of the Century
Judicial Combat of Jarnac and Châtaigneraye
J. Clements and Belinda Hertz
- France, 1547
of the most celebrated, frequently cited, and best known duels
of the Renaissance is that of de Jarnac and La Châtaigneraie of
1547. From the encounter
a new phrase entered the popular lexicon and fencing terminology,
le Coup de Jarnac.
referred to a crippling
blow to the back of the opponent’s exposed knee or calve, but came to mean any tricky mode of attack. It
was not a new strike at all, but did become well known and thus
somewhat notorious as we shall learn. The
combat itself was also not any
rapier duel, but actually a judicial combat fought with military
sword and buckler, and
with considerable armor.
The case also well reflects several of
the challenges and difficulties facing historical fencing studies
today, namely, the mix of sources and conflicting historical accounts,
the lack of modern English language materials available to the
uni-lingual, and the problem of dealing with 19th century perceptions
of earlier events.
The affair is regularly included in many histories
of duelling and was featured in Alfred Hutton’s famous 1901 compilation,
The Sword and the Centuries, wherein he relied heavily
on the account offered in 1648 by the chronicler Vulson
de la Colombière. The modern French historian of the duel,
Francois Billacois, called the combat between the nobles Guy Chabot,
Baron de Jarnac, and François de Vivonne,
sieur de La Châtaigneraie, “the most famous duel of the whole
sixteenth-century in France.” (Billacois, p.
49). But the duel has never before been examined from a
purely historical fencing perspective or been presented in English
in its entirety along with its various versions. Billacois acknowledges
the combat lead to “varied accounts by contemporaries and their
successors.” This had led to some confusion concerning the actual
facts of the combat but a broad picture can be acquired by comparing
them to one another.
The great compiler of dueling gossip in the 1500s,
Pierre de Bourdeille, known more familiarly as
Brantôme, writing several decades after the event, is the
primary source for information on the affair. Brantôme was a fighting
man of adventure and intrigue who had traveled from Morocco
(Billacois, p. 113). Being a relative of one of the parties
involved (Châtaigneraie was his uncle), it may be that a
young Brantôme was present at the event and his chronicle is to
be among the more trusted sources for details.
his writings, Brantôme reflected upon the affair but never
offered a complete description of the event.
As will be seen, the incident was not so much
a “duel”, in the 16th century sense of a single-combat,
as much as a traditional Medieval judicial combat in the classical
chivalric manner. Besides the obvious distinction of one being
a legal contest conducted before authorities and held at the order
of a king or lord, and the other being a private matter only between
the immediate parties concerned, there was another significant
difference between the traditional judicial duel and the latter
duel of honor. In the former, the person accused of lying
or treachery was treated as the defendant in any ensuing combat
where he would prove his innocence of the charges; whereas in
the later, the person accused denied the accusation by calling
his accuser a liar, thus forcing them to issue challenge to now
defend their honor and reputation. The Baron de Jarnac–Sieur la Châtaigneraie combat was decidedly in the first category.
To lose such a combat was not only to die (either from
wounds or being hanged afterward), which was surely a serious
circumstance in itself, but often to have also one’s heirs lose
their own inherited status as nobles.
So, such occasions of court-ordered combats were generally
approached more gravely than were later private duels of honor
to save face or protect reputation. This kind of trial was seen
as a direct descendant of the customary knightly combat of the
ordeal of arms by which the victor would be judged by God based
on his innocence.
Yet, such duels might often result in each
party making only half-hearted attempts to fight with neither
seriously trying do cause injury or death to the other but only
put on a display long enough to satisfy appearances in the hope
the sovereign would throw in the baton and end things without
serious consequences. (Powell, p. 50).
Background of the Affair
young and little known Guy Chabot, the Baron de Jarnac, was brother-in
law of Duchesse d’Etampes, the young mistress of King François I. François de Vivonne, seigneur de La Châtaigneraye (variously spelled as
Chastaigneraie/Chastaigneraye and pronounced
more or less “shasta-juhnar-ray”),
was in contrast a well-known courtier and veteran soldier associated
with the Dauphin Henri and his older mistress, Diane d’Potiers. Seigneur de La Châtaigneraye (the
title "Sieur" or "seigneur" was one applied
to the eldest son of a noble house), was also known as something
of a bully and once source states him as some ten years older
than Jarnac. His age is given by one source at 28, which would
have made Jarnac a mere 18, if he were in fact a decade younger.
However, Vulson de la Colombière writing in the 17th century
stated the two were about the same age.
The origin of this duel, typically enough, resulted
from an accusation that damaged a gentleman’s standing and repute
among his peers. In a bit of court gossip, the Dauphin
Henri one day claimed that Jarnac was “a kept man” by his father’s
second wife (Jarnac’s own stepmother), who more or less funded
Jarnac’s lifestyle. Jarnac was irate at the allegation of
such an indiscretion and called this scandalous implication (taken
by everyone as an incestuous relationship) a blatant lie. But in response to this outrage to his
honour he could accuse neither of his social superiors,
the Dauphin Henri and his mistress.
So, Châtaigneraye as a leading courtier essentially took
on the role of unofficial champion of Henri and publicly maintained
that Jarnac himself had told him of a liaison with his stepmother.
