Between the third and fifth centuries of the Christian era the major world religions ceased to sacrifice animals to appease their gods. For reasons that remain unclear, a practice that had been central to devotional behaviour for thousands of years came to appear grotesque. Joseph Farrell observes that the practice of duelling is now similarly ‘uniformly judged as outlandish and incomprehensible’, its ‘canons and creeds … as beyond recall as the beliefs of the ancient Egyptians’. For five hundred years men of a certain rank settled disputes with sword or pistol in accordance with an elaborate etiquette involving a formal challenge, the appointment of seconds and the negotiation of a time and place for a contest governed by strict rules. The angry brawl was drained of passion, made mindful and even elegant. A doctor was always on hand, but deaths were common. Then, in the second half of the 19th century, the practice declined and disappeared. It’s ‘the sheer incomprehensibility’ of all this that prompted Farrell to write his book. If the duellists were Christian gentlemen, he asks, why did they not see the duel’s incompatibility with basic morality? Why didn’t the state intervene more effectively to prevent individuals from taking the law into their own hands? Why were so many men willing to risk their lives over disputes that often seem trivial?
Farrell looks at the medieval joust as an early example of ritualised combat, though in that case the contestants were usually the champions of a cause, or a lady, or simply fighting like athletes for a prize, usually before an admiring audience. He also considers so-called judicial combat, where it was understood that God would determine a just outcome. But divine intervention was not claimed for the duel. At stake was the question of honour. A gentleman could have any number of differences with his peers without coming to blows, but when his honour was sullied he was obliged to put his life on the line.
Honour, at least insofar as it gave rise to duelling, was theorised, Farrell explains, by the humanists of the Italian Renaissance. Frustrated with a Christianity whose precepts reduced all behaviour to questions of vice or virtue, the humanists turned to the classical world for a broader range of human possibilities, producing a body of literature that posited an ideal court society where morals and aesthetics merged in the supremely civilised figure of the courtier. Arising from a consideration of the dignity of the individual, honour was understood as a quality with interior and exterior aspects, a form of self-esteem requiring constant confirmation from the community. The honourable man sought to be generous, honest, elegant, courteous and courageous, and to be known for possessing these qualities. If a man could not think of himself as honourable, he could not have peace of mind; if others could not think of him as honourable he could not have a career, at least not at court. So honour exalted the dignity of the individual and at the same time placed him in thrall to the opinions of his peers.
How to respond, then, if one’s honour was impugned? Farrell, a professor of Italian at the University of Strathclyde, opens his book with the example of Giacomo Casanova, who in 1766 fought a duel with Franciszek Branicki. Then in his early forties, Casanova was in Warsaw, trying his luck at the Polish court. After a theatre performance, he and Branicki clashed over the favours of one of the dancers. When Casanova yielded, Branicki called him a ‘poltroon’ and, furthermore, a ‘Venetian poltroon’. ‘There is not a man,’ Casanova wrote later, ‘who can pardon a word which slanders his nation.’ The argument had been trivial but highly visible. After spending the night agonising, Casanova decided that while philosophy and religion counselled inaction, this course would mean having ‘to live anywhere but at court’. ‘A sybarite attracted by luxury and power,’ Farrell glosses, Casanova ‘had no doubt where he wished to spend his days.’ This seems harsh. Court life involved more than luxury – wit, conversation, philosophy, music and art – and Casanova never exercised much power. He issued a challenge, offering Branicki the opportunity to expel him from ‘the number of the living’.
Duels were illegal in Poland and punishable by death. The secret negotiations to arrange the encounter therefore fostered a certain complicity between the antagonists. They became accomplices in a crime, albeit one that most of their peers condoned and even admired. Farrell is perplexed that Casanova objected to using pistols because they were ‘too dangerous’, but in the end acceded when Branicki asked that he do so as ‘a favour to a friend’. He also declares himself baffled by Casanova’s attempts to engage Branicki in small talk as they drove to the secluded spot where they would try to kill each other. Above all, he is astonished that, after the two men fired simultaneously from the regulation distance of ten paces, Branicki falling to the ground with a bullet in his chest and his second rushing at Casanova with a drawn sword, it was the wounded man who cried: ‘Canaille, respectez ce cavalier.’ Casanova’s honour was re-established, by his antagonist. ‘Posterity can only watch in amazement,’ Farrell concludes.
