Few things, in this so surprising world, strike me with more surprise. Two little visual Spectra of men, hovering with insecure enough cohesion in the midst of the UNFATHOMABLE, and to dissolve therein, at any rate, very soon,—make pause at the distance of twelve paces asunder; whirl round; and, simultaneously by the cunningest mechanism, explode one another into Dissolution; and off-hand become Air, and Non-extant!
Carlyle, Sartor Resartus (1838), Bk. 11, chap. 8.
The institution that so astonished Carlyle had a complex history, with roots stretching far down into a manifold past. Primitive man took his revenges as he could, but often in modes prescribed and restricted by custom; the duel was an equally ritualized encounter, but often both less rational and more dangerous. An ancestral form can be found in the Scandinavia of the Vikings and sagas; the barbarian invasions of western Europe brought old Nordic or Germanic customs into interaction with other elements. Trial by ordeal was widespread, if not ubiquitous, in olden times and might take some of the same forms in Vedic India as in Dark Age Europe; in a feudal Europe ruled by military standards of conduct the ordeal could turn into something much more exceptional, trial by combat. This was inspired by belief, readily cherished by the stronger or luckier, that the outcome was overruled by Providence. It was only gradually that the duel of later times came to be completely secularized, and winning or losing were seen to bear no relation to divine or any other justice.
Trial by battle between members of the knightly class could run on into the jousting of later medieval Europe, single fights that might take place on their own or under the auspices of the tournament. It was in the Frankish lands of north-western Europe that full-blown ideas of chivalry found their outlet in the tourney and in crusading. They blended with the consciousness of a dominant people, or the dominant class it gave birth to, bestriding the stage and posturing before its conquered subjects. In modern times Poland was to be known for the chivalric follies of a nobility which boasted itself a different race from the serfs whose backs it lived on. Between the ordeal by combat, intended to determine right or wrong, and the joust, an exhibition of courage and prowess, the spirit of the modern duel would waver, but with its leaning more and more towards the latter.
Its affiliation was always and everywhere with social groups occupying a pre-eminent and privileged position, or inspired by the striving towards such a position that has become, if not a component of human nature, at least a perennial feature of social behaviour. Man’s strongest ‘springs of action’, beyond the physical and elementary, seem to have been desire for inclusion in a group with some special title to respect, and for a place of influence within it. In ‘civilized’ or class-divided times this is an impulse that easily turns into desire for power, ability to extort rather than to earn, to be feared rather than respected. Primitive man wants to be looked up to by women, and to exploit their labour; this duality has run through history; pursuit of superior status has kept pace with accumulation of wealth. In all heroic times, as they may be called, men in Highland huts or baronial castles have fixed their ambitions on renown, prominence, display, and have valued themselves on their places in a hierarchy of military cast.
If power and wealth have gone hand in hand, they have wished to claim kinship also with virtue, or merit, of a kind proper to their station. An Athenian gentleman was known honorifically as kalos kai agathos, ‘fine (physically or morally) and good’; Cicero’s friends, the oligarchs of the Roman republic, were the optimi, or optimates, ‘the best men’. ‘Aristocracy’, the rule of the finest, came into medieval literature through translations of Aristotle, and by the seventeenth century could be used to denote a highest class; in the next century ‘aristocrat’ followed.
Some dominant groups, or ruling classes as Marx would call them, have seen it as their duty to set a norm for the masses to emulate so far as they are capable. This may be said particularly of the mandarins with their Confucian outlook and time-honoured maxim that ‘As the wind blows, the grass will bend’. Others have adopted standards of conduct from which the masses have been excluded, as in Europe they were from duelling. An ascendancy which instead of growing up within a society has been superimposed on it from outside, as was the case to a considerable extent through a great part of European history, is likelier to belong to the second pattern. This goes too with the contrast between the moral principles of Confucianism, or Islam, intended for all, and those of official Christianity, designed chiefly for the lower orders, including women.
What has come to be called ‘élitist’ thinking has found a congenial soil in all class societies. The entire ordering of the universe, an English writer declared in 1662, proves that some elements must stand higher than others; nobility and gentry are naturally entitled to elevation to high posts. In 1857 a Spanish conservative laid down that the dull-witted masses should always be subject to the enlightened minority, just as matter is inferior to spirit. ‘Élitism’, however, only curdled into a distinct political theory when Europe came to be haunted by the spectre turned loose by Karl Marx, and philosophers had to be found to conjure it away. Ruling classes had to be legitimated, presented as permanently necessary to society instead of obstacles to be swept from the path of progress. Pareto’s vast treatise on sociology has been called ‘a gargantuan retort to Marx’, a polemic whose over-ambitious purpose prevented it from being the useful supplement to Marxism it might have been.