(Although, two other sources identify the woman
as being Jarnac’s “mother-in-law” rather than step-mother). Naturally, Jarnac ‘gave him the lie’ and
was called out for satisfaction by Châtaigneraye for this affront
to his integrity. Another
version states that the King related the story only half-seriously
to Jarnac who, considering it far from frivolous, publicly called
the source of the rumor (i.e., Châtaigneraie) a liar –thereby
ensuring Châtaigneraie would respond with a challenge to being
so accused of untruthfulness.
The confrontation took on larger proportions
with the whole court and leading families ending up choosing sides
in the affair. But, King François (presumably out of concern for
having some responsibility in the matter) tried to stay neutral
in the affair and for over a year refused to grant a field of
combat for the men. Châtaigneraye however, pressed the matter
with the newly crowned King Henri II, and with the advice of council,
Henri did grant the duel –a mere three weeks after François’s
death and two weeks before he himself was to actually be crowned.
The combat was thus ordered to take place within 30 days.
Brantôme wrote that Châtaigneraye was “big, brave
and valiant…one of the strongest and most skillful men…with all
weapons and techniques…and as a fighter, because besides his strength
he had great skill.” He
described Châtaigneraie as being of middle height, well-built,
muscular, and wiry, and that Jarnac was two inches taller. (Powell,
p. 61). In contrast, he described Jarnac as being “in no way his
equal in strength or prowess” and even afraid of the coming fight.
(Billacois, p. 50). One source maintains
Châtaigneraye was the most expert swordsman in France
at the time and an expert wrestler. Supposedly not a wrestler
in all of Brittany
could stand against him.
This should come as no surprise as a traditional man at
arms of the time was skilled not just in the use of weapons on
foot or horse, but generally also in unarmed techniques.
Châtaigneraye had in fact won several previous duels precisely
by rushing his opponents and wrestling them to the ground where
he killed them with his dagger. In the 1520s, Chastaigneraye had
fought a judicial duel with one Lautrec, the former using a sword
and buckler and the latter a sword and pike. (Powell, p. 169).
of the parties had a month to prepare for the duel. While the
confident Châtaigneraye for the most part relaxed and partied,
the less experienced Jarnac sought out lessons from an Italian
fencing master named either Caise or
Captain Caizo, said to be a man of great skill and renown. The pious Jarnac also spent considerable time
attending church, visiting monasteries and convents and urging
the people to pray for him (although, after the duel there is
no record of his continued piety). Whereas Châtaigneraye
was so confident of his pending victory in contrast, that at great
personal expense he arranged to have an extravagant feast prepared
which would take place just outside the duel’s enclosure immediately
following the combat! Perhaps the arrogant move was also an attempt
to psych-out his opponent.
As the challenged party
Jarnac had choice of weapons and was in no hurry to decide. In the month before the fight, Jarnac and his allies
made attempts to delay the affair, including efforts at procuring
numerous expensive and uncommon weapons that presumably would
take awhile to obtain. One
historian of this duel states that Jarnac proposed no less than
30 different weapons for foot or horseback as well as the type
of horses and saddles to be used. The great expense of having to prepare
so many sets of possible weapons for the combat led Châtaigneraye to supposedly say, “This
man wants to fight both my valour and my purse.” Perhaps Jarnac was buying time to absorb his fencing
lessons –which reportedly included learning from Caizo the technique
he was to use, a low strike to the back of the knee designed to
put an opponent out of action.
Reputedly Chastaigneraye had spent a month practicing the
move. On the other hand, seeing as how the combatants closely
knew one another (for the two were actually neighbors and kinsmen
and had grown up together), Jarnac might very well have been employing
a deception of his own against his confidant adversary. Perhaps even Caizo considered something of the man's
method or physique when contemplating how to instruct the less
We might also wonder if, having known
one another for sometime, Jarnac was familiar with Châtaigneraie's
personal style of fighting? We know the two combatants had indeed
tested one another at arms many times and, as the chronicler Monluc
later added, they well-knew the other's mettle (Powell, p. 60).
Weapons and Armor
The combat itself was
not fought with rapiers, as has sometimes been assumed, but with
military blades, that is, ‘cut-and-thrust’ swords. The
newer slender and tapering single-hand swords being used for civilian
encounters were not popular in France and certainly not among
knights such as Guy Chabot, the Baron de Jarnac, and his accuser François
de Vivonne, seigneur de La Châtaigneraie. Indeed, the French at this time called
such “murderous” blades by derogatory terms such as verdun. The tool of choice was therefore a more
traditional weapon combination, an armyng sword with buckler.
On the morning of the duel Jarnac, as defender, had
first pick of the weapons and finally selected a sword and steel
buckler as well as a gauntlet for his right hand.
Both men also wore a morion helm and corselet armor with
a coat of fine maile. Additionally,
been so concerned at Châtaigneraie’s
well-known skill as a wrestler
(not to mention fencing) that to avoid any chance of a close struggle,
he insisted both parties each wear two daggers. This would
give him at least a better chance should he be disarmed, thrown
down, or jumped on. Most interestingly, is that on advice of the
fencing master Caizo, Jarnac selected a unique piece of duelling
armor for the left arm called a brassard –a rigid arm-piece
that kept the arm straight and prevented the elbow from bending.
