Duelling, History and Society

Been thinking about duelling lately.

First off, haven't there been a couple of books on the subject, one of them not so good?

Secondly, I am wondering: is a duelling society a more polite, efficient society? Or is the duel in such a society a bully, a problem?

Last: in the last Patrick O'Brian book I read - ah, poop, what was the title of the third one? There's a great description of a duel between Maturin and Canning. O'Brian writes about 18th-century dueling culture very intelligently.

Thoughts, feedback?

Secondly, I am wondering: is a duelling society a more polite, efficient society? Or is the duel in such a society a bully, a problem?

I personnally think that dueling does make for a more polite, mentally healthy society. I believe that frivilous civil lawsuits prevent people from venting their anger at the source and cause then to internalize the anger, which is incredibly unhealthy. Lawsuits and legal protection make it possible for people to run their mouths off and be rude without fear of physicial confrontation. I feel that this goes against the natural order of things and creates an unhealthy, angry society.

However, there is always the problem of a duellist bullying another (albeit a rare occurrance). An EXCELLENT movie that covers this subject is The Duellists with Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel. It is actually based off a true story. I recommend this movie 150%. Even is you have seen it already, I recommend seeing it again, 138%.


I'd be all for bareknuckle duels to resolve personal differences.

Couple observations:

The Duellists was a great movie. I also read the Joseph COnrad short story. Excellent.

Was reading that pugilism eventually lead to the demise of the duel. Lawsuits eventually lead to the demise of pugilism as a means of settling matters.

But the politeness thing: sue, people would be more polite, or at least think twice, but does duelling really decrease violence? Can't it also cause more violence? Your seconds, your cousin, your friend or brother gets pissed as a result of the original duel and starts up a new duel - vendetta cultures are rarely peaceful. Is a duelling culture a vendetta culture?

Best thing I ever read on duelling is this:

Sports of The Times (circa 1972) (From NY Times)

The Fencing Master, by Robert Lipsyte

"Now take this country," said George Santelli. "I call you names. You
give me a good punch in the nose. I, being 72 years old, would have
no chance against you in a fist fight. So, I call a lawyer. I sue.
Ah. Childish."

He touched his nose, a beak of great power and majesty above a white
moustache, and waited for the traffic noise to subside on Sixth
Avenue, directly beneath the fourth-floor window of his famous

"A duel would solve many problems," he continued. "We have insulted
each other. We have common friends who cannot invite us to the same
parties. It becomes very difficult. So, we have a duel with sabres."

"It is not very dangerous. We each bring a doctor, and two seconds.
The best fencer among them directs the duel, ready to leap in should
either of us become angry or lose control. We have a chance to show
courage, save face, derive satisfaction, gain new respect for each
other. We shed a little blood, earn a few stitches, throw our arms
about each other and drink champagne."

He stretched his tall, still supple body, and raised an arm that, in
its day, was said to have borne the strongest sabre in Europe. "Paul
Lukas, the actor, came to my father's salle in Budapest. He had
insulted his producer, and he had been challenged. We had a week to
prepare him for the duel, so I concentrated on teaching him to parry
the blow to the head and return it. Secretly, we blunted the sabers
so Lukas's face wouldn't be disfigured. The duel went well. They
hacked at each other and raised welts. The doctor squeezed a drop of
blood from one of the producer's welts, and everyone was very happy."

Salle Santelli

Santelli's father, Italo, ran one of Europe's most famous salles
d'armes, a training center for aristocrats and Olympic athletes in an
age and in a country that still admired the swordsman. The Hungarian
Government had brought Italo to Budapest in 1896 from his native Italy
and subsidized his school. In 1924, George was brought here by the New
York Athletic Club. He was fencing master there for 25 years.

Santelli has been the dominant figure in American fencing for many
yeaears, He coached the Olympic teams from 1928 through 1952,
revolutionized technique, and exerted an incomparable spiritual force
with his singleminded and selfless dedication to his sport.

Through Salle Santelli, which he opened after World War II, he broke
the racial and class restrictions of fencing by encouraging Negroes
and holding free classes for public high school students. Tonight, in
a rare tribute in this sport, Santelli will be honored at the Statler

Santelli admits to having fought only one duel himself, an affair of
great complexity. During the 1924 Olympics in Paris, a dispute arose
between an Italian fencer and an official. A witness was necessary and
Italo Santelli's testimony led to the disqualification of the
Italian fencer, and a scandal. The captain of the Italian team, Adolfo
Cotronei, wrote a newspaper article denouncing Italo as a renegade
and a liar. Italo, 61 years old, challenged Cotronei, who was about 30.

