fenced off square. They would then take turns to hit each other, normally with a sword or an axe.

[00:09:37] They were allowed shields, and each person had a ‘shield bearer’, a person who would give them a new shield when theirs got destroyed, up to a limit of three shields. 

[00:09:49] If all three of their shields were destroyed, the dualists had to use their weapons as a shield.

[00:09:57] If blood was drawn, if one person was killed, or if someone ran out of the arena, they lost the Holmgang. 

[00:10:05] Like the “trial by combat” in mainland Europe, holmgangs also fell out of favour, a bit earlier, in fact, in the early 11th century.

[00:10:16] Duelling was, to state the obvious, not an effective way to actually solve legal disputes, because it didn’t tell you anything about who should actually have won the dispute, it just revealed who was better at fighting.

[00:10:30] So, duelling for legal reasons went out of the window, it stopped, and duelling moved onto its second phase, duelling for the purposes of honour.

[00:10:42] Of course, honour was not a new concept, or one restricted to a particular period in history or indeed a particular part of the world. 

[00:10:52] Pretty much every society has some concept of honour, but it was during the Renaissance in Europe that honour became the main reason to duel.

[00:11:03] “Trial by combat” was partly based on honour, of course. 

[00:11:07] If I said that you had insulted my wife or killed my brother, I would regain my honour by killing you in a duel.

[00:11:16] But the difference was that in the “trial by combat” system, if I killed you in the duel, this was a legal way of saying “yes, Alastair was right”. 

[00:11:27] But if you killed me or I surrendered, legally I would be punished, because my loss in the duel would mean that I had been lying.

[00:11:37] Anyway, back to the Renaissance.

[00:11:40] There was an increasing concept of the importance of honour as something that needed to be preserved at all costs. 

[00:11:48] Any insult on a man’s honour needed to be dealt with, and an effective and popular way of restoring your honour would be by challenging the person who had offended you to a duel.

[00:12:02] The rules of the duel were similar to those of trial by combat, but because there was no legal rationale for the duel, they tended to be more private affairs. 

[00:12:16] A time and a place would be set, a doctor would normally be requested to attend, and each duellist would choose a second, a man who would take his place if he wasn’t able to duel. 

[00:12:30] That person was also responsible for things like carrying spare weapons, and ensuring that the fight was honourable and true.

[00:12:39] But another responsibility of the second which is less well-known was to try to stop the duel from happening in the first place.

[00:12:48] See, it all comes back to the concept of honour. If two men accept to fight each other, that they are literally prepared to die for their honour, then it shows that they are honourable men. 

[00:13:01] They don’t actually need to fight each other, and many duels were called off, they were cancelled, after the seconds had managed to arrange between each other, negotiating on behalf of the duellists, for the argument to be settled in a way in which both men thought their honour could be restored.

[00:13:22] Indeed, as a celebrated Italian master of fencing, of sword-fighting, used to say “It is not the sword or the pistol that kills, but the seconds.”

[00:13:34] Of course, sometimes there was no way of settling a dispute, and a duel would be the only way for honour to be restored.

[00:13:44] The weapons needed to be agreed in advance, and both duellists, both men needed to fight using the same weapon.

[00:13:52] Swords were considered to be more gentlemanly, but in the 18th and 19th centuries pistols were increasingly used.

[00:14:02] Swords tended to result in fewer fatal duels, fewer deaths, because after blood had been drawn, after one person had been cut, they would typically surrender

[00:14:15] This was about honour after all, it wasn’t about chopping someone’s head off - the duellists thought of themselves as civilised men not gladiators.

[00:14:25] And indeed there are records of men who would duel all the time. 

[00:14:31] There were two French officers in Napoleon’s army, one named François Fournier-Sarlovèze and the other named Pierre Dupont de l’Étang, who are reported to have duelled at least 30 times over the course of 19 years.

[00:14:48] They even drew up a contract to ensure that they kept on fighting whenever they could.

[00:14:55] This contract stated that, firstly, every time they were within a hundred miles from each other - about 160 km, that they needed to meet in the middle and fight. 