This ensured the buckler had to be held straight out and
that “no seizing of the opponent and throwing him” could be attempted.
Brantôme believed the device (supposedly an invention of
Caizo) unprecedented and inappropriate. (In the late 16th century,
the Comte Mortinengo fought a duel on a narrow bridge in the city
of Pau in Piedmont. Both combatants wielded two daggers, one in
each hand, and wore the same kind of special stiff arm brace armor.)
Châtaigneraie’s own retainers objected to the use of such an unusual
item but he himself confidently accepted it freely. Allegedly,
when one of Jarnac’s squires fixed the item to Châtaigneraie’s
arm the man slightly injured him in the process. Châtaigneraie
was said to exclaim, “I’ll make you pay for this when the affair
is over!” to which the squire responded, “Oh, there will not be
much left of you when my master has done with you.” (Hutton,
Centuries, p. 49 & 50).
Interestingly, Brantôme wrote that Châtaigneraie
was himself already a bit lame in the right arm or at least only
partly recovered from a wound there that he had received at a
recent siege of Piedmont. (Powell, p. 61).
their weapons, which were accepted as those “in general use among
gentlemen”, they were each allowed a “regular sword” (and one
spare in case it broke), as well as a single long dagger in a
heath tied to the right thigh by cords, with another second short
dagger in the left boot –thus, three weapons plus their buckler. The sword was a very sharp, one-handed,
double-edged blade. No
details are known as to its type of hilt, but swords of this era
typically had some kind of side rings or finger rings.
The Day of Combat Arrives
the sunny morning of the 10th of July 1547,
a large crowd of both commoners and nobles assembled as spectators
at an enclosed field set up in the park adjacent to the great
château of Saint-Germainen-en-Laye. The combat took place en champ clos-within
a traditional double barricade enclosure of sand covered ground,
in this case of 72 by 120 feet. The King’s court attended, along
with the constable, admiral, and marshals of France, and even the Turkish ambassador. Supposedly, before the
combat took place the fencing master Caizo was even working the
crowd taking bets that there would be a “calve sliced before sunset”!
Châtaigneraie arrived with pomp and self-assurance Jarnac in turn,
was modest and humble. He was also reportedly recovering from
a recent illness and if not for his honor would not have participated
the day of the event. They
entered the field of the champ clos,
the challenger first, and the weapons were presented with the
defender choosing his set. Four
swords were brought out, two for the combat and two spares in
reserve should any break. Then they presumably exited to
they prepared, each of the combatants had a friendly party present
in their other’s tent to observe the fair arming of their opponent.
It is somewhat ironic to note how often honor and fairness
was stressed in these kinds of duels and single combats, and yet
how many steps were commonly taken at every opportunity to verify
it was actually being followed. A consistent careful realism underpinned
Historian of the Renaissance
W. Wiley offered one of the most thorough reports in English of
the combat describing the herald’s own account as unfolding thusly:
La Châtaigneraie attended with his second, monseigneur le Comte d’Aumalle. Jarnac, in turn came with his second, monseigneur le grand écuyer. A herald
proclaimed the combat with the rising of the sun saying, “No one
is to prevent the completion of the present
combat, nor aid or interfere with the combatants, on penalty of
death.” To the sound of trumpets and tambourines Châtaigneraie
came out of his pavilion led by his second and a company of three
hundred friends and confidants dressed in colors of white and
incarnadine. He waited to the right of the field’s entrance gate
until the duel was signaled. Jarnac arrived at the field led by
his second and one hundred twenty of his company of retainers,
dressed in black and white. He entered into his own pavilion to
the left of the gate. The
examination and approval of weapons by the seconds took hours,
causing Châtaigneraie’s second, and the Comte d’Aumalle, to several times protest the excessively long delay.
[Presumably the spectators and guests entertained themselves in
some way during this time.]
They entered and swore before
the king on the Holy Scriptures, placed on a “square of velvet
and cloth of gold reaching to the ground,” that their cause was
just and their enemy’s unjust, and that they had on their persons
no secret weapons, charms, magic words, or incantations that would
give unfair advantage. The herald then announced the traditional
admonishment for such combats: “By order of the King,” that the
spectators were to neither speak, cough,
nor spit, during the combat nor to make any movement with the
foot, hand, or eye that would aid or interfere with either of
the contestants. Armed and awaiting the herald’s signal, the fighters
both sat in chairs opposite one another. The herald then came
forward to cry, “Let the noble combatants proceed.”
of the Fight
The result was not immediate. One source described that while Châtaigneraye
was aggressive and Jarnac defensive, a few attacks were made by
both in the first moments so that each received small cuts on
their arms –presumably below their maile armor and above their
gauntlets. (Truman, p. 180). Following
right after a pause in the action is when Jarnac made his fateful
attack which so effectively decided the outcome.
The herald of the combat
later described that, “there were several great thrusting as well
as cutting attacks, one of which on the part of the said Jarnac
struck the calf of the left leg of the said La Châtaigneraie as
he made a thrust at Jarnac; and Jarnac struck another blow on
the same calf of the leg.”
At this La Châtaigneraie fell to the ground, unable to
rise with the tendons in the calf of his leg evidently severed.
