The Sword in Duel

By John Clements
ARMA Director

When you think of the word "duel" you immediately think of a sword fight. Dueling and swordplay are intimately connected. As ritual single combats, duels were fought with many weapons besides swords. But it was in the challenge of fighting with matching blades to emerge victorious by fencing prowess that the duel came to find its greatest expression. To duel was more often than not to face another swordsman as a swordsman.

The essence of a duel is about individual civilian fighting (invariably on foot) rather than military group combat. But, whether you are fighting against a single adversary under prearranged conditions or engaged against a lone enemy opponent on the field of war, they are both, ultimately, personal combats. The duel distinguishes itself from the chaos of fighting amidst a battle or the suddenness of a rencounter or urban fray by its mutual agreement to have at one another. The duel saw many forms over the centuries from judicial trial-by-combat to private affairs of honor invoking a formal code. Its essential idea was that, as a result of a personal stake in some socially unacceptable matter, one party will not tolerate the behavior of another without responding with a challenge of arms.

Because the sword was so closely associated with Medieval knighthood and chivalry and, by extension, to the Renaissance courtier and aristocratic cavalier, more than any other weapon it came to represent justice, honor, and vengeance. As the sidearm of an officer or the privilege of the gentleman it represented both warrior status and personal martial skill. Perhaps because the sword permitted not only the widest array of offensive and defensive close-combat techniques, but allowed for display of finesse and courage as much as strength, it provided the user a certain assurance. For these reasons, and because it has so many different forms, it served in more duels than any other weapon.

For centuries, the fight of double-edged arming-sword with a small buckler or larger shield was preferred in all manner of chivalric and judicial duels. Knightly challenges to feats of arms in the chansons and tales were often described in terms of sword duels on foot. In time these short swords were largely supplanted for dueling by a variety of double-handed war-swords. The larger great-sword, the armor-piercing estoc, assorted single-edged falchions, and later the saber (in both heavy military and light civilian forms), were all popular choices at one time or another. The various designs of slender military side-sword were a common choice throughout the 16th century either on their own or more often accompanied by dagger or buckler. Versions of these swords found continual use in duels for the next two centuries. As larger military swords fell out of use it's easy to understand how more compact cut-and-thrust designs would become a common choice for dueling.

Jarnac DuelIt was in Renaissance Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries that the sword duel arguably reached its zenith with all manner of punctillios and cartellos. The ending of the feudal-era, the rise of larger cities, and the general banning of judicial combats by the late 1540s provoked a reaction. The abandonment as a legal means of publicly settling conflicts directly increased the popularity of its alternative. Quarrels over issues of honor and reputation would be settled by the parties themselves through their own means. In that environment, every gentleman or man-at-arms with such pretensions owned some form of sword. Typically, a man would fight a duel with his own personal sword, that being the same one he used in war and carried on his person, but at other times matching swords were pre-selected so that neither was longer or lighter than the other. By the 16th century, special pairs of identical swords, called a case or brace, were kept by neutral third-parties for this very reason.

One cannot consider the sword in duel without examining its nature and especially the role of the dueling culture in Western civilization. Unquestionably, no sword in history is as closely associated with the duel of honor as is that most unique of Renaissance weapons, the slender foyning rapier. No other sword is as identifiable with the very idea of the duelist. Though it came into being for urban street fights among the working class (in an age when guns were becoming increasingly formidable), within a few generations it was almost the exclusive focus of fencing masters increasingly concerned with solving the intricacies of its method in private duel. The evolution of both its blade and hilt followed directly from this concern. Frequently employed with a matching dagger and even a simple cloak, the eventual preference for gentlemen duelists was to use it on its own.

The finesse of a long narrow blade with a quick piercing reach was well received by duelists and within a generation adopted as their preferred "go-to" weapon. The danger of fighting unarmored with a slender thrusting sword, with its blinding speed, deceptive reach, and particular angling of attack meant that men –especially those still unfamiliar with such fencing– were very easily wounded. It wasn't that the rapier was intrinsically more lethal than the fearsome cleaving blows of  wider cutting blades, but that because puncturing stabs simply could not be treated in the manner of slashes and cuts the death rate due to rapier duels exploded. There are even notable examples of men seeking out a noted fencing master for an upcoming judicial combat or before issuing a challenge in hope of learning some secret technique or special move that might give them advantage.

