A duel is an arranged engagement in combat between two individuals, with matched weapons, in accordance with agreed-upon rules. Duels in this form were chiefly practiced in early modern Europe with precedents in the medieval code of chivalry, and continued into the modern period (19th to early 20th centuries) especially among military officers.
During the 17th and 18th centuries (and earlier), duels were mostly fought with swords (the rapier, and later the smallsword), but beginning in the late 18th century in England, duels were more commonly fought using pistols. Fencing and pistol duels continued to co-exist throughout the 19th century.
The duel was based on a code of honor. Duels were fought not so much to kill the opponent as to gain "satisfaction", that is, to restore one's honor by demonstrating a willingness to risk one's life for it, and as such the tradition of dueling was originally reserved for the male members of nobility; however, in the modern era it extended to those of the upper classes generally. On rare occasions, duels with pistols or swords were fought between women; these were sometimes known as petticoat duels.
Legislation against dueling goes back to the medieval period. The Fourth Council of the Lateran (1215) outlawed duels, and civil legislation in the Holy Roman Empire against dueling was passed in the wake of the Thirty Years' War. From the early 17th century, duels became illegal in the countries where they were practiced. Dueling largely fell out of favor in England by the mid-19th century and in Continental Europe by the turn of the 20th century. Dueling declined in the Eastern United States in the 19th century and by the time the American Civil War broke out, dueling had begun to decline, even in the South. Public opinion, not legislation, caused the change.
In Western society, the formal concept of a duel developed out of the medieval judicial duel and older pre-Christian practices such as the Viking Age holmgang. In Medieval society, judicial duels were fought by knights and squires to end various disputes. Countries like Germany, United Kingdom, and Ireland practiced this tradition. Judicial combat took two forms in medieval society, the feat of arms and chivalric combat. The feat of arms was used to settle hostilities between two large parties and supervised by a judge. The battle was fought as a result of a slight or challenge to one party's honor which could not be resolved by a court. Weapons were standardized and typical of a knight's armoury, for example longswords, polearms etc., however, weapon quality and augmentations were at the discretion of the knight, for example, a spiked hand guard for or an extra grip for half-swording. The parties involved would wear their own armour, one knight may choose to wear full plate armour, whilst another wears chain mail. The duel lasted until the other party was too weak to fight back. In early cases, the defeated party was then executed. These type of duels soon evolved into the more chivalric pas d'armes, or "passage of arms", a type of chivalric hastilude that evolved in the late 14th century and remained popular through the 15th century. A knight or group of knights (tenans or "holders") would stake out a travelled spot, such as a bridge or city gate, and let it be known that any other knight who wished to pass (venans or "comers") must first fight, or be disgraced.. If a traveling venans did not have weapons or horse to meet the challenge, one might be provided, and if the venans chose not to fight, he would leave his spurs behind as a sign of humiliation. If a lady passed unescorted, she would leave behind a glove or scarf, to be rescued and returned to her by a future knight who passed that way.
The Roman Catholic Church was critical of dueling throughout medieval history, frowning both on the traditions of judicial combat and on the duel on points of honor among the nobility. Judicial duels were deprecated by the Lateran Council of 1215, but the judicial duel persisted in the Holy Roman Empire into the 15th century. The word duel comes from the Latin 'duellum', cognate with 'bellum', meaning 'war'.
During the early Renaissance, dueling established the status of a respectable gentleman, and was an accepted manner to resolve disputes.
Dueling remained highly popular in European society, despite various attempts at banning the practice.
According to Ariel Roth, during the reign of Henry IV, over 4,000 French aristocrats were killed in duels "in an eighteen-year period" while a twenty-year period of Louis XIII's reign saw some eight thousand pardons for "murders associated with duels". Roth also notes that thousands of men in the Southern United States "died protecting what they believed to be their honor."
The first published code duello, or "code of dueling", appeared in Renaissance Italy. The first formalized national code was France's, during the Renaissance. In 1777, a code of practice was drawn up for the regulation of duels, at the Summer assizes in the town of Clonmel, County Tipperary, Ireland. A copy of the code, known as 'The twenty-six commandments', was to be kept in a gentleman's pistol case for reference should a dispute arise regarding procedure. During the Early Modern period, there were also various attempts by secular legislators to curb the practice. Queen Elizabeth I officially condemned and outlawed dueling in 1571, shortly after the practice had been introduced to England.