With class conflict astir there could be little prospect of the masses docilely following any wholesome example set to them. In elitist theory the upper class admits individuals from below, as useful recruits, but stands always apart from the many-headed beast, controlling it by force or manipulation more than by persuasion. Mosca, the first systematizer, thought in typical conservative style of human nature as full of ‘wicked instincts’: really this was the theologians’ original sin over again. ‘Man is always the same, even in little things, through the ages.’
Writers of this school shifted the emphasis from economic to political relations, from class struggle to political management; Mosca called his élite ‘the political class’. He and Pareto, both Italians, in a country lacking an authentic aristocracy, were more free than many others to look round for alternatives; but whereas Mosca made a serious, often instructive, effort to learn from world history, Pareto ignored the past, and all questions of origins. Another mark of Mosca’s superiority shows in his far less indulgent approach to Fascism. But all élitist theory can be seen as a preparation for fascist rule, a pessimistic abandonment of bourgeois thinking in its heyday. A class confidently in power, or coming close to it, can convince itself that its prosperity will benefit all. Even feudalism, with its ally the Church and their proclaimed ideal of chivalry, could savour the flattering belief. By the late nineteenth century its successors could do so no longer.
Instead Pareto relied on coercion to maintain the social equilibrium. Mosca came less willingly to the ‘grave and terrible conclusion’ that wars have to be fought now and then, to justify the standing armies which alone can keep society from degenerating. Ruling classes of military origin, as most of Europe’s have been, are always predisposed to think the same. Mosca rejected their claim to the military virtues as a birthright, but he thought them likely to be more long-lived than mere plutocracies; Venetian merchant-princes, he pointed out, commanded armies and fleets. Such classes did preserve a spirit akin to military discipline and esprit de corps; the duel was one of its guardians.
Weber’s concept of classes or social strata forms a valuable caveat for Marxists, though it need not be deemed irreconcilable with their tenets. He stresses that the homogeneity of all such sections of society is ‘highly relative and variable’. It is not determined solely by property or income. Officers, or students, do not all have the same amount of money to spend, but they share a common status, ‘because they adhere to the same mode of life in all relevant respects’. There is some overstatement here; and as regards what Marx thought of as ‘classes’, as distinct from Weber’s ‘status groups’, their leading ranks can be defined well enough in terms of property and power; but they regularly attract to themselves satellites, less well endowed groups that have some affinity, real or fancied, with them. It is the higher that benefit from the linkage. As examples we may think of the upper and lower nobility of modern Europe, and the high finance and humble shopkeeping of today. And just as Marx pointed out that the dominant class of a nation shapes much of the ideology accepted by the rest, so within a class the thinking of the top group is accepted at the subsidiary levels.
In this country G. D. H. Cole was critical of the Marxist doctrine of ‘ruling classes’, but found the ‘élite’ substitute wavering and uncertain. He pointed out that English had no equivalent term of its own, and the borrowed French term—earlier used of ‘high society’—retained an awkward foreign flavour. Englishmen with no debt to Marx may have been helped by their traditional reverence for the peerage to take the existence of a ruling class for granted, just as their empire made them believe in ruling races. Another English sociologist, Bottomore, agrees with Gramsci that Mosca’s ideas were puzzlingly indistinct, and while critical of some aspects of Marx’s identification of power with property he concludes that some social structures have corresponded closely enough with Marx’s model. In particular he applies this to the feudal state in Europe: ‘the nobility of the ancien régime does come close to the ideal type of a ruling class’.
What protects an ascendancy, what thoughts, habits, culture, lend a ruling class cohesion and nourish its inner life, is a question on which neither Marx nor his elitist opponents shed much light. Its bedrock is economic power, but in order to pose impressively to itself and the world it must have both an ideology, however jejune or flimsy, and self-imposed standards of behaviour. This applies in a special way to the exceptional case of a ruling class that is also a governing class. Usually administration has been delegated, to a monarchy or a bureaucracy. Republican Rome with its city-state origin and land-owning patricians is one grand exception; another is western Europe in feudal times, which in many ways long outlasted the Middle Ages. Feudal rule could only be dispersed, uncentralized; it had all the stronger need of customs and convictions to keep it intact.
Among these, the duel is an institution little noticed by writers on aristocracy and elitism, but deserving close scrutiny. It came naturally to Weber’s mind when he was arguing that within the same social group, and even by the same individual, contradictory ‘systems of order’ may be recognized. He chose the instance of a duellist, who acts on a code of honour, but by keeping his act secret, or by surrendering after it to the police, takes account also of the law which forbids it. Pareto held that ‘violence has supreme human value in and by itself’. He might have been talking of the duel when he declared that ‘A human being who is afraid to return blow for blow … places himself by this attitude at the mercy of his enemy’. At all events such a mode of thinking derived easily enough from a society whose ruling groups indulged so often in wars, and privately in duels; the same can be said of the cult of senseless bellicosity that Nietzsche lapsed into in his later years.