Honour and the Sword is a wonderfully entertaining collection of paired mini biographies, told with great economy, bringing together military men and poets, prime ministers and congressmen, journalists and doctors, aristocrats and adventurers, each story leading, often in the most serpentine and unlikely fashion, to one climactic moment of violence. Farrell organises his material partly by country (Italy, France, England, Scotland, Ireland and the US), by period (before and after the French Revolution), by weapon (from sword to pistol) and even by gender (just as the practice of duelling declined, women began to get involved, something men responded to with a mixture of mockery and voyeurism).
Between these surprisingly varied stories, Farrell considers what was written for and against duelling, and the ways different states moved to curb it. Needless to say, he is most at ease with the thinkers and legislators who abhorred the practice. In 1613 James I issued a Proclamation prohibiting the publishing of reports or writing on duels and appointed Francis Bacon as attorney general, inviting him to put a stop to the practice. Bacon described the duel as a brutal urge for revenge dressed up in Italian ‘affections’. Honour, he argued, was an innate moral quality revealed by an individual’s behaviour, and thus distinct from reputation, which is determined by society. By seeking revenge for supposed damage to his honour a duellist ‘putteth the law out of office’; the state, not the individual, must assess and punish any wrongdoing. Bacon proposed severe sanctions for duellists, exclusion from court at the very least. To no avail. Royal pardons continued to be granted to culprits, who were for the most part aristocrats. In France, Louis XIV prescribed the death penalty for duelling, but no duellist was ever executed. He also established a Court of Honour in which gentlemen could seek redress when their honour was impugned, but it was rarely convoked.
Other thinkers did not agree with Bacon’s attempt to resolve the problem by redefining honour as a strictly internal moral quality. In the 18th century, Samuel Johnson wished that society was not so ‘refined’ as to consider an affront to one’s honour a serious injury. But, alas, it did. ‘He, then, who fights a duel,’ Johnson observed, ‘does not fight from passion against his antagonist, but out of self-defence; to avert the stigma of the world, and to prevent himself from being driven out of society.’ It is ‘never unlawful to fight in self-defence’. Rousseau abhorred duelling but nevertheless felt that to legislate against it created ‘a shocking opposition between honour and the law, for even the law cannot oblige anyone to dishonour himself’. Farrell objects that Rousseau did not subject ‘the core concept of honour … to scrutiny’. But perhaps that was because Rousseau believed everyone knew what was meant by the word. The same was true of Bentham, who concluded that so long as the law offered no redress for offended honour, the duel, however absurd, had its justification. In short, there was a grudging consensus that ‘honour’ did exist and was worth fighting for, and at the same time a growing feeling that the duel was preposterous.
Farrell cannot resist moral censure. Vincentio Saviolo, an Italian fencing master working in London in the 16th century, is described as adopting ‘a tone of hypocritical regret over the habit and frequency of duelling’. If he were sincere, it’s implied, he wouldn’t be making a living teaching gentlemen to fight. But then ‘hypocrisy is always the best policy,’ as Farrell remarks of Samuel Pepys, who deplored duelling and made sure his extramarital affairs were sufficiently discreet to avoid challenges from angry rivals. Of Sir Jonah Barrington, who in the early 19th century wrote with spirited humour of the Irish duel, Farrell writes that ‘the extent to which he turns a blind eye or gives the complicit onlooker’s smirk at the grotesqueness of the spectacle is unnerving.’ Occasionally censure and incredulity combine as Farrell struggles to accept that the past really was so vastly different from the present. ‘Unbelievably,’ he says of the Irish nationalist Daniel O’Connell’s killing of John D’Esterre (in a duel that set Catholic against Protestant), ‘O’Connell faced no legal proceedings at all over this act, while his standing among his followers was enhanced.’