[00:15:09] Secondly, if one couldn’t meet in the middle because he had army duties, the other needed to come and meet him.

[00:15:17] Thirdly, the only reason to not accept to fight was if they had military duties.

[00:15:23] And finally that there was no alteration, no changes possible, to this contract.

[00:15:30] And it certainly doesn’t sound like they were friends. In their last duel, Dupont, one of the officers, ran his sword right through Fournier-Sarlovèze’s neck.

[00:15:43] Duelling had also been exported to the United States of America, which embraced this old European tradition, especially its army officers. 

[00:15:54] So much so, in fact, that George Washington condemned it because so many of his officers were being killed needlessly in duels.

[00:16:04] And duelling went all the way to the White House.

[00:16:08] In 1806, the future 7th president of the United States, Andrew Jackson was accused by a fellow plantation owner of going back on his word about a bet on a horse race. 

[00:16:22] This plantation owner, a man named Charles Dickinson, had also insulted Jackson’s wife.

[00:16:29] It was too much, and on May 30th of 1806 the two men met in Kentucky, complete with pistols and their seconds.

[00:16:41] On the signal from the seconds to fire their guns, Dickinson pulled the trigger. The bullet from his gun went straight into Jackson’s chest, narrowly missing his heart.

[00:16:54] Jackson managed to not fall over, and instead pulled his hand to cover the wound and stop the bleeding, pulled his pistol up, took aim and shot Dickinson dead.

[00:17:09] And there was even a sitting vice-president, Aaron Burr, who killed his former Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, in a duel. 

[00:17:19] The two men reportedly had disliked each other intensely for a long time, and this battle to the death was simply the culmination of a long-standing political rivalry.

[00:17:32] If this is ringing some distant bell for you, yes this Alexander Hamilton is the one on which the popular musical “Hamilton” is based.

[00:17:43] But back to our story. Society, both in the United States and Europe, was turning against duelling. 

[00:17:51] In Britain, Queen Victoria declared in 1844 that any military officer found to have fought in a duel would lose their pension and be kicked out of the army.

[00:18:03] And although there are some records of duels in Britain in the mid 19th century, the practice had all but died out during the second half.

[00:18:14] In continental Europe it took slightly longer, but the events of the two World Wars in the early 20th century were enough, firstly to put some real perspective on the fragility of life and more practically to reduce the number of “honourable” male army officers who had previously engaged in duelling because, well, they were killed in a real war.

[00:18:40] And the legacy of duelling is something that is alive and well, in poems, literature, and now films and TV. If you’ve read much Tolstoy, Chekhov, or Maupassant, you’ll find duels throughout the stories. 

[00:18:55] You’ll also find duelling in the works of Alexander Pushkin, and if you’ve ever thought, “I love Pushkin but I’ve read all of his books”, well perhaps if he hadn’t been killed in a duel at the age of 37 then there would be some more Pushkin for you to read.

[00:19:14] To you or me it might seem absurd that two normal adults would decide that literally the only way to solve an argument was to try to kill, or at least badly hurt, each other. 

[00:19:28] But for a large part of history, this was how society worked. 

[00:19:34] Whether it was for the purposes of legally resolving a dispute or for regaining your honour, a duel was the way to do it.

[00:19:43] Fortunately, we’ve decided that lawyers might be expensive, and it isn’t much fun to be insulted in public, but hiring a lawyer or turning the other cheek when someone insults you is certainly preferable to being shot in the chest or stabbed in the neck with a large sword.

[00:20:04] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Duelling.

[00:20:09] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:20:13] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:20:16] I normally ask whether you have any personal experience with the subject of the episode, but I guess that isn’t so relevant now.

[00:20:25] Although if you have ever fought in a duel, I absolutely do want to know everything about it. 

[00:20:31] For those of you who haven’t fought in a duel, and I have to confess that I am also in this category, I would love to know your thoughts on duelling.

[00:20:40] Why do you think it went on for as long as it did?

[00:20:43] Why do intelligent people, and intelligent societies, do things that we now look back on as completely, well, mad?

[00:20:52] I would love to know.

[00:20:54] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:21:02] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:21:08] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]