The point of it all

Linda Colley

  • The Duel in European History: Honour and the Reign of Aristocracy by V.G. Kiernan
    Oxford, 360 pp, £25.00, March 1988, ISBN 0 19 822566 0
  • History, Classes and Nation-States: Selected Writings of Victor Kiernan edited by Harvey Kaye
    Blackwell, 284 pp, £27.50, June 1988, ISBN 0 7456 0424 2

In 1759 the future Viscount Townshend challenged the Earl of Leicester to a duel. But Leicester refused to fight. He was, he claimed, too old and too ill; he could not hit a barn door with a pistol, and had not handled a sword for twenty years. What does this incident tell us about patrician values? And who was more conscious of his rank: the brash challenger or the man confident enough to ignore him?

Another example: in 1809 a duel occurred between two Secretaries of State, George Canning and Lord Castlereagh. Canning was the son of an actress and had never before fired a gun; Castlereagh was an Irishman who went on to commit suicide. Did their willingness to fight derive from the fact that they were members of Britain’s élite, or show rather that they were comparative newcomers to that status? Can we, in short, really see duelling as a by-product of aristocratic dominance, as a mark of caste? Victor Kiernan’s answer in this intriguing and invariably well-written book is an emphatic and unsurprising yes.

Kiernan is both a Marxist and a student of Antonio Gramsci. Like the majority of British historians who take even a remotely radical line, he comes from the North. His critical perspective on the past has not led him to chronicle the mass of humankind, but rather what Harvey Kaye calls the ‘machinery of class domination’. In particular, he has explored the ideas and processes by which governing classes rule and are themselves regulated. Duelling, for him, represents ‘a burden imposed on itself by the élite as the gage of its right to be considered a higher order’.

Such an interpretation raises more difficulties than it resolves, but it does at least have the advantage of imposing cohesion on a murky and multifarious topic. The main difficulty confronting the historian of the duel is, however, inescapable. Duelling was a private, covert activity, and in most societies an illegal one. Few of the participants who survived left evidence as to why or who they fought or how often. So we will never know the precise sociology of duelling, nor its changing incidence over time. Such estimates as we do possess seem either absurdly high (8000 Frenchmen are said to have perished in duels in Henry IV’s brief reign) or absurdly precise, like the 172 duels which supposedly occurred in England under George III.

Kiernan acknowledges and skirts these problems with grace, supplying in his first six chapters the best account we have of how the duel emerged. Clearly it had some similarities with the Medieval trial by combat and the chivalric joust. But the duel proper, a private combat between two men, only emerged in the 16th century. There were two reasons for this. First, newly-powerful princes in Italy, France, Spain and England wanted to reduce large-scale aristocratic violence to more manageable proportions, and promoting a cult of single combat achieved exactly that. Secondly, only then did technology allow for the manufacture of light and mobile swords. The old, two-handed swords had been clumsy as well as lethal. The new weapons, by contrast, were elegant: and this was crucial in popularising a practice that had almost as much to do with aesthetics as assassination.

As states became more centralised, reforming monarchs like Louis XIV of France and Joseph II of Austria endeavoured to suppress this casual and privileged form of violence. Yet duellists who were caught were rarely severely punished; in England they might be found guilty of manslaughter but hardly ever – despite the strict letter of the Law – of murder. Nor did the Enlightenment or the French Revolution extirpate the practice. What did was the growing accuracy of firearms and the democratisation of war. Fighting for the sake of honour, shame or amusement had a wide appeal; the certainty of killing or being killed had much less. And if one did want to fight in earnest, one looked to public and not to private violence. It was the mass carnage of 1914-1918, Kiernan argues, which gave duelling its coup de grâce as a living (and dying) form in European culture. In the strict sense, this is almost certainly correct. Yet surely the air aces of both the First and Second World Wars inherited something of the aura and the ritual that had surrounded terrestrial duellists? Here again was the potent image of single combat to the death, violence between individuals possessed of skill and bravery and not just superior machines.