The Baroque-era continued the dueling trend as French aristocratic circles raised the formality and etiquette surrounding the sword duel to a level never seen before even as firearms were now entirely dominating warfare. Here the narrow small-sword, as court-sword or walking-sword, earned preeminence among duelists over military cutlass and cavalry saber. No other sword form developed so specifically for unarmored civilian self-defense. Its very function served foremost for dueling against another small-sword. Though seemingly "dainty", this shorter thinner blade came on the scene as a less obtrusive personal weapon with no necessity of encountering the diverse arms and armor of its older Renaissance cousin. There are plenty of accounts of small-sword duels being vicious and brutal exchanges devoid of propriety. But comportment and deportment in a duelist was a product of the Age. While the average Baroque swordsman might have no compunction whatsoever about coldly piercing his adversaries chest with his point, striking a fellow gentleman's face, grabbing his garments, or resorting to unarmed blows and "vulgar" grappling would be viewed as unseemly and uncouth.

In the long history of fencing, the idea of two swordsman willing to non-lethally cross weapons in order to test one another's metal as a practice fight with training weapons, even at the risk of serious injury, is hardly uncommon. Indeed, it was likely a fairly regular occurrence. But this does not rise to the category of duel. Even when two rival swordsmen had a personal enmity for one another, it is the intent to seek something more than just "winning" a mock fight on a given occasion that is the defining characteristic of the true duel. For encounters to be considered duels there must be something personal at stake between them. The parties involved must be risking something beyond a mere test of mutual prowess. There must be the goal of seeking reparation for tarnished reputation or personal slight by the act of real violence and the possibility of real injury or death. There must be a wrong that can only be righted by force of arms, not a sudden brawl in anger.

This definition of dueling blurs because throughout history young men of hot temper have often "rumbled" for the mere pleasure of earning renown from their peers or just reveling in displays of armed aggression against seemingly worthy foes. In cultures where sword duels existed there were almost always two forms: an unregulated informal kind, typically occurring on short notice, and an approved version with certain rules and customs. The latter usually restricted lethality by proscribing the arms allowed, preselecting the time, and delineating the permitted space. But for every record of a regulated duel there is almost always an exception.

While there are sporadic instances throughout history of single combat challenges on the battlefield or in feats of arms as a means of seeking valor, it was only within Western Europe that a true dueling culture of swordsmanship found full expression. Both the ancient Greeks and the Norse recognized occasions for individual challenges to settle disagreements or accusations sword-to-sword and there are a few recorded instances of samurai duels, such as those by the famous, Miyamoto Musashi, in the 17th century. Yet, these took place as exceptions rather than the rule. Roman gladiators, though usually engaged in single combats, were not dueling because they very often fought against their will or against others who did not freely enter the combat. More importantly, they did not have personal grievance as their cause but were fighting as spectacle or entertainment (not to mention that such fights were not necessarily to the death or even to cause serious injury). Singling out an opponent on the battlefield or being ordered into the arena is not quite the same as willingly stepping out or arranging ahead of time to specifically fight one on one without interference.

There are also notable accounts of rival fight-school challenges at European festivals and fairs from the late 15th all the way into the early 18th centuries. Although these used all manner of swords that could cause serious harm and allowed for cutting blows that frequently bled their unarmored combatants, they nonetheless had their bouts arranged as promotional displays and training events. Sometimes there were personal rivalries and sometimes unintentional deaths occurred. The public "prize fights", such as held by the London masters of defence, were public exhibitions to test their students in a series of matches against their fellows using blunt weapons. These were later revived commercially as much bloodier "gladiatorial" combat sports in the late 17th century. But this was not about dueling and these were not true duels.

There have been duels with knives, with spears, even axes and plenty with pistol. Many also took place on horseback. But it was always the sword on foot that remained the premier individual arm of self-defense suited to all occasions. The selection of the sword as the weapon of choice for a duel had deliberate meaning. The sword was an armament whose only function was combat —not hunting or farm labor in the manner of an axe, pole-arm, or bow. Using a sword implied knowledge of swordsmanship, which meant being educated in arms as a member of the military class or nobility (or having pretensions to such). In a social and cultural context the sword was both representative as well as symbolic of status, faith, and honor. With the sword you had to get up close. You had to make physical contact with your adversary. You cannot engage them without exertion and deliberate intent as well as incurring danger. The sword gave the duelist satisfaction by his drawing blood in the face of possible death. When it comes to a sword duel, it's personal.

