Culture and Society

How did dueling evolve from the Middle Ages to the 20th century?
Answered by Craig C. Freudenrich and Science Channel
  • Craig C. Freudenrich

    Craig C. Freudenrich

  • Science Channel

    Science Channel

  1. Dueling brings to mind images of two gentlemen at dawn fighting each other with swords or pistols to settle a matter of honor. But it actually began in the Middle Ages as a method of settling legal disputes. It was called "trial by combat" or "judicial combat." In fact, the term duel comes from the Latin word duellum, which means war between two. Here’s how it worked. Two noblemen had a dispute (something legal or an affair of honor). They petitioned the king to fight in a public place, where the king would referee. The two men may have worn armor and fought with broadswords, and possibly shields. It was commonly believed that the righteous man would prevail in combat.

    During the 15th and 16th centuries, fight schools arose in Italy and Germany. Sword masters published books on fighting with many weapons, such as Fiore De Liberi’s Flos Duellatorum (1510) and Hans Talhoffer’s Fechtbuchs (1443 – 1467). Trial by combat continued through the mid- to late 16th century.

    After 1500, the lightweight rapier became widely used for personal defense. Common men could afford this sword, so, like nobles, they could now duel. Judicial combat was fading; private dueling became a way of resolving disputes. But the Catholic Church disapproved of duels, which were becoming illegal -- so, they had to be fought in remote places at odd times, usually dawn or dusk. Swordsmanship skills were essential to winning duels, which could be fought to either first blood, until one combatant could no longer fight, or to the death.

    Pistols became popular and affordable in the 18th and 19th centuries.  You didn’t have to be specially trained to use one, so the dueling pistol became the great equalizer, replacing swords. In these duels, the two combatants faced each other and either fired simultaneously after some count or took turns. Often, pistols misfired so the participants had several attempts. In many cases, both men were wounded or killed. Like duels with swords, if the duelists survived, the dispute was settled and they were friendly or civil to each other afterward. These types of duels continued through the late 1800s. One variant of the pistol duel was the gunfight of the American West.

    By the early 20th century, dueling had pretty much stopped. In his book entitled "On Fencing," world famous fencer Aldo Nadi described his own 1924 duel with another fencing master, Adolfo Cotronei. In her book, "Gentlemen’s Blood," Barbara Holland described a duel that occurred as late as 1967.

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  2. Dueling can be traced to medieval jousting contests. Jousting had an intricate set of rules, including that all competitors must be noblemen. Eventually, with the development of firearms in Europe, swords became much lighter and easier to wield. As a result, sword fighting became much more reliant on skill, as opposed to brute strength. With this shift to sword fighting, dueling became more of a sport than a fight to the death. Ultimately, swordplay evolved into what is called fencing. While sword fighting became increasingly innocuous, the introduction of small firearms served to democratize the duel, allowing anyone - not just nobles - to participate. Dueling remained popular in both Europe and the U.S. up until the 20th century.

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