The Art of the Duel

A lost world of ritualized rage and reckless rectitude

Eugene Onegin, Duel Scene
Eugene Onegin, Duel Scene
28 NOV 2016

From Batman versus Superman to Clinton versus Trump, our cultural and political arenas have a tendency to reduce the complexity of the modern world into one-on-one confrontations. Nowadays such individual battles are conducted on our television or cinema screens with the aid of spectacular special effects and elevating rhetoric at best or wonky plotlines and prepared soundbites at worst. Yet one or two centuries ago, single combat was played for higher stakes, taking place in the early-morning twilight in a non-descript location with the aid of seconds and dueling pistols.

Duels were once surprisingly common. Twenty-three duels were once fought in a single day in Ireland. In France, more than four thousand men died in duels in an eighteen-year period [1]. Pistol dueling was an event in the 1908 Olympics. Moreover, people have fought and died in duels on the most trivial of pretexts: a game of cards; a fight between dogs; even balloons [2]. In the nineteenth century, two Italians dueled over whether Ludovico Ariosto or Torquato Tasso was the greatest Italian poet of the sixteenth. The confrontation ended with the mortally-wounded loser confessing that he had not read the poet he was defending [3].

Moreover, the brutality, intensity and unpredictability of duels made them a mainstay of Western literature. Think, for instance of David and Goliath in The Bible or Achilles’ battles with Ajax and Hector in The Iliad. Shakespeare’s Hamlet ends his life in a duel, and plot of many nineteenth-century Russian classics have turned on duels: recall the duels in Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (1862); Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1865-7) and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (1879-80). Perhaps unwisely enthused by the heroic tussles of their characters, poets and novelists have often been enthusiastic duelers. In 1598, in the so-called ‘War of the Theatres’ the British playwright and poet Ben Jonson killed the actor Gabriel Spencer in a sword duel. For the slaying, Jonson escaped with a branded thumb, after successfully avoiding a hanging by pleading that his ability to read the Bible in Latin qualified him as a member of the clergy and thus immunity from secular law [4]. Perhaps the most famous literary duel took place sixty years earlier in 1837 when the Russian writer Alexander Pushkin was killed in a duel by Georges d’Anthès, a French Officer rumored to be having an affair with Pushkin's wife Natalia [5]. Pushkin was purportedly on his twenty-ninth duel.

Alongside writers, nineteenth-century American politicians appear to have displayed a considerable propensity for dueling. Famously, in 1804, the sitting Vice President Aaron Burr killed the former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. Far from advancing either man’s reputation, the duel ended the survivor Burr’s career and helped finally eradicate Hamilton’s struggling political party, the Federalists [6]. The incident did not, however, extinguish the US’s apparent enthusiasm for dueling politicians. The notoriously bad-tempered Seventh American President Andrew Jackson is estimated to have participated in between fourteen and one-hundred duels or violent quarrels including one in 1806 in which he killed the attorney and expert marksman Charles Dickinson after Dickinson made disparaging remarks about Jackson’s wife Rachel [7]. Abraham Lincoln was involved in a duel, when he was a humble Illinois state legislator. Moments before the battle was to begin, the seconds managed to convince Lincoln and his rival the state auditor James Shield to refrain, on the very reasonable grounds that Lincoln had not written the insulting letters that had provoked Shield to challenge him [8]. If the seconds had not prevailed, a case of mistaken authorship could have cost America perhaps its greatest President and allowed the institution of slavery to persist for longer.

While dueling was associated with a strict gentlemanly etiquette, woman also engaged in the ritual. In the so-called ‘Petticoat Duel’ in 1792, Mrs. Elphintone received a sword wound to her arm from Lady Almeria Braddock, after Elphinstone had asserted her antagonist looked over sixty years old (Braddock claimed to be not yet thirty). In an even more bizarre incident one century later, Princess Pauline Metternich and Countess Kielmannsegg decided to settle an argument over flower arrangements with a topless duel, partly because they believed that clothing pushed into a wound could cause infection, partly as an eccentric gesture in favor of female emancipation [9]. In the view of many, the female adversaries did succeed in demonstrating that foolhardy bloodthirstiness is not gender-specific.

Today, dueling might appear a ludicrous and barbaric means of ending a squabble. Agreeing to a challenge means accepting a fifty per cent chance that you might be seriously injured or even killed. Moreover, you could perish for a churlishly inconsequential charge of which you were completely innocent. No matter how much someone insults or annoys us, we might reason, it is seldom worth dying or killing to settle the score. However, in the past, several arguments were frequently mooted in favor of dueling. Enthusiasts claimed that single combat averted blood feuds that could devour whole families. Moreover, many believed it enforced civility. If you knew that you might be challenged, you might think twice next time you stuck your leftover chewing gum on the back of your seat. The 1836 manual The Art of Dueling opined: ‘[i]t is certainly both awful and distressing to see a young person cut off suddenly in a duel, particularly if he be a father of a family, but the loss of a few lives is a mere trifle, when compared with the benefits resulting to Society at large’ [10].

Dueling reflected a lost culture in which a person’s position in the social hierarchy was believed to be determined by their character rather than their bank balance. While we might regard this ritual as savage or ridiculous, it is difficult to resist a sneaking admiration for such single-minded commitment to one’s reputation. In October 2002, four months prior to the American-led invasion of Iraq, the Iraqi Vice-President Taha Yassin Ramadan suggested that George W. Bush and Saddam Hussein settle the conflict in a duel. White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer declined Ramadan’s offer on Bush’s behalf. When we consider the loss of life that would have been prevented had Ramadan’s suggestion had been followed, dueling does not seem so barbaric or pointless after all.

[1] See C. Mackay, Extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds (1841) (New York: The Noonday Press, 1932) p. 686 and p. 666.
[2] In 1609, Sir George Wharton and Sir James Stuart died in a duel over a game of cards. In 1803, Colonel Montgomery was killed by Captain James Macnamara over a fight between their dogs. In 1808, two Frenchmen dueled after each attempted to shoot the other’s balloon. See Markku Peltonen, The Duel in Early Modern England: Civility, Politeness and Honour (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003) p. 81 and Anonymous, ‘Duels’ Monthly Mirror, March 1803 p. 282-3.
[3] See Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Had Declined (2011) (London: Penguin, 2012) paperback edition, p 22.
[4] See: Michelle O’Callaghan, ‘Friends, collaborators and rivals’ in Julie Sanders, Ben Jonson in Context (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000) pp. 48-57, p. 53.
[5] John Bayley, ‘The Strange Death of Pushkin’, review of Serena Vitale, Pushkin's Button, New York Review of Books, April 8 1999.
[6] See: John Sedgwick, War of Two: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr and the Duel that Stunned the Nation (London and New York: Penguin, 2005).
[7] See: Jack K. Williams, Dueling in the Old South: Vignettes of Social History (College Station and London: Texas A & M University Press, 1980) p. 18-9.
[8] Ronald C. White, Jr., A. Lincoln: A Biography (New York: Random House, 2009) pp. 113-5.
[9] Information from: Robert Baldick, The Duel: A History of Dueling (London: Spring Books, 1970) p. 177.
[10] Anonymous, The Art of Dueling (London: Joseph Thomas, 1836) p. 1.