A sword duel is seldom viewed as an act of civility but that's precisely what it was. All legal and theological arguments against it aside, the duel served a means of settling conflicts while avoiding direct homicide. There are no rules when fighting for your life, and yet, that is exactly what a duel demanded: that in a fight you agree to a certain set of prohibitions for how to start and how to finish. The sword duel survived for so long because it provided an outlet. It channeled natural violent impulses and directed unavoidable hostility by permitting an acceptable manner of fighting that assured some degree of fairness and honesty between the combatants. Just as importantly, it allowed recognition of it among ones social peers. Honor among duelists was about more than mere reputation or face saving; it was about behavior, expectation, etiquette, masculine personae, and adherence to a set of martial norms. The dueling culture was sword culture and there were many who took delight in it.

It's easy to romanticize sword duels as the manly means to prove one's worth and reputation while ending private feud and avoiding vendetta. But just as easily it could be abused, exploited, and produce nothing but wasteful senseless death. Nonetheless, it's also easy to recognize its appeal. If two men agreed to settle a matter between them by consensual force of arms there was no better way than the honest clash of steel. To accept such a challenge, to face it down and claim victory through your own skill, whether the opponent was spared or slain, was the surest way to defend a smear, insure the value of your word, or earn renown outside of war. In that regard, the ability to wield the sword matched with the willingness to use it over such matters was seen as a sign of character. The paradox of the private duel was that to earn repute or acquire notoriety, it could not be entirely private, or else the victor might be construed as having intentionally arrange a murder by ambuscade. Thus, at least some public witnesses or neutral spectators were typically required. Avoiding the attention of the authorities was the catch. In general, dueling was an extralegal activity of the aristocracy and the state, though issuing numerous bans, generally turned a blind eye if it were done discretely.

Yet, sword duels could be impromptu affairs with nothing formally declared and only the understanding that once blades were drawn no one was going to interfere. There might not even be any explicit expression of what outcome was expected until it was all over with either one or possibly both parties wounded or slain. In many cases, the label of "duel" seems to have been applied to such spontaneous fights after the fact. To be sure, the formal duel was far less common than were simple back alleys assaults and gang fights in empty piazzas and wooded paths. To face off mono-a-mono, having selected one of a pair of equal blades, and backed by your second, awaiting the command of a neutral third-party before killing or being killed, was an experience reserved for a select few. Many sword duels were fought only until the slightest blood was shed and the aggrieved party satisfied –a result easily achievable by swords in particular. But many more were expressively fought to the death.

Curiously, as Warfare in the West became more industrial, more mechanized, and more lethal during the mid-to-late 19th century, Western fencing became sportified. It transitioned into a safe athletic pastime and recreational game at the same time the gun-culture entirely took hold. But the sword duel for matters of personal honor persisted. A longer and lighter dueling version of the épée' emerged strictly for conducting such affairs as did a thinner and lighter "civilianized" sabre. When clerks, lawyers, and journalists could find excuse over any trivial minutia to "duel" in the park using featherweight weapons employed in a manner to produce mere pinking wounds, things were reduced to near farce. As the 20th century approached, sword duels had been reduced to a highly regulated activity seldom offering any serious danger to its participants and deaths by sword wound were a rarity. Meanwhile, the contrived rituals of 19th century German university "dueling" clubs with their non-lethal blades, diluted their formalized bouts down to an artificial scar-inducing fetish serving as little more than "extreme fraternity hazing." It took the horrors of the Great War of 1914 to not only end the honor culture of Western civilization, but extinguish entirely the idea that manhood and reputation was best made worthy by encountering edge or point in ritualized single combat.

