The art of the Duel

The practice of duelling was at its peak during the 11th to 20th  centuries and involved two people engaging in combat with either sword or pistol in later centuries. Today we have a sort of romantic notion regarding duels, as they are perceived to be about honour, duty and chivalry, but this is much further from the truth. Most were vicious brawls resulting in the death of one or both of the duellists.

From the early 17th century duels were often illegal in Europe, though in most societies where duelling was socially accepted, participants in a fair duel were not prosecuted, or if they were, were not convicted. Only gentlemen were considered to have honour, and a gentlemen would never duel with anyone of a lower social status.


Most sword fights were generally inconclusive, swordsmen generally died from wounds, rather than during a fight. They generally died after a fight from blood loss and infections. The majority of duels ended when blood was drawn and honour was satisfied by one side or the other.

On occasion a sword blade may break, this would normally mean that combatants would finish the duel grappling, using similar techniques seen today in the mixed martial arts arena. The use of elbows, knees and eye gouging were all acceptable. Duellists could and would use other parts of the sword, during a fight, for instance a swordsman may smash the pommel onto his opponent repeatedly, and this is where we get the term to pommel someone from.

17th Century Duel

Despite the modern idea of chivalry and the Marquis of Queensbury rules, most duels were vulgar scrappy street fights, nothing more than deadly brawls. There were no rules or chivalric behaviour, these were fights to first blood or on the rare occasion to death. This meant that both sides were desperate to win, and would use any tactic or technique at their disposal, no matter how ungentlemanly we may now  think they are.

The most successful duellists weren’t dashing swashbucklers, but professional killers. Those who were considered swashbucklers were normally braggarts, as the term swashbuckler comes from the 16th century to describe rough, noisy and boastful swordsmen. It is based on a fighting style using a side sword with a buckler in the off-hand, which was filled with much “swashing and making a noise on the buckle.

Today we would probably say that a duel as nothing more than cold blooded murder sanctioned by law.

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