However, the tradition had become deeply rooted in European culture as a prerogative of the aristocracy, and these attempts largely failed. For example, King Louis XIII of France outlawed dueling in 1626, a law which remained in force for ever afterwards, and his successor Louis XIV intensified efforts to wipe out the duel. Despite these efforts, dueling continued unabated, and it is estimated that between 1685 and 1716, French officers fought 10,000 duels, leading to over 400 deaths.
By the late 18th century, Enlightenment era values began to influence society with new self-conscious ideas about politeness, civil behaviour and new attitudes towards violence. The cultivated art of politeness demanded that there should be no outward displays of anger or violence, and the concept of honour became more personalized.
By the 1770s the practice of dueling was increasingly coming under attack from many sections of enlightened society, as a violent relic of Europe's medieval past unsuited for modern life. As England began to industrialize and benefit from urban planning and more effective police forces, the culture of street violence in general began to slowly wane. The growing middle class maintained their reputation with recourse to either bringing charges of libel, or to the fast-growing print media of the early nineteenth century, where they could defend their honour and resolve conflicts through correspondence in newspapers.
Influential new intellectual trends at the turn of the nineteenth century bolstered the anti-dueling campaign; the utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham stressed that praiseworthy actions were exclusively restricted to those that maximize human welfare and happiness, and the Evangelical notion of the "Christian conscience" began to actively promote social activism. Individuals in the Clapham Sect and similar societies, who had successfully campaigned for the abolition of slavery, condemned dueling as ungodly violence and as an egocentric culture of honour.
Dueling became popular in the United States – the former United States Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton was killed in a duel against the sitting Vice President Aaron Burr in 1804. Between 1798 and the Civil War, the US Navy lost two-thirds as many officers to dueling as it did in combat at sea, including naval hero Stephen Decatur. Many of those killed or wounded were midshipmen or junior officers. Despite prominent deaths, dueling persisted because of contemporary ideals of chivalry, particularly in the South, and because of the threat of ridicule if a challenge was rejected.
By about 1770, the duel underwent a number of important changes in England. Firstly, unlike their counterparts in many continental nations, English duelists enthusiastically adopted the pistol, and sword duels dwindled. Special sets of dueling pistols were crafted for the wealthiest of noblemen for this purpose. Also, the office of 'second' developed into 'seconds' or 'friends' being chosen by the aggrieved parties to conduct their honour dispute. These friends would attempt to resolve a dispute upon terms acceptable to both parties and, should this fail, they would arrange and oversee the mechanics of the encounter.
In the United Kingdom, to kill in the course of a duel was formally judged as murder, but generally the courts were very lax in applying the law, as they were sympathetic to the culture of honour..This attitude lingered on – Queen Victoria even expressed a hope that Lord Cardigan, prosecuted for wounding another in a duel, "would get off easily". The Anglican Church was generally hostile to dueling, but non-conformist sects in particular began to actively campaign against it.
By 1840, dueling had declined dramatically; when the 7th Earl of Cardigan was acquitted on a legal technicality for homicide in connection with a duel with one of his former officers, outrage was expressed in the media, with The Times alleging that there was deliberate, high level complicity to leave the loop-hole in the prosecution case and reporting the view that "in England there is one law for the rich and another for the poor" and The Examiner describing the verdict as "a defeat of justice".
The last fatal duel between Englishmen in England occurred in 1845, when James Alexander Seton had an altercation with Henry Hawkey over the affections of his wife, leading to a duel at Southsea. However, the last fatal duel to occur in England was between two French political refugees, Frederic Cournet and Emmanuel Barthélemy near Englefield Green in 1852; the former was killed. In both cases, the winners of the duels, Hawkey and Barthélemy, were tried for murder. But Hawkey was acquitted and Barthélemy was convicted only of manslaughter; he served seven months in prison. However, in 1855, Barthélemy was hanged after shooting and killing his employer and another man.
Dueling also began to be criticized in America in the late 18th century; Benjamin Franklin denounced the practice as uselessly violent, and George Washington encouraged his officers to refuse challenges during the American Revolutionary War because he believed that the death by dueling of officers would have threatened the success of the war effort. However, the practice actually gained in popularity in the first half of the nineteenth century especially in the South and on the lawless Western Frontier. Dueling began an irreversible decline in the aftermath of the Civil War. Even in the South, public opinion increasingly came to regard the practice as little more than bloodshed.