Another source however stated both of Châtaigneraie’s legs were
cut, one after the other, while still another said the blows were
independent and not consecutive, with Jarnac struggling to rise
between them. One
source also claimed Jarnac hesitated after the blow, as if he
himself was surprised by his success.
Brantôme recorded that Châtaigneraie evidently made
two frail attempts to spring at Jarnac -who refused to come near
his wounded foe. (Powell, p. 48).
W. L. Wiley presents the
climax as having occurred in this way:
leaned over him and said, ‘give me back my honor.’ There was
no reply; so Jarnac advanced to the King with the statement:
‘Sire, I give you La Châtaigneraie; take him, Sire, and may
my honor be given back to me. It was our youth that caused all
this.” The King made no response; so Jarnac knelt down to say
a prayer and then returned to La Châtaigneraie, still stretched
out on the ground. Jarnac asked La Châtaigneraie again to make
acknowledgments, but La Châtaigneraie raised himself on one
knee and tried to lift his sword and shield, whereupon Jarnac
said, ‘don’t move or I’ll kill you.’ La Châtaigneraie made an
effort to rise, saying ‘then kill me,’ and fell back. Jarnac
returned to the King and asked again to be considered a man
of honor, since there was no gentleman at Court more ready in
any capacity to serve his King. The King still answered nothing.
Jarnac went back once more to La Châtaigneraie, still stretched
out on his side with his sword lying on the ground, and said:
‘Châtaigneraie, my old comrade, recognize your
Creator, and let us be friends.’ Then Jarnac assumed an attitude
of caution: ‘While charity was advising him to forget his feeling
of enmity, caution counseled him to take no chances; so he reached
out with his sword for the sword and the dagger, which had slipped
out of its scabbard, of La Châtaigneraie.’ Jarnac handed the
weapons over to a herald and asked the King, ‘for the love of
God,’ to recognize the defeat of La Châtaigneraie; Monseigneur
de Vendôme and the Connétable de Montmorency
made the same request, since it was necessary now for La Châtaigneraie
in all mercy to be removed from the field. Jarnac next addressed
himself to ‘a certain great lady’ –probably Diane de Poitiers
–in the stands, and the King, ‘moved to pity,’ finally listened
to Jarnac and said to him: ‘You have done your duty, and your
honor is hereby restored.’ The bleeding La Châtaigneraie was
borne from the field by the heralds and four gentlemen, and
put into his tent on the outside." (Wiley,
At the end Jarnac threw
himself on his knees before the King, who embraced him saying,
“You have fought like Caesar and you have talked like Aristotle”
–which Wily noted as a somewhat ambiguous remark tinged with irony
given his own involvement in the affair. Despite the King’s attitude,
Jarnac was honored throughout France for having beaten the esteemed
and skillful La Châtaigneraie.
Truman in 1883 gave the account with Jarnac as reportedly having
said to his fallen adversary, “Confess yourself a liar, and restore
me to my honor, and live.” To this Châtaigneraye made no reply so
Jarnac turned to the king sitting in his covered stand, knelt
down and said, “I beseech your majesty to accept the life of this
man for God’s sake and for love’s. I do not wish to have his blood on my soul. I fought
for the restoration of that honor of which he has robbed me.” The declined king at first saying nothing
then relented to the request.
Meanwhile, Châtaigneraye “moved around on his knees, and
cut wildly and impotently” [possible if he were cut in the calves,
but unlikely if he were cut behind the knees].
He “in a short time fell over and bled to death.” Jarnac then
said, “I have triumphed over my false accuser; I gained all I
fought for –the vindication of my honor and reputation; I am satisfied.” (Truman, p. 181).
Another source has Jarnac
turning to his opponent who had raised himself to his good knee,
and saying, “Lord, I am not worthy, not to me, but unto thy name
be thanks!” Jarnac
told Châtaigneraye if he resisted any longer he would kill him
and Châtaigneraye urged him to do so.
Jarnac then implored the king a second time to declare
the combat ended. He
even implored Châtaigneraye to recall their old friendship. He
asked him to submit and end their conflict. Just in case, the
practical Jarnac approached his recumbent adversary and wisely
put his weapons out of reach. He took from Châtaigneraye his sword
and his dagger and laid them before the king. After his second
request to the king, Henri, under the advice of his counselors,
finally relented. He then ordered his officers and surgeons
to attend to Châtaigneraye.
Alfred Hutton’s account
from Colombière states the following: “They advance to meet each
other, Chastaigneraie with furious mien
and disordered steps, Jarnac cool and confident in the sound instruction
he has received from Caizo. Several fierce thrusts and blows are given
and parried on both sides, when Jarnac shifts his ground, feints
a swashing blow at his enemy’s head, and so drawn up his shield
to defend it, and as it rises dexterously passes his point behind
the unfortunate man’s left knee, holding his hand in pronation
[palm down, knuckles up], and with a quick movement snatches it
back, bringing the sharp false edge into contact with the lower
part of the ham. This slight cut startles Chastaigneraie, but before he has time to move Jarnac repeats
it in a much more serious fashion, severing sinews, veins, muscles,
and everything down to the very bone.
Chastaigneraie falls to the ground,
and Jarnac approaches him…” (Hutton, Centruies, p. 51).
