The two took off their coats and fought, first with a sword and dagger, then with a dagger alone. Their duel ended with a grappling hook, each holding a dagger to the other’s throat – at which point both men decided to stop. Even so, blood was indeed going to flow that day: their friends, witnesses of the duel, were involved in a fight which left one of them dead and the other seriously injured. Although duels seem like a formality, too often they descend into chaos and bloodshed.
Matters of honor
The cry of On guard! and the noise of drawing swords was common in Paris and other French cities. The custom was widespread in other countries, but France seems to have been the dueling capital of Europe. Matters of honor were so ingrained in national consciousness that they appear in some of France’s most iconic stories, such as The three Musketeers, written in 1844 by Alexandre Dumas and located in the 17th century.
The duels have taken many forms. Sometimes they are the result of a chance encounter without any formal preparation. For example, in 1613, the Chevalier de Guise was walking in the rue Saint-Honoré in Paris when he saw a man, the Baron de Luz, who had spoken badly about the father of Guise. Guise dismounted, drew his sword, and called on the baron to do the same. The baron was an old man and barely able to defend himself against the young and impetuous Guise, who killed the baron with one blow. Even by today’s standards, this encounter looked more like a murder than a duel. (Did this golden sword belong to Blackbeard?)
A series of rituals were usually associated with duels. One of these was the preliminary challenge. When a man’s honor had been offended, he could challenge the offender to a duel by talking to him, slapping him or sending him a written message. For example, after having buried his father, the son of Baron de Luz sent his squire to Guise’s to present him a card which read: “Sir, you are invited to do me the honor of meeting me, sword at hand. hand, to receive justice for the death of my father. This man [the squire] will take you to where I am waiting for you with a good horse and two swords from which you can choose the one you prefer. The duel took place. After killing the father, Guise then killed the son.
The duels often took place on the outskirts of the city where the authorities did not intervene. In Paris, an area near the Seine known as Pré aux Clercs was well known to be a popular place for dueling. But honorary affairs could also take place in the city. In the 1630s, Cardinal Richelieu complained that “duels have become so common in France that the streets are turning into battlefields”.
A series of informal rules regarding clothing and weapons ensured the honor of all participants. Duelists often fought in shirt sleeves, their chest exposed to a rival’s sword. Although they are prohibited from wearing armor, some fighters have attempted to wear protection concealed in their clothing.
The most popular weapons of choice were swords, especially rapiers. These elegant instruments did not mutilate or disfigure the rival’s face – however, they were the deadliest of all swords. Although firearms were seen as contrary to the aristocratic ideal of personal bravery, there are numerous cases of dueling with pistols, especially later in the 17th century. (Scientists wonder if it is beneficial for the gunslinger to shoot first.)
A new feature of duels in the 17th century was the presence of seconds. These men not only accompanied the duelists and made sure the rules were followed, but could also – as in the Bouteville affair – end up fighting too. When a second beat his rival, he could even go to the aid of the duelist he was accompanying, creating a two-on-one situation. This action went against the notion of settling scores between two men. Writing in the second half of the 16th century, the great essayist Michel de Montaigne noted: “It is also a kind of cowardice that introduced the custom of seconds, thirds and quarters… they were once duels; they are now skirmishes.
Despite the potential for chaos introduced by seconds, there were alternatives to combat that could both satisfy honor and prevent tragedy. Besides the opportunity to reconcile before crossing swords, duelists could accept satisfaction from the moment one of them slightly injured the other in duels in the “first blood”. Sometimes the fights were a face-saving joke and both opponents could accept the satisfaction after trading a few blows. But many duels ended with the death of one of the participants. From the information provided by a mid-17th century French chronicler, Tallemant des Réaux, it can be calculated that, out of the hundred or so duels and challenges he describes, more than a third did not take place because that a prior agreement had been reached. Of the duels that took place, half resulted in the death of one or more combatants. (See the medieval sword drawn from a Polish bog.)
Other historians have calculated that during the reign of Henri IV of France (1589-1610), around 10,000 duels took place in the country, involving 20,000 duelists, of which 4,000 or 5,000 lost their lives. Some “duelists” used the ritual as a cover for the butchery. A certain Chevalier d’Andrieux, for example, killed 72 men until he was tried and executed.
Increasingly, throughout the 17th century, authorities had reason to be concerned about the proliferation of these glasses. The laws against duels were becoming more and more strict, despite the attachment that some had for this tradition. Bouteville, for example, was arrested just after his duel with Beuvron, and Cardinal Richelieu had him sentenced to death. King Louis XIV later issued decrees banning dueling in the late 1600s.
Although the practice declined over the years, it persisted until surprisingly late. The last duel in France took place in 1967, when René Ribière challenged a political colleague for insulting him. Filmed for posterity, the combatants armed with swords only agreed to stop after Ribière was twice wounded.