The most notorious American duel was the Burr–Hamilton duel, in which notable Federalist and former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton was fatally wounded by his political rival, the sitting Vice President of the United States Aaron Burr. This duel was reenacted in the musical Hamilton to the song "The World Was Wide Enough".
Another American politician, Andrew Jackson, later to serve as a General Officer in the U.S. Army and to become the seventh president, fought two duels, though some legends claim he fought many more. On May 30, 1806, he killed prominent duellist Charles Dickinson, suffering himself from a chest wound which caused him a lifetime of pain. Jackson also reportedly engaged in a bloodless duel with a lawyer and in 1803 came very near dueling with John Sevier. Jackson also engaged in a frontier brawl (not a duel) with Thomas Hart Benton in 1813.
On September 22, 1842, future President Abraham Lincoln, at the time an Illinois state legislator, met to duel with state auditor James Shields, but their seconds intervened and persuaded them against it.
On 30 May 1832, French mathematician Évariste Galois was mortally wounded in a duel at the age of twenty, the day after he had written his seminal mathematical results.
Irish political leader Daniel O'Connell killed John D'Esterre in a duel in February 1815. O'Connel offered D'Esterre's widow a pension equal to the amount her husband had been earning at the time, but the Corporation of Dublin, of which D'Esterre was a member, rejected O'Connell's offer and voted the promised sum to D'Esterre's wife themselves. However, D'Esterre's wife consented to accept an allowance for her daughter, which O'Connell regularly paid for more than thirty years until his death. The memory of the duel haunted him for the remainder of his life.
In 1808, two Frenchmen are said to have fought in balloons over Paris, each attempting to shoot and puncture the other's balloon. One duellist is said to have been shot down and killed with his second.
In 1843, two other Frenchmen are said to have fought a duel by means of throwing billiard balls at each other.
The Russian poet Alexander Pushkin prophetically described a number of duels in his works, notably Onegin's duel with Lensky in Eugene Onegin. The poet was mortally wounded in a controversial duel with Georges d'Anthès, a French officer rumoured to be his wife's lover. D'Anthès, who was accused of cheating in this duel, married Pushkin's sister-in-law and went on to become a French minister and senator.
In 1864, American writer Mark Twain, then a contributor to the New York Sunday Mercury, narrowly avoided fighting a duel with a rival newspaper editor, apparently through the intervention of his second, who exaggerated Twain's prowess with a pistol.
In the 1860s, Otto von Bismarck was reported to have challenged Rudolf Virchow to a duel. Virchow, being entitled to choose the weapons, chose two pork sausages, one infected with the roundworm Trichinella; the two would each choose and eat a sausage. Bismarck reportedly declined. The story could be apocryphal, however.
Duels had mostly ceased to be fought to the death by the late 19th century. The last known fatal duel in Ontario was in Perth, in 1833, when Robert Lyon challenged John Wilson to a pistol duel after a quarrel over remarks made about a local school teacher, whom Wilson married after Lyon was killed in the duel. Victoria, BC was known to have been the centre of at least two duels near the time of the gold rush. One involved a British arrival by the name of George Sloane, and an American, John Liverpool, both arriving via San Francisco in 1858. Duel by pistols, Sloane was fatally injured and Liverpool shortly returned to the US. The fight originally started on board the ship over a young woman, Miss Bradford, and then carried on later in Victoria's tent city. Another duel, involving a Mr. Muir, took place around 1861, but was moved to an American island near Victoria.
The last fatal duel in England took place on Priest Hill, between Englefield Green and Old Windsor, on 19 October 1852, between two French political exiles, Frederic Cournet and Emmanuel Barthélemy, the former being killed.
By the outbreak of World War I, dueling had not only been made illegal almost everywhere in the Western world, but was also widely seen as an anachronism. Military establishments in most countries frowned on dueling because officers were the main contestants. Officers were often trained at military academies at government's expense; when officers killed or disabled one another it imposed an unnecessary financial and leadership strain on a military organization, making dueling unpopular with high-ranking officers.
With the end of the duel, the dress sword also lost its position as an indispensable part of a gentleman's wardrobe, a development described as an "archaeological terminus" by Ewart Oakeshott, concluding the long period during which the sword had been a visible attribute of the free man, beginning as early as three millennia ago with the Bronze Age sword.