Rather than spoiling his book, this authorial stance galvanises readers to arrive at a position of their own. Is duelling really so incomprehensible? Were these men really so two-faced? It is intriguing how close Casanova and Branicki became afterwards. Badly wounded, Branicki advised Casanova to flee to avoid arrest. Casanova, who had injured his hand, kissed Branicki on the forehead. Both men subsequently inquired after each other’s health on a daily basis. Such post-duel camaraderie was a common phenomenon. ‘Gentlemanly bullets when not fatal were often a prelude to good fellowship,’ Farrell acknowledges. Apparently, facing death together prompted a mutual respect that swept aside whatever difference had given rise to the dispute. ‘Duelling entirely effaces a blot which an insult imprints upon the honour,’ Bentham wrote, something that a drawn-out legal case might not do. In this regard, it’s interesting that the gradual replacement of the sword by the pistol – usually only two shots were permitted – reduced the duel to something akin to Russian roulette. The duellist exposed himself to death, ideally with insouciance, to demonstrate that there was something more important than life itself. It was an initiation into an elite band: those who can look death in the eye. This is a quality societies have always prized: how else can soldiers be persuaded to go to war? To avoid the opprobrium that would result from killing their opponent, some duellists would point their pistols in the air. Achieving ‘a definite result’, the Marquis of Dorchester observed in 1660, was hardly important beside the aim of demonstrating ‘a sense of honour’. It is remarkable that Farrell does not cite a single case of cheating.
Risking one’s life in a duel bolstered self-esteem but could also be intoxicating. In The Varieties of Religious Experience William James quoted the Russian general Mikhail Skobelev:
The risk of life fills me with an exaggerated rapture. The fewer there are to share it, the more I like it … a meeting of man to man, a duel, a danger into which I can throw myself headforemost, attracts me, moves me, intoxicates me. I am crazy for it, I love it, I adore it. I run after danger as one runs after women; I wish it never to stop.
This brings us to one of the strongest pragmatic arguments against the duel: some were drawn to it as people today might be drawn to extreme sport, or out of braggadocio. There were those who thought they could ‘lawfully offer outrage and injury to any man’, Saviolo wrote, ‘as though they were heirs of Mars and more invincible than Achilles’. ‘The worst thing about the duel,’ Alexander Herzen observed, ‘is that it justifies any blackguard either by giving him an honourable death, or by making him an honourable man-killer.’ (He had just turned down a challenge by his wife’s lover.) In his novel The Duel, Conrad fictionalised the historic case of two French soldiers who became so addicted to duelling, and so personally attached, that they fought thirty duels with each other. It is only when one of them finds love that the spell is broken. James I’s proclamation had referred to duels as ‘bewitching’.
One of the major targets of Farrell’s criticism is the code duello (‘the Italianate phrase used in all languages and all Western cultures to refer to the recognised rules of conduct that governed duels’). Certainly some elements of the code were bizarre. Rule 8 of the version produced in Clonmel, Ireland, in 1777, stipulated that ‘if a party challenged accepts without asking the reason of it, the challenger is never bound to divulge it afterwards.’ When Jonah Barrington arrived to meet the appointment for his first duel, he realised he had never met his opponent, who, when quizzed, asserted his right not to explain anything. Since Rule 7 stated that ‘no apology can be accepted after the parties meet, without a fire,’ the men were obliged to shoot at each other.
Farrell worries repeatedly that ‘personal motive and individuality’ were overwhelmed by ‘the power of social conformity’. Duels were taking place simply on account of the code’s prescriptions for the way men should respond to different kinds of slight. Writing about the duel that took place after insults were exchanged between John Scott, the editor of the London Magazine, and John Gibson Lockhart, of the Edinburgh-based Blackwood’s, in 1821, he remarks that the combatants ‘give the impression of automata wound up and released, but left devoid of freedom of will’. However, he also acknowledges that the tragedy that ensued – Scott died of wounds inflicted by Lockhart’s substitute – had much to do with the ‘sheer ignorance shown by principals and seconds of the routine protocols’. According to the American John Lyde Wilson, a great advocate of duelling, ‘nine duels out of ten originate in the want of experience in the seconds.’ Perhaps the problem was that men didn’t know the code duello well enough.