Hutton’s reading of the
fight by Colombière differs fundamentally from others in that
he does not describes one man as chaotically aggressive and the
other as calmly cool-headed. He does not mention any arm wounds but
does say there were blows parried. He does not include Jarnac
pausing after, nor Châtaigneraye recovering
from, any first blow that makes Châtaigneraye collapse.
Instead, he says the first blow is made after a high feint
and the ensuing wound only distracts him. Further, his description
makes it appear that Jarnac’s first strike was something of a
short simple flick of the wrist rather than a sweeping blow coordinated
with proper footwork. He then says on the second effort a repetition
of the same attack causes a major wound that ends the fight. He does not include any attempt by Châtaigneraye
to strike again between the two attacks where he is wounded. Additionally,
rather than Jarnac striking by countering in the middle of Châtaigneraye’s own attack, he has Jarnac first making a feint
high before cutting low.
He does however note Jarnac shifted his ground, which would
be consistent with traversing diagonally to the side so as to
be able to cut behind the leg. Hutton also seems to imply that the blow
was to the same leg rather than to both legs. Hutton also claims that his wounds were
dressed by the surgeon, but is so incensed by the humility of
losing after so much boasting that he tears off his bandages and
dies. The inconsistencies with other accounts might suggest more
credibility could be given to those versions of the fight. Additionally,
it could be argued that Hutton, despite a serious student of historical
swordplay, was perhaps too conditioned by the 19th
century Salle forms of fencing to interpret the combat in terms
of anything other than his understanding of the subject as one
of what could be performed with his contemporary sabers and epees.
As Hutton's understanding wasn't based on extensive
test-cutting (or on actual combat experience with swords), but
upon lighter practice weapons that were increasingly deemphasizing
large powerful blows in favor of lighter contact, so we might
consider this in evaluating his analysis. Modern test cutting
with slender blades shows that upward wrist flicks with the back
of the blade are simply not very strong attacks. But those committed
with great motion of the full arm with passing attacks can be.
Charles Mackay in his 1841,
Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness
of Crowds, offered a strikingly different version of the famed
Jarnac-Chastaigneraye judicial duel: “De Jarnac, overpowered by
the heavy blows of his opponent, covered his head with his shield,
and, stooping down, endeavoured to make
amends by his agility for his deficiency of strength. In this
crouching posture he aimed two blows at the left thigh of La Chataigneraie,
who had left it uncovered, that the motion of his leg might not
be impeded. Each blow was successful, and…La Chataigneraie
rolled over upon the sand. He seized his dagger, and made a last
effort to strike De Jarnac; but he was unable to support himself,
and fell powerless.” The many distinctions in this version
French fencing master and Pierre Lacaze in his own description
wrote that the first blow was on the left leg behind the knee
with a second one in the same place that caused him to fall. (Lacaze,
In the mid 19th century
Captain Sir Richard Burton writing in his, The Sentiment of the
Sword (chapter 7, part 5), considering the matter in modern fencing
terms claimed Châtaigneraie "made an imbroccata, or
binding of the sword, with thrust from high to low line. Jarnac,
a man of humble birth
got within measure and delivered two
hamstringing cuts (fendente al poplite) right and left, and his
opponent died of rage within two hours." Fencing authority
Egerton Castle writing in 1894 described the fight by saying:
"La Chasteineraye came out of his tent as though I a furry,
with unequal step and disordered mien. Jarnac, on the contrary,
came up more coolly to the fight. It was then that one of the
spectators (who proved to be Jarnac's master of fence) was heard
to say that shortly would be seen some hamstringing; as indeed
came to be the case, for after a few thrusts and strokes dealt
on either side, Jarnac making feint of striking his adversary
on the outside of the advanced leg drew a reverse cut at the inside
of the knee with the false edge so effectively that la Chasteineraye
fell down forthwith." (Castle, "Some Historic Duels,"
p. 183-184). Chastaigneraye walked aggressively and quickly toward
Jarnac with his sword held high at the ready while Jarnac came
forward cautiously with his weapon held behind his buckler.
As Dr. Sydney Anglo has pointed out in his, Martial
Arts of Renaissance Europe, one problem in knowing just what
happened in fights like this is that narrative accounts are often
not contemporary and, even when by "eye-witnesses",
tend to be ambiguous or contradictory. One other source which
has material that may shed some light on the Jarnac affair is
Scipion Dupleix's, Les loix militaires touchant le duel (Paris,
1602 and 1611).
In all the accounts here
however, they agree on one important point, that being the blow
to the leg that caused him to collapse and be unable to fight
on. The death of François de Vivonne,
seigneur de La Châtaigneraie, occurred within a few hours. Thus ended the duel
of the century in 1547.
The “Coup de Jarnac”
most controversial part of the duel (though not at the time) came
to be the attack used to win it. The view that the coup de jarret, "hit
of Jarnac", was anything unexpected because it was somehow
customary in the age to attack the face or the chest, is unsupported
by evidence. Jarnac was in no way reprimanded for it nor did he
receive any infamy as a result. Brantôme himself neither disputed
the legitimacy of the technique nor spent much time at all discussing
it. To him it was nothing abnormal. Indeed, similar techniques
are illustrated throughout 15th and 16th century fencing literature.