Certainly the longevity of duelling has to be accounted for by reference to the mystique surrounding it, and not just by its utility as a means of retaliation and revenge. Since duels were secret and illicit, most of the available accounts of them have always been fictional rather than factual. This is a prime reason why, both now and in the past, these encounters can seem so romantic and so unserious. Our view of them is coloured and distorted by creative literature: by the fate of artist-victims like Lermontov and Pushkin, by the Gothic and acrobatic fantasies of Walter Scott and Anthony Hope, and by the ludicrous posturing of Sir Lucius O’Trigger. We do not think, because writers rarely tell us, of the thousands of mediocre casualties, the mutilation, bullying, trickery and waste. Even Kiernan, who has presumably no liking for gentlemen duellists, is led by his extensive use of literary sources into evocation rather than analysis. As a result, his book is more a study of mentalities than a piece of hard-nosed social history; it tells us less about the specificities of class than might have been expected, but it is suggestive about gender, unreason and violence in European history.

What women thought of duelling is far from clear. There is little evidence of their objecting to the practice publicly, though many men must have been deterred from fighting by private pressure from their womenfolk. Women could cause duels and doubtless some enjoyed doing so. Kiernan even suggests that women, like plebeians, and bourgeois juries, derived a certain satisfaction from the prospect of the lords of creation destroying each other. But did women themselves fight duels? Like every other writer on the topic, Kiernan gives a few anecdotal examples of them doing so. A Princess Metternich is supposed to have fought a Countess Kilmannsegg over, of all things, the arrangements for an exhibition in Vienna. Few women, however, can have possessed weapons in the past or been trained to use them. As a sex they had their own initiation rites, and less foolhardy ones than challenging rivals to swordplay. Duelling, one suspects, is inherently an aspect of machismo. Indeed, it is probably no accident that Kiernan himself treats the topic far more sympathetically than do female historians like Donna Anderson and Micheline Cuénin.

But why were so many men apparently willing to risk their lives, often over trivial disagreements? The familiar explanation, masculine honour, explains very little. A duel is an act of what Erich Fromm has called ‘conformist aggression’. The man who accepted a challenge must often not have wanted or foreseen a fight; and neither challenged nor challenger was able to strike in the immediacy of anger. They had to wait for the right time and the right place and for surgeons and seconds to be organised; they had to fight in cold blood. It is abundantly clear that many duellists knew that what they were doing was irrational and silly. Richard Sheridan sent up the duel again and again in his plays. Yet he was himself wounded five times in these confrontations. Kiernan probably gets close to explaining this paradox when he connects duelling with fragile egos. Few top aristocrats, secure in their rolling acres, seem to have indulged in duelling. But many younger sons and lesser squires felt the need to prove themselves in this way, and so did men from insecure or peripheral nations: Irishmen, Italians, and Germans in the immediate aftermath of their country’s unification in 1870.

But if, in terms of the individuals involved, duelling was often an irrational act born of weakness, in terms of society it could be positively useful. For it supplied a matchlessly efficient and economical outlet for the violence of young males. Like analogous tribal rites outside the West, it maintained the social structure, aided sex-role development and fostered in-group loyalty: no gentleman or would-be gentleman duellist ever reported his opponent to the courts. Duelling did not even have to be deadly. Italian and French practitioners were apparently prone to kill their rivals, but in England many encounters ended with no blood being spilt at all. Nor was it considered the done thing to pursue an opponent further having once fought him.

As is the case with many other past practices, then, duelling, which appears only arbitrary and brutal at a superficial glance, is shown on a closer examination to possess both logic and utility. It is far from clear that – as Kiernan sometimes implies – the modern state with its vaunted monopoly on violence has achieved much of an advance on this aspect of private enterprise. In Britain today, aggression abounds at Westminster and the knights of capital are allowed to make a killing (a revealing phrase, when one thinks about it). But lower-class males are forbidden football hooliganism and have increasingly to resort – as their ancestors did – to cruel sports against animals and to street crime. Perhaps a future administration, more interested in social engineering than social control, will find the functions of duelling instructive. Duellists, at least, used only to hurt each other.