New Worlds: How to Fight a Duel

Due to Book View Cafe’s ongoing problems with Hostgator (soon to be solved by leaving Hostgator for a company we can actually rely on . . .), this week’s New Worlds Patreon post is here at Swan Tower again!


I couldn’t resist giving this essay that title, but the truth is that I can’t give exact instructions on how to fight a duel, because — like pretty much everything discussed in this Patreon — there’s a lot of variation both geographically and historically. A gun duel on the western frontier of the United States in the nineteenth century was not the same as a sword duel in eighteenth-century London, and neither of them is like an Indonesian knife duel.

But I said in the last essay that for my purposes, a duel is distinguished from any other one-on-one fight by the existence of certain formalities marking it out from normal combat. Those formalities have some common threads, and if we approach a duel sequentially, we can tease those out.

The first is the cause of the duel. Most cultures that have some form of dueling recognize certain circumstances that can occasion the event: for example, European duels generally arose from some kind of insult, for which the offended party could demand satisfaction. While this is the scenario most people imagine when they hear the word “duel,” it isn’t the only possibility; as I mentioned before, judicial dueling was a way of determining someone’s guilt or innocence when charged with a crime. Dueling out of vengeance is similar to both of these.

Not all of the causes for duels are grim, though. People might confront each other simply to determine which of them is better. You see this in chivalric knight-errantry or the Japanese musha shugyō — many of Miyamoto Musashi’s duels were of this variety — and in certain genres of Chinese literature, where swordsmen or martial artists challenge each other just for the pleasure of competition, or to hone their own skill.

When an insult is the cause, you don’t have to proceed immediately to confrontation. As the Hamilton song “Ten Duel Commandments” notes, historically, “most disputes die and no one shoots.” People might have been shockingly willing (by modern standards) to risk themselves on the field, but when confronted with the very real possibility that they might die, lose a body part, or otherwise be scarred for life, they were still capable of backing down. Because of this, it’s common to have a mandatory waiting period for the participants to cool off and think about apologizing. (Or, if not, then to put their affairs in order.)

A similar logic applies to having assistance in preparing for the duel, in the form of a second. When you have two hot-headed people racing toward violence, it’s good to put someone else between them. Sometimes the seconds can work out a compromise acceptable to all . . . and if not, well, they’re at least able to handle the logistics for the confrontation itself.

Those logistics can be complex. What weapon will the duel be fought with? Sometimes there’s no choice — if Miyamoto Musashi wants to find out who’s the best swordsman in town, fighting a guy with a knife or a naginata won’t do him a lot of good — but in other cases you have a choice. It’s common in those instances to let the person challenged make the decision, on more or less the same principle as “Person A cuts the cake in half and Person B picks which half they want.” Letting the challenged party choose means the challenger might think a little more carefully before opening his mouth.

What about location? This depends heavily on what the purpose of the duel is, and also whether it’s legal. A musha shugyō duel to figure out who’s the better swordsman might have a big audience eager to see two masters in action. When dueling is (theoretically) illegal, though, you don’t want a lot of witnesses. Either way, you generally want to fight on neutral ground — not a place that favors one party in some fashion — with good footing and good lighting and so forth.

Speaking of good lighting, timing is also an open question. The stereotypical confrontation in the Old West takes place at high noon, and there’s merit in that idea; it means nobody can circle around to put the sun in the other person’s eyes. There’s a fourteenth-century German text, the Sachsenspiegel, that stipulates participants in a judicial combat must “share the sun,” i.e. position it to one side rather than behind anybody. But dawn also has its adherents, especially in situations where dueling is illegal; you might even fight at night, holding a lantern in your off hand and even using it as a parrying weapon, or having your seconds hold the lights for you. (I can’t check right now, because I’m traveling for the holidays, but I believe this is how the cross-dressing conquistador Catalina de Erauso wound up killing her own brother in a duel.)

You have to determine what actions are and are not permissible. Is it dishonorable to strike certain locations, like the back or the legs or the face? Do you have to let your opponent retrieve their weapon if they’re disarmed, or let them stand up if they fall? Are you required to take an oath beforehand that you’re under the effect of no charm or enchantment or other magical assistance, or are you like the Madurese, who prayed to imbue their sickles with a spirit before they began?

Finally, what determines when the duel has ended? We often think of duels as either being “to first blood” or “to the death,” both of which are indeed options — but they aren’t the only ones. Pistol duels might only allow each participant one shot; if you both missed, whether accidentally or on purpose (deloping), then congratulations, honor has been satisfied and everybody can go home unbloodied.

But duels can also be fought to incapacitation, or some similar condition. Latin American duelists fighting with knives often slashed at each other’s faces, and stopped when one person could no longer see through the blood. And it may be permissible for one duelist to simply concede, not because they’re physically incapable of going on, but just because they’ve had enough.

Bear in mind, though: all of the above describes ideal conditions. Any such guidelines can and did get broken. Someone might fight dishonorably, and even get away with it; a high-ranking challenger might insist on the weapons of their own choice, even though it’s scuzzy of them to be challenging a social inferior in the first place; participants died from bad luck in duels that weren’t supposed to be lethal; sabotage happened, and people ran away so that their seconds had to fight in their stead, or duels got fought to settle an insult but nothing actually got settled and so you wonder why they even bothered. Any anthropologist will tell you that how a society says things are done and how they’re actually done are two different things.

Wherein lies the story!


I’d like to thank all my patrons for their continued support as we close out 2018 and head into the new year. If you’re interested in joining their ranks (and getting weekly photos and more as a reward), check out my Patreon page!

Comments are closed.