The history of the duel is long and complex but the general idea that two people may choose to settle a private dispute or resolve a conflict by mutual consent is an ancient one. There are probably as many examples of sudden on-the-spot duels taking place as there are those that required extensive negotiations to arrange. And there are examples of duels being fought between two parties that had no quarrel or cause whatsoever between them other than they wished to fight someone or otherwise thought it expected of them by their peers. For every reluctant duelist there was the sociopathic bully who purposely sought out or gave offense in order to provoke a fight he was sure to win. For every sword duel that ended amicably with the two parties shaking hands before heading off to share a drink there were perhaps a dozen that ended in complete animosity with one or both parties mortally wounded. Nevertheless, there has long been a recognition that among duelists (as well as competitors in combat sports) that they share an intimacy which very often ends in mutual respect. There was an honesty found in allowing two capable individuals to just "fight it out" if they wanted. The problem was, they usually wanted too often for too stupid a reason.

Again, it's important to understand that social forces have always had a profound influence on how men choose to defend themselves or engage in ritual combats. We have to avoid looking at it from our perspective rather than from the context of the original time and place. A man who was willing to risk his life and the taking of life at the point of a sword, yet abide by rules of what was considered decent or indecent when fighting would be looked upon with admiration and respect by his peers and opponents alike. If two similar men survived a serious duel it was often easy for them to forgive and forget not to mention enjoy the notoriety they had mutually earned regardless of victory so long as they had both acted with proper decorum.

It's difficult from our perspective today with our instant communication and global media to grasp that the primacy of individual dignity was once solely a matter of the local communities within which a gentleman personally operated. This compelled and demanded he answer slander and accusation by a willingness to back up his reputation through skill in arms. A price had to be paid by those who besmirched him. By providing protocols and structure to interpersonal violence that would have happened anyway, dueling directed the impulse into the something less socially damaging than outright open combat. In offering opportunity for redress a duel was a means of preserving social order and limiting revenge in a violence prone society accustomed to constant death. The problem was that it came to generally force those who did not want to participate in settling "idle quarrels" to do so anyway, thereby causing a massive and unnecessary loss of life.

With few exceptions, the majority of sword duels we know of are those occurring among the nobility, recorded by the nobility for a readership of nobility. They naturally favored accounts that upheld the aristocracy's ideas about "honorable quarrels." Single combats among the common folk and duels that did not abide by preferred rules of decorum and etiquette held little interest to such historians, even as it's the more unusual duels that tend to stand out to us today. On top of this, cinematic depictions of sword duels and fictional descriptions in popular culture invariably overextend sword fights into exaggerated exchanges of dramatic parry-riposte action. Duels are frequently shown where disarming the opponent or merely threatening to finish them off is sufficient to end the affair as the victor proves his superiority as a swordsman. The reality from the genuine accounts and fencing sources is that the real things were much shorter and far more violent.

Considerable European literature was certainly produced from the 16th century onward on either supporting or condemning duels. Arguments were offered for the virtue of reason over rage as well as what was "just" or sufficient cause to settle a personal matter by "calling out" the other party. The truth lies somewhere in between. As the Elizabethan master of defence, George Silver, counseled in 1599, "Take not arms upon every light occasion" and "Do not upon every trifle make an action of revenge or of defence."

Silver gave perhaps the most authoritative disapproval of dueling over the provocation of mere words: 

     "...he that will not endure an injury, but will seek revenge, then he ought to do it by civil order and proof, by good and wholesome laws,                 which are ordained for such causes, which is a thing far more fit and requisite in a place of so civil a government as we live in, then is the             other, and who so follow these my  admonitions shall be accounted as valiant a man as he that fights and far wiser. For I see no reason why             a man should adventure his life and estate upon every trifle, but should rather put up divers abuses offered unto him, because it is agreeable to         the laws of God and our country."

Yet, while advocating legal recourse for slander, Silver wholeheartedly endorsed the necessity of armed self-defense whenever necessary:

        "Why should not words be answered with words again, but if a man by his enemy be charged with blows then may he lawfully seek                         the best means to defend himself and in such a case I hold it fit to use his skill and to show his force by his deeds..."

Commenting on the topic of provocation by "fighting words" in his fighting treatise of 1617, the English fencing master, Joseph Swetnam, observed that: "As there are many men, so they are of many minds, for some will be satisfied with words, and some must needs be answered with weapons." Swetnam understood that sometimes some people just needed to be made to answer. Yet, he further warned the potential duelist to, "meditate thus with thy self before thou pass thy word to meet any man in the field." Swetnam still advised, that when you come into the dangers of the dueling field, "being loath to kill...Then thy enemy, by sparing him, may kill the, and so thou perish."