Eyewitnesses to the duel even judged the fight to be honorable
and courteous. The
resulting controversy had nothing to do with his technique, but
with Henri’s behavior.
As Dr. Anglo noted
in his article on 15th century axe-play, Le Jeu de la Hache,
with regard to specific strokes, a coup usually indicated cuts
delivered sideways with an edged weapon and sometimes coup was
"the generic term for a particular kind of stroke such as
the coup de genoul; or, when suitably qualified, it shows the
mode of delivery as, for example, the back-hander, coup darriere
historian Wiley maintained that the term "Coup de Jarnac"
eventually “came to mean a clever and unexpected thrust, destined
to bring death in the morning or maybe late in the afternoon.” Billacois tells us that Le coup de
Jarnac, “Jarnac’s stroke”, is proverbial to the present day
as meaning a “stab in the back” (Billacois, p. 49).
However, in his history of the duel, the modern fencing
master Pierre Lacaze noted that the expression “coup de Jarnac”
originally did not even have any negative connotation at all but
merely implied an unanticipated move.
Lacaze noted how it was a Jesuit dictionary of 1771 that
later misrepresented its meaning. Considering that Jarnac was
supposedly taught the technique by the Italian master Caize, it must reasonably have also been something of a typical
move in Italy.(Lacaze, p.34).
Captain Burton expressed that the Jarnac blow
was simply "a surprise, something that does not sound 'nice,'
a 'dodge,' neither quite fair nor absolutely unfair." According
to Burton, the Bolognese fencing master Achille Marozzo in his
1537 treatise (Chapter LXXXV) even described the technique as,
un reviscio segato per le gambe, or a reverse saw cut to the legs.
Hutton pointed out, Achille Marozzo was “emphatic in his advocacy
of the use of it” arguing that, logically, against an armored
opponent the rear of the leg was often the only uncovered vulnerable
area that could be cut. The French Master Sainct Didier in 1573
advised several times slashes to the calf of the opponent –but
not the front of the leg or the thigh. The reason being obviously
that a good solid hit to the lower leg muscle is of greater effect
than a whack with a slender blade across the hard shin bone (which
lacks vulnerable muscle) or the thick tissues of the upper leg
(which can withstand more damage). Later, in his 1610 rapier treatise,
using the middle
of his slender blade the great Capo Ferro also depicted a wide
(and non-lethal) slashing cut made to the hamstring. The 1639
fencing text, the Pallas Armata, instructed in Chapter
I of the Second Part of the First Booke, that in, “passing make a back blow with a Secunde at the Hamstrings of both his legs, and in striking
catch hold at thine adversary's Hilt
with thy left hand, that he may not strike thee, at thy passing
behind him with a back blow.” Certainly Jarnac’s blow, like the
outcome itself, was unexpected, but it was hardly novel.
Hutton clearly understood this as he wrote on the technique how,
“In later times an idea got abroad that there was something unfair
about this hamstring cut, and the term coup de Jarnac came
to be applied practically to any sort of cut made at the leg with
the sword, and metaphorically, to any underhand attack of what
kind soever. This is a libel on the
fair name of Guy Chabot [Baron de Jarnac] who certainly did not
invent the trick, as it was regularly taught by the fencing-masters
of the day, most of whom, like Caizo, were Italians, and the chief
of them all, Captain General Achille Marozzo.” He then concludes, “In good truth, Jarnac
was not in any way to be blamed, but rather to be complimented
on the masterly manner in which he profited by the teaching he
had received.” (Hutton, Centuries, p. 52-53). Hutton even pointed out
that there are other duels where the identical technique was employed,
including another in the very same year 1547 between two Englishmen,
Newton and Hamilton, which was very similar
in outcome to the Jarnac-Châtaigneraie combat. Yet, many later
fencers who no longer practiced cuts below the waist or the hips
saw it differently. Men such as famed writer Arthur Conan
Doyle once even descried it as a “horrid ruse.”
during the 16th century in contrast, where no such agreements
were made except under certain limited circumstances, the view
toward leg strikes was demonstrably different.
French writer M. Joverin de Rochefort commenting
on an English prize-fighting contest in 1672 said of two fighters
competing with swords, that the shorter had an advantage over
the taller “in being able to give him the jarman
stroke [i.e., coup de Jarnac], by cutting him on his right
ham, which he left in a manner quite unguarded”. No judgment was
made by de Rochefort as to this action
being in any way inappropriate.
A Medical View
A retired podiatric surgeon, Dr. Michael M. Rosenblatt, DPM, comments on the injuries sustained by Châtaigneraye as well as his cause of death. Having researched the duel, Dr. Rosenblatt’s medical belief is that it is actually highly unlikely Châtaigneraye bleed to death. As he explains, the wound to the distal transection of the posterior tibial artery of the lower leg is an artery with small blood passages. Dr. Rosenblatt continues that even if an actual “hamstringing” had occurred more proximally; simple pressure against the wound site would have stopped the bleeding. He adds that it would have been quite likely to have stopped on its own because there is a natural tendency for the Achilles tendon to retract upon transection, taking the posterior tibial artery with it proximally, thereby additionally protecting it from extravasation. Dr. Rosenblatt is of the opinion that Châtaigneraie essentially committed suicide. By alternatively extending the dorsum of his feet rhythmically during his time on the ground (he was unable to flex the foot, only dorsi-flex it) he very intentionally and with effort on his part knowingly encouraged the bleeding. Dr. Rosenblatt suggests that the witnesses (especially those viewing from a distance) they would not have been aware of this action. He conjectures that as an experienced swordsman, Châtaigneraie was probably aware that bleeding wounds from such small blood vessel could easily be treated. But from an Achilles tendon wound Châtaigneraie would never have walked again without a limp and certainly never would have fought well again. Out of shame from his loss and crippling condition from this relatively weak cut, Châtaigneraie might very well have, as Rosenblatt suggests, deliberately dorsiflexed his feet rhythmically until he went into shock and died. Dr. Rosenblatt states that even then, as Châtaigneraie went into shock, his life could have been saved (probably almost until the last minutes) by stopping the bleeding, elevating his legs and giving him fluids.
Fallout and Implications
Within two months all of
France knew of the outcome. Jarnac’s victory came at a surprise
to everyone. It was not the manner of how he had fought
but just the fact he had won. Billacois
notes the reaction to his victory as being for the most part surprise
at how quickly and easily it came without a climatic battle. Perhaps
the crowd had expected a longer and more traditional knightly
duel with the combatants clashing and struggling one against the
other for a while before a dramatic end. The unexpected outcome
caused the crowd to explode in confusion. Châtaigneraye’s party was stunned; the
courtiers and spectators bewildered. The common folk rushed barriers
and swarmed the field. In
a mad frenzy they even invaded Châtaigneraye’s
pavilion devouring his costly victory banquet, and stealing the
luxurious decorations and furnishings (which were all on loan)!
Châtaigneraie's supporters and men were so incensed at the
loss of their benefactor and favored champion that there was good
reason to fear they might riot and overwhelm both Jarnac's party
and the kings' men, slaughtering all of them. (Powell, p. 68).
Despite the social and legal formality of such affairs, such was
was accused of having lost because of his own insolent arrogance
(the night before he had even held a huge banquet to celebrate
his impending victory!). Yet, public opinion later was even sympathetic
for the loss of the popular Châtaigneraye. Following
the fight however, Jarnac refused any glory and did not bother
to even take advantage of the traditional prerogatives of a winner
in such combats, as refusing to parade around the champ clos with trumpets and drums as offered by the Judge of
the Field. He did so out of concern that the young gentlemen of
Châtaigneraye’s side might come down from the bleachers and start
a brawl! (Billacois, p. 52).
Billacois noted the duel’s
consequences reached far beyond the individuals involved or even
its indirect protagonists. (Billacois, p. 49). As
Châtaigneraye lay prostrate, the king, despite ostensibly being
impartial was far from happy with the outcome, finally threw down
the baton thus ending the combat. He then proclaimed the winner.
The defeat of his favorite Châtaigneraye and his involvement in
the affair was afterwards to hurt him politically (ironically,
Henri himself was to later die in a jousting accident). The publicity
surrounding the event and the intrigues leading up to it put the
young monarch in a bad light. He had created the spectacle of
siding against one of his subjects in a judicial combat but then
failed to use his sovereign authority to interrupt the fight when
it turned sour. In the end, the affects of the duel was to forever
diminish the role of royalty and sovereign as dispenser of justice
in such combats. It did so in favor of the value of personal honor
and courage, victory in the eyes of God, and hence encouraged
the rise of private duelling.
The 16th century proliferation of personal dueling
for honor was partially a result of this ending of judicial combat
as an institution authorized by kings as judges and controllers
of affairs of honor.
Interestingly, in 1587 François
de La Noue stated that the fashion of
private fighting was actually something new and that such quarrels
between gentlemen were not known 40 years earlier. He might very
well have been referring to the ending of judicial combats that
occurred after this infamous combat in 1547.
Billacois also pointed out that while many sources have
claimed Henri II forbade formal duels after this event, this is
untrue. While he
himself never again allowed another such affair under his reign
there is actually no evidence that he ever banned any form of
dueling. A later edict of his against murders and assassinations
made no mention of the word duel or of honorable quarrels and
applied to all violent deaths committed by either commoners or
nobles. Another edict applied specifically to the outlawing of
quarrels and challenges (dueling) only within the army. In fact,
he later permitted a Duke the right to grant permissions for certain
duels. (Billacois, p. 55).
Whether he was ever innocent
of the charge or not (and we really don’t know) Jarnac acted throughout
the affair as a consummate Renaissance gentleman, even offering
reconciliation with his foe once his reputation had been restored
through the courage he showed in facing death and shedding of
blood. Jarnac had
nobly offered his wounded and beaten opponent the opportunity
to yield. Interestingly, Brantôme also informs us there was an earlier duel between Chastaigneraye
and one Gouard wherein Chastaigneraye would not kill his man while
he lay fallen but waited for him to get up again. La Châtaigneraie, also acting out of nobility,
if not a stubborn pride, as was his privilege preferred to die
rather than concede. Ironically,
despite what we may see as haughty overconfidence, Châtaigneraie’s
own behavior was, arguably, in every way equally in keeping with
the values and behaviors of the noble 16th century
It’s clear from this case,
and many others, that the lines between a judicial duel, chivalric
combat, and a duel of honor were somewhat blurry in the early
16th century. Duelling saw its most fundamental re-conception
in the early 16th century. During this time period
some formal duels, which were actually about personal honor or
patriotism, were still being conducted in the manner of earlier
judicial combats that were intended to determine guilt or innocence
in legal disputes and criminal offenses.
