Uses for Horsehair

David Blackbourn

  • Duelling: The Cult of Honour in Fin-de-Siècle Germany by Kevin McAleer
    Princeton, 268 pp, £19.95, January 1995, ISBN 0 691 03462 1

Goethe, Heine and Wilhelm von Humboldt did it, although not Wagner; Clemenceau did it on 22 different occasions; characters in Maupassant, Turgenev, Fontane and Schnitzler did it. In 19th-century Europe practically everyone was doing it, except the English. We are talking about fighting duels.

The subject has recently attracted some fine historians. In 1988, Victor Kiernan published The Duel in European History, a thoughtful account that drew mainly on British and French evidence from the Early Modern period and presented the modern duel as an aristocratic residue. Five years later, Friedhelm Guttandin offered a variant on the same theme. Incorporating much more German material, his book used the duel to argue that changing concepts of aristocratic honour strengthened the centralised monarchical state in Europe. Recent years have also seen two outstanding single-country studies of the 19th-century duel: Robert Nye’s Masculinity and Male Codes of Honour in Modern France nicely complements Ute Frevert’s Ehrenmänner (‘Men of Honour’) of 1991, a book that is close in subject-matter – although not in interpretation – to the one reviewed here.

The duel derived from the French medieval cult of chivalry, with its tournament, joust and pas d’ armes. The private duel emerged in the 16th century, after the end of the royally sanctioned public kind, and spread across Europe. Fencing had already become an important part of the German university curriculum by 1600, boosted by contacts with Spain and Italy, as well as France. In the 17th century, thanks to frequent encounters with Richelieu’s armies in the Thirty Years’ War, the duel established itself in the Holy Roman Empire. Later, German abolitionists liked to point out these foreign origins. The duel was ‘a chapter in the history of this pitiful German copying of French fashions’, wrote Georg von Below in 1896. From the beginning, anti-duelling edicts had been issued by the Emperor and by individual German rulers, without much effect. By the 18th century they had learned to live with the practice. The enlightened part of Frederick the Great denounced ‘this misplaced sense of honour’, but the practical prince recognised the duel’s importance for the aristocratic officers of the Prussian Army.

Like many institutions that bien-pensant opinion of the late 18th century found offensive, the duel triumphantly survived both the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. It flourished in the age of liberalism, science and the steam engine. This should not surprise us too much. The staying power of the old regime has become an established trope of 19th-century history. Monarchy, nobility, the Catholic Church – all persisted, or re-invented themselves. The duel was as much at home in the century of industrialisation as monarchical display, neo-Gothic architecture or the cult of the Virgin Mary. Even the joust made a stylised come-back. In the 1840s, on the present-day site of James Stirling’s Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart. Swabian aristocrats dressed up as crusading knights and Saracens to stage a tourney using original weapons, complete with pages, squires and a back-drop of lemon trees especially imported for the occasion. This was life imitating Sir Walter Scott, an outcrop of Romanticism and the desire of rulers to establish their legitimacy in a revolutionary age. I wish that McAleer, who races through the first two-thirds of the 19th century, had said something about this background of invented traditions, especially given the importance of ‘neo-chivalry’ to his argument.

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