In any event, contra Farrell, is it really so much more surprising that someone should submit to a highly elaborate codification of the notion of honour, than that they should suppose, for instance, that certain formulas of penitence will lead to eternal redemption through the shedding of a man’s blood two thousand years ago? When duelling eventually declined it wasn’t because the code duello was censored or suppressed, but because industrialisation and the rise of the middle class across Europe profoundly altered old systems of social interaction. It was probably inevitable that duelling ended in Britain earlier than elsewhere: the last one, between two Frenchmen, was fought at Englefield Green in Surrey in 1852.
In a fascinating chapter on duelling in fiction, Farrell finds that the duel proved most useful as a means of exploring the dynamic between individual and community in works from the second half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. In Chekhov’s novella The Duel (1891), the two protagonists stumble into mutual loathing, then into a more or less accidental challenge which has nothing to do with honour. Both men feel that duelling is ridiculous, neither upholds the values or character traits that the code duello encouraged, and yet, as one observes, ‘we’ll go off and fight. That means there is a power which is stronger than all our discussions on the subject.’ All the same, when the shots have been fired, both men find themselves changed. Reconciled with each other, they return to their lives with a new moral seriousness, improved members of the community.
Unfamiliar with the rules of a practice no longer fashionable, Chekhov’s duellists are obliged to fall back on ‘imprecise memories of Pushkin as guidance’, and, indeed, no account of duelling would be complete without a consideration of Eugene Onegin and Pushkin’s own fatal duel, fought in 1837. While many duellists can be presented as ingenuous victims of the code duello, or as carried away by their fetish of ‘male power and male self-image, Pushkin was a highly cultured man for whom the duel was ‘a near religious creed’. He missed no opportunity to challenge anyone he felt had offended him, however remotely. Yet in Eugene Onegin it remains unclear how much weight Pushkin ascribes to the quarrel that leads the lively young poet Lensky to challenge his jaded friend Onegin. When the two become emotionally attached to two sisters, Olga and Tatyana, Lensky does the conventional thing and proposes to Olga, prompting Tatyana to desire the same from Onegin. When he tells her he has no intention of marrying, Tatyana is plunged into unhappiness, and Onegin, irritated that the unpleasantness has been brought about by Lensky’s proposal, looks for revenge by flirting with Olga, causing Lensky again to do the conventional thing and challenge Onegin, ultimately bringing about his own death. Some years after writing this, Pushkin was challenged by a man who flirted constantly with his wife (and who had married her sister). He died from a bullet wound to the abdomen. Onegin, Farrell observes, ‘appeals to thoughtful spectators in the wings who study the mischances and misdeeds of life, and the enigma is that Pushkin offered himself the occasion for such reflection but did not take it’. The idea that Pushkin might actually have done a great deal of reflection without coming to the same conclusion as Farrell is not considered.
In his closing pages, Farrell cites Rudy Giuliani’s call on listeners to engage in ‘trial by combat’ to support Donald Trump’s claim that the presidential election had been rigged. ‘The speech,’ he writes, ‘was followed by the invasion of the Capitol.’ Perhaps more pertinently, one might consider the many ways in which the reputations of public figures are today under constant scrutiny and attack. While duels have disappeared, the opportunities for giving the lie, telling truth to power, or simply slandering and insulting, have multiplied a thousandfold. To seek redress for every venomous tweet or Facebook post would be madness. We speak of people being ‘cancelled’, an outcome not unlike the ostracism feared by a duellist whose honour was at stake. How many men died, Farrell asks in the closing line of his book, ‘in deference to that will o’ the wisp called honour’? But is it really a will o’ the wisp? When a person is accused of ‘inappropriate behaviour’ today, isn’t the implication that they are ‘dishonourable’? Isn’t the apology that almost always follows (and is almost always rejected), an attempt to avoid a disastrous stigma? When the Speaker of the House of Commons protests that a right honourable lady or gentleman cannot accuse another of lying, isn’t he or she reminding us that such accusations have, or should have, consequences? Perhaps one problem is that society is now so various and divided, or changing so quickly, that there is no general agreement as to what ‘appropriate behaviour’ and hence honour might be. Having come to the end of Farrell’s book, I saw to my surprise that he had dedicated his efforts to his grandchildren, ‘hoping they will grow to be honourable and honoured’.