On a Barge Off Abazia

George, unearthing an obscure rule in the dueling code that allowed a
son to replace his father under certain circumstances, met Cotronei
on a barge in the waters off Abbazia, between Trieste and Fiume.

"We really fenced," said Santelli, staring out his salle window at the
Women's House of Detention. "We did not hack. It lasted perhaps
three and one-half minutes. He came down like this, so I parried and
riposted and struck him on the side of the head. He was temporarily
blinded, and so the duel was stopped. He required 12 stitches.

The men met again, at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, and Cotronei
stood dinner and drinks, absurdly proud of his scar, the slight
squint in his left eye, and the monocle he wore.

"I do not believe," said Santelli, "that there should be dueling in
this country at this time. Americans think who won? who lost? and this
is not dueling, dueling is saving face and gaining satisfaction. It
grows from the culture."

His lips parted for large teeth. "But I must say that dueling was an
educational thing. It taught many people to behave properly. You have
to prepare for a duel, spend money on equipment, pay the fencing
master, pay the doctor, suffer the wounds. The next time you think
twice before you call a man an insulting name."

So you think the duels of yesterday did NOT evolve into vendettas?

Personally, i like TFS's idea of having legalised unarmed duels to settle disputes. Loser is the first man to give up or be knocked out.

"Personally, i like TFS's idea of having legalised unarmed duels to settle disputes. Loser is the first man to give up or be knocked out"

That would be soooo sweet.

Of course, I could see problems arising in that highly trained fighters might be tempted to take advantage of such a system.

But then again that would be preferable to the slimy weasels and slack jawed punks that take advantage of the current system.

There waas an interesting law in Poland 15-18 century, it was called "the beginning". It stated more or less that if you provoked a fight, you were responsible for it and could not sue other party if you got your ass kicked.

"There waas an interesting law in Poland 15-18 century, it was called "the beginning". It stated more or less that if you provoked a fight, you were responsible for it and could not sue other party if you got your ass kicked."

Very smart law. 

"Is a duelling culture a vendetta culture?"

I don't believe so. There are always exceptions to a rule, but for the most part i think people were generally satisfied and respected one another after a duel. Santelli sums it up well in is last sentence.

Ever notice in grade school that sometimes when two kids who had a fight they became best friends afterwards? This is an odd phenomenon and is sometimes the result of two people taking out their aggresssions on one another in a fairly equal manner.

If we did bring back duelling, or at least started lifting lawsuits I think that eventually the society would adapt an even itself out. One thing is for sue, I think that a duelling society is a much healthier one (mentally) than one that supports frivious lawsuits such as ours.

I have a friend from Mexico who when he came to New York City was appaled at the way people screamed at each other in trafic. He said that would abe a sure-fire fight in Mexico City. People are much politer in traffic there.

The same goes for Brazil. People don't run their mouths off without fear of physical repercussion. I believe that is the way things should be.


I guess I should have stated "polite" as "not yelling at each other".  I am sure the traffic is aggressive.

I can only recall one such incident in modern times here in Norway, but its interesting nontheless. A couple of years ago I read about a lawsuit in the paper. A politician had gotten into an argument with a farmer (probably over politics) at a bar and they agreed to go to the farmers field and settle the dispute like men, with bare hands. They fought, and it ended with the politician knocking out several of the farmers teeth.

Later the farmers family pressed charges, wanting the politician to pay for the dental bills (which were freakin huge IIRC) but the case was dismissed because the farmer had agreed to fight. It would have been an entirely different matter if he had been attacked, but since it was an arrangement that both had agreed upon, they didnt have a case. I dont even think any of them were fined for the fight, but i cant imagine it beeing strictly legal.

Just remembered an amusing case. :)

In 2001, Ari behn, an author who is married to our Princess Märtha Louise, and is a bit of a fop, was tired of the writings of Kjetil Rolness, a reporter for the second largest newspaper in Norway. Rolness had written some pretty strong words about Behn including calling him "the son-in-law from hell", regarding his marriage into the royal family. Ari Behn showed up at his office where he threw a glove at Rolness's desk and asked him to chose pistols or swords. :)

Rolness's response to the papers: "I'm tempted to choose the pen as my weapon and ask him to write a column himself. But I will not be picking up any gloves, coats or other pieces of clothing Ari should throw around."