One perplexing aspect to
ponder is why Jarnac would expect a man as proud as Châtaigneraie
to yield in a duel to the death wherein the defeated party would
lose all reputation and status and presumably his head?
We must assume that there was some mechanism by which the
king at this time would be expected to pardon the loser.
Reflections and Considerations
those doing forms of mock duels or historical sword combat today
it is not uncommon to encounter the idea that the Jarnac-Châtaigneraye
duel can be used to justify or rationalize sparring rules that
permit (and even encourage) combatants “wounded” upon the legs
to continue fighting from a sitting or kneeling position. This line of reasoning appears to stem
from the mistaken belief that Châtaigneraye continued to fight
after a serious leg wound.
The facts of the duel as described however do not support
this view at all. Indeed, they confirm the very opposite
understanding. Châtaigneraye did not sit or kneel after the first
blow, instead he went right down and his opponent knew he was
defeated. Châtaigneraye had to struggle back to his feet where
upon his waiting opponent only reluctantly reengaged him and then
easily struck him again in the very same way (done as a humane
move this second time since, he could have just as easily slain
him outright). After this, Châtaigneraye could do nothing but
lay there and bleed to death and Jarnac rightly ignored him.
To interpret things here otherwise in order to justify
imaginary sparring rules for leg wounds makes little sense.
There are a few technical
considerations worth looking at in the duel.
Before Jarnac’s strike, Brantôme described only a forward
attack as being made by Châtaigneraye, which later writers interpreted
as a “lunge” (that is, extending the arm while usually stepping
forward with the lead foot and stretching the rear leg). But given the type of weapons used it
is much more likely that the attack was made with a passing step
(where the rear foot comes forward in timing with the striking
arm). Whether either of these strikes were actually falso
manco cuts (using the back edge) as Hutton assumed is not
Generally (but not always),
with a buckler held in the left hand the left leg would lead.
If we accept that Jarnac made his attack as a counter to his opponent’s
attack then the fact that the first blow was made against Châtaigneraye’s
left leg would seem to indicate that he may have made his attacking
move not with a passing step of the right foot coming forward
from behind, but with a forward step of the leading left foot.
Or, if he had his right leg leading, then his movement would have
to have been made with a forward pass of the left foot from behind.
Since the left leg is indicated as
having been struck, if Châtaigneraye did indeed recover to a standing
position before the second cut, we can reasonably surmise (regardless
of whatever foot was leading) he would have placed his body weight
upon his uninjured right leg –making any second attempt to attack
Jarnac a feeble one that relied on a very short forward step of
the right foot. From this position, either leg should have
been vulnerable to Jarnac for a second blow. It is not difficult to understand how
authorities on this duel could have gotten the details confused.
In another matter to consider,
we might also wonder if, as we are told they had daggers in their
“boots”, what kind of footwear these were that permitted the lower
leg below the knee to be exposed to such slicing cuts?
Likely they were not heavy riding boots of any thick leather,
but flat soled ones of soft leather only high enough just to cover
the ankles (such as those illustrated in fencing manuals of the
time). If they were
high footwear of thicker leather, then Hutton’s description of
the cut being a quick snap from the back of the blade would seem
even less likely. If anything, it would have been a much
wider swipe that incorporated a drawing action in combination
with the blow’s impact all delivered by a traverse move of the
feet, a lowering of the body and a turn of the hips –much as the
master Giacomo Di Grassi in his 1570 treatise was to later advise
It's easy to speculate
on and to try to draw lessons from the 1547 duel between de Jarnac
and La Châtaigneraie. But we must be careful of assigning
too much martial significance or uniqueness to it. Brantôme
noted Châtaigneraie's contempt for his former friend as
well as his confidence in his own valour as factors in his defeat.
(Powell, p. 57). One moral of the account might be to never agree
out of pride or ego to do away with advantages or dismiss opportunities
to employ your known strengths in the expectation that your experience
alone will win the day. The other lesson we might take here may
be one of a haughty sure-minded veteran being overcome by a less
experienced but more serious-minded and focused opponent who aptly
prepared himself both physically and mentally.
Franklin Alfred, Le Duel
Jarnac et de la Châtaigneraye, 1909.
Sydney Anglo, 'Le Jeu de la Hache', Archaeologia, 1991.
Sydney Anglo, Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe, 2001.
François Billacois, Le Duel, 1986.
Sir Richard Burton, The Sentiment of the Sword, 1911.
Egerton Castle, "Some Historic Duels", 1894.
Alfred Hutton, The Sword and the Centuries, 1901.
Lacaze, Pierre. En garde Du duel à l'escrime, 1991.
Charles Mackay. Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and
the Madness of Crowds, 1841.
J. G. Millingen, The History of Dueling, 1841.
George H. Powell. Dueling Stories of the Sixteenth Century from
the French of Brantôme, 1940.
Major Ben C. Truman. The Field of Honor, 1883.
W. L. Wiley, The Gentleman of Renaissance France, 1954.