There is another aspect of elitism to which the duel can easily be related. Pareto laid much emphasis on the irrational, and on the false reasonings designed to cover it. He was not desirous of sweeping it away: on the contrary he held that the running of public affairs cannot be based in any exclusive way on rational decisions. Ritual, a non-logical factor, has an appreciable part in maintaining the tone of society. Any doctrine of aristocracy must itself contain much of the irrational. It may prescribe that our laws should be made for us by hereditary legislators, a notion on a par with the Eastern credulity which reveres the remote descendants of a holy man. A streak even of insanity can hardly be denied a place as one component of the human make-up, an unreason reaching its collective climax in war, and in individual conduct exhibiting itself as forcibly in the duel as anywhere else. Fascism has been the culmination of a widespread willingness in the past hundred years to accept and welcome all this, to denigrate reason and exalt instinct.
More soberly an Edinburgh reviewer of 1813 met the Benthamite argument of utility by counterposing ‘prudence’ with ‘sensibility’, idealism, enthusiasm. Passions are intermittent, he wrote, while prudent self-interest works so steadily that economics has acquired ‘the character of an exact science’. It is necessary for national well-being, but we must look elsewhere for what makes social life worth living, creates culture, inspires heroism. ‘A coarse and brutish selfishness is the natural vice of the great majority of men’; sentiment, generous emotion, are far rarer, but they have the grand, incalculable vitality of a thunderstorm. In the Edinburgh of 1813 duelling was still very much in vogue, and could claim a full share of both the venturous rashness and the superb destructiveness that a storm may symbolize.
It was amidst the chronic warfare of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that the modern duel took shape. During that time of transition from medieval to modern, State power and the reign of law were being established by absolutist monarchy; but aristocracy, its half-brother, survived in altered guise, a permanent anachronism, and often canker, in the life of Europe. Private warfare between baronial families or factions was suppressed with difficulty; in France in the second half of the sixteenth century, with religious combustibles added, it flared up into civil war. Madrid in the next century was still disturbed by brawling among noblemen and their retinues; in disorderly Poland much later still enemies with their followers or fellow-clansmen carried on mass raids like the one described in Mickiewicz’s epic poem Pan Tadeusz. Compared with these manifestations of the unruly aristocratic temper, the duel can be viewed as an advance towards a more limited trespass on law and order. It can be viewed too as a more decent reprisal than assassination, the poisoning of opponents for instance so much a matter of use and wont in the Italy of the Borgias.
Duelling was first formulated and elaborated in Italy; it was quickly taken up in France, whose soldiers saw so many campaigns in Italy, and from there by stages it spread over Europe. Its name, duello, came from the archaic Latin duellum, war, used in medieval times for judicial combats and seemingly misunderstood to mean conflict between two men. In French and then English it became ‘duel’; Shakespeare speaks of a ‘duellist’. Both by law and by religion the practice was often heavily frowned on, if also often winked at, the more readily as it gradually took on a more refined character. An elaborate etiquette was upheld by ‘seconds’, when these ceased to take part in the fray alongside of their principals. Informally tolerated, it was most at home in the more progressive countries, where aristocratic values were defending themselves under pressure from a more modern and encroaching social order. Eighteenth-century enlightenment threatened to undermine it, yet even after the French Revolution’s thunderous condemnation of everything feudal or aristocratical, the ensuing twenty years of European war seemed to revive and reinvigorate it, as though with the smell of fresh blood. It lingered on in Britain to near the middle of the nineteenth century, on the continent until the deluge of the Great War made bloodshed over petty private grudges meaningless. Meanwhile it had been carried overseas, especially to the Americas, by the expansion of Europe.
What has been remembered of the duel has been mostly of an anecdotal kind. It may be surmised that a good many of the countless stories connected with it lost nothing in the telling and retelling; some have a decidedly novelistic flavour. Encounters frequently involved personalities in the public eye, or had some special feature, dramatic or bizarre, that ensured their being often recalled. Jarnac’s feat in 1547 of putting La Chastaigneraye out of action by hamstringing him with two cunning strokes may be not easy to visualize, but it passed into the French language: the coup de Jarnac came to stand for any tricky mode of attack. In 1643 there was vast excitement in Paris over a fight on the Place Royale between descendants of two protagonists of the Wars of Religion, a Coligny, who was wounded and defeated, and a Due de Guise. Londoners were titillated in a different way when Wilkes the demagogue and Lord Talbot, who complained of having been libelled, discharged their horse-pistols at eight yards, and managed to miss each other. In 1861, when the duel was verging towards its decline, two spirited Frenchmen helped