The Code Duello

code duello

Rules and ceremony govern this gentlemen’s contest. Mark Schneider describes the Code Duello.

Learn more: The John Burk duel


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. My guest today is Mark Schneider. Mark, thanks for being with us.

Mark Schneider: Pleasure to be here.

Harmony: Mark, I have asked you here today because I wanted to challenge you to a dueling podcast. You’re here to talk to us about the tradition of dueling, and dueling throughout the ages. Where does dueling begin?

Mark: That’s a great question. To answer that, I actually began with the dictionary, the Merriam-Webster dictionary, and what the definition of what a duel is. It says, “A combat between two persons, one fought with weapons in front of witnesses.”

So that’s a rather broad subject to cover. When you ask the question, what is the first duel, or where does it begin, some people have even said that the first duel is between Cain and Abel in the Bible. Others relate Hector and Achilles from The Illiad Homer’s epic poem of the fight between the Greeks and the Trojans. Others will go to the Aeneid, between Turnus and Aeneas. But other historians will say those aren’t truly duels, for if you look at that definition, “a combat between two persons," ok, that’s established, but, “one fought with weapons in front of witnesses.” That’s truly what makes a personal argument or fight between two people and a duel a different subject.

Because one is done according to rules and regulations, and one could be maybe a disagreement in a bar room. So that’s where dueling comes into play – where rules and regulations, a code, to fight this battle or this disagreement over.

Harmony: Are there different types of duels?

Mark: Absolutely. Duels, or the history of dueling, many historians will break it down into three different categories. That is the judicial duel, the duel of chivalry, and the duel of honor, which is perhaps the most famous, the one that most people talk about.

When you talk about a judicial duel, the first one of those that comes into mind, can be traced back to 501 AD, with King Gundobad of the Burgundians in a region before the nation of France is established. He legally established the trial by combat.

So, here is a combat between two people who have a disagreement and it is felt that the only way that this disagreement can be brought to judgment or someone be found exonerated or free of the accusation that they have been accused of is by fighting.

So this duel of 501 AD was when two Burgundians were angered with one another in a disagreement. They could swear an oath that they were in the right, that they were not lying, and then fight this combat. Hopefully, through divine intervention, god would be on the side of the righteous: the victor would be the person who was telling the truth. So the trial by combat began, or the first recorded duels began.

Now this would evolve, and it’s very similar to the duel of chivalry. When you think of knights, perhaps the tournament, knights on horseback, jousting, well that was done for show, perhaps for princes or kings, for the public, and also as a martial display for the knights to show that they were very talented or very proficient in the fact that they were knights, and show their ability there.

Also, it could be to decide something. Once again, like the trial by combat, this duel of chivalry could be fought over the argument of “who owns this portion of land?” Or, “who shall claim this city?” Or, “who claims the right to this, or to that?”

So the duel of chivalry will be fought between two knights individually, in front of witnesses – maybe a king or the people of the region they’re from. It will be to decide a question or an argument over something.

As I mentioned earlier, the most famous duel is going to be the duel of honor. This is where an individual feels slighted, feels insulted for whatever subject it could be. Many of these duels were fought over a personal insult: somebody did something that somebody was upset about. Quite often they were fought over women, and we still see fights over women today – but of course they’re not usually settled in a duel – or any argument at all.

The history of dueling has shown us that it can truly be over any subject at all. One odd duel comes to mind, if I may, in which two gentlemen in France were playing billiards, or playing a game of pool. They got into an argument over who was in the right over some shot that was taken. They got so upset about this that they actually decided to fight a duel. There were others present, so they decided to fight this duel. The way they were going to fight this duel was with one of the balls, one of the cue balls. Each would be given an opportunity to throw the cue ball at the other. Unfortunately for one individual – the one who was to throw second – he didn’t even get an opportunity. The first person threw the ball, hit the other gentleman in the head, and killed him outright.

Harmony: Tell me more about those rules and regulations that separate a duel from just a regular altercation.

Mark: There are many rules and regulations that have been written down over history, or some unwritten. But all of them will be based upon a code of honor.

So that means, two people, if they get into a disagreement, will first have to call upon their seconds, or their friends, who will act for them, who will do all of the conversing, arranging of the duel. The two combatants will not even speak with one another. They will speak through their friends, or their seconds.

For example, a second will go to the person who has insulted them and say, “My friend has been insulted because of this, and he demands satisfaction. He would like you to meet tomorrow at dawn.” Then, his second will in turn talk to the person who has been insulted and they will come to an agreement, whether it be the location, the weapon to be used, and even the argument, to make sure they’re on the same sheet of music and that the two individuals will meet.

Now, why have seconds? Why have thirds, fourths, fifths, friends that are with you? Because if you are incapable of fighting this duel, whether you break your leg in route, whether you fall ill, it is the responsibility of your friend, or your second, to fulfill that obligation, that code.

So, though you might not have the disagreement with the individual you are fighting, as his second, you still have to fight that duel under the strictest code of honor. This came into written word with the Code Duello. That is not the first of the written codes in which there’s a format of ways you will fight duels, but it is the most famous.

That’s produced in 1777 by a few Irishmen. The Irish were great duelists, known for dueling quite often in various forms. They wrote this down, a various group of rules. I have the code duello right here, and I’ll just read a couple passages from it. There are 26 commandments to the Code Duello, but just to give you an example, “The first offense requires the first apology though the retort may have been more offensive than the insult.” So just to give you an example, it goes in such depth about how specific you want the duel to be fought.

Harmony: Twenty-six rules, it strikes me as such a ritualized social ceremony among gentlemen.

Mark: Absolutely. In Europe, particularly in the 17th and 18th centuries, it was expected of a gentleman to fight a duel. You would be considered kind of a weakling or someone who is not brave, or lacks physical or moral courage to have taken part in a duel. It’s sort of your right of passage.

We look at so many in France, where dueling is so very popular, you’re hard-pressed to find an aristocrat, a French nobleman of note that has not fought a duel. If they have not, that will be remarked upon as well, “Ah, look at this individual, he’s never even fought a duel.”

Whereas, here in America, a Frenchman actually commented upon American duels. Alexis de Tocqueville, commenting in 1831 on the state of dueling in America observed that, “The duel based on extreme susceptibility to points of honor, the monarchial duel is almost unknown in America. The laws which oblige a man to fight in some parts of Europe in certain defined cases, do not exist at all.”

He conceded that duels did take place in the new world but described as “No more than a means outside the law of satisfying violent passions. There are very few duels in America, but they almost always end fatally.” Implying that in America, that perhaps they might not fight duels as often as that of the Europeans for their reputation. But when they do in fact fight them, they mean business, and it’s usually going to cause the death of one individual.

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