The tradition of sword duel survived the advent of firearms even as ballistic weapons forever ended the primacy of edged weapons in war and personal defense. The personal quest for prowess and recognition of skill in a "fairly" contested invitation to bloodshed combine in the romance of the sword duel. Our modern fascination with it revolves around longstanding ideas of manliness, the problem of youthful aggression, and the honing of a warrior spirit. Even the very word "duel" has come now to mean any type of high stakes struggle between two opposing parties.

While dueling might seem like it would just lead to the biggest toughest guy being free to express invective and make disparagements because he won't be challenged, that wasn't really the case. The fact is, the duel actually offered a certain sort of fairness in that weapons are the great equalizers. Though physical strength and size is a bonus in fighting, skill supersedes it. It doesn't matter how big and strong you are when an ordinary sword point can just as easily pierce through your face or belly and a sharp edge just as easily remove your hand or sever your kneecap. This is likely why so few historical duels were settled by fighting unarmed  (and why duels with pistols came into being). Because fencing skill by its nature is about discipline and self-control it meant you had accomplished some training and were expectedly less likely to say something rash and impolite. Though there are plenty of infamous exceptions, generally, people with an appreciation for weapons and a confidence in using them don't usually go about provoking the kinds of offensive verbal exchanges that lead to real fights. (One need only look at online comment threads or Twitter exchanges —where physical confrontation is an impossibility— discourse is quick to break down. It's not about being unable to ignore insults but rather about making dishonorable characters pay a price for disreputable acts against you.

Admittedly, there is an undeniable satisfaction in calling out someone who wronged you and watching them back down out of cowardice or dishonesty because they're unable or unwilling to match their tough talk with blows. The fear of physical punishment did indeed deter harsh words and bad behavior. But, if an opponent was willing to fight and you were to lose, well, there is still satisfaction in having proved your willingness to endure the danger of injury or even death over insult or dishonor. None can deny the respect earned by standing up for yourself or that, paradoxically, the original offense is mitigated by it. Again, this is difficult to relate to in our modern age because fighting one to one over an affront seems like a resort to something primitive and irrational.

To better understand the role of the sword in duel consider that it was a personal side-arm closely worn because it was relied on for safety and survival. It offered an innate capacity to adeptly threaten with point or edge, to deftly ward off blows, to slash and bash, and to increase the effectiveness of all this through personal discipline and study. How could such a valuable object not be highly prized and lovingly decorated? Curiously, in societies where arms are openly worn incidents of both sudden violence as well as violent crime are less frequent. The fact that disrespect and insult can be met with injury or death does indeed encourage people to better behave themselves around one another. There was a simple truth at work in an armed society: if you don't want to risk provoking a duel then avoid angering those who won't tolerate the indignity of incivility or innuendo. Nothing else discouraged rudeness more thoroughly –or forced an apology more quickly– than the possibility of it being answered with a challenge to private violence. As the erudite swordsman adventurer, Captain Sir Richard Burton, famously declared in the mid-19th century,"As soon as the sword ceased to be worn in France, the most polite man became the rudest." There is an undeniable truth to his observation that in our digital age of online discourtesy holds growing appeal to the modern student of the sword.

For historical fencing practitioners today, the interest in how swordsmen once prepared for sword duels they would perhaps never have is really not all that different than our own exploration. One cannot examine either antique swords or authentic teachings for their use without regard to how they applied to the dueling tradition. In that regard, we continue their legacy through our own training. It is this long connection between the duel and the sword, between personal single combat and personal sidearm, that is such a part of why it was the unrivaled weapon of choice for defending honor and seeking private justice. The sword in duel may perhaps even have a history stronger than the sword in war.

See also: The Sword in War



Note: The word "ARMA" and its associated arms emblem is a federally registered trademark under U.S. Reg. No. 3831037. In addition, the content on this website is federally registered with the United States Copyright Office, © 2001-2016. All rights are reserved. No use of the ARMA name and emblem, or website content, is permitted without authorization. Reproduction of material from this site without written permission of The Association for Renaissance Martial Arts and its respective authors is strictly prohibited. Additional material may also appear from "HACA" The Historical Armed Combat Association copyright © 1999-2001 by John Clements. All rights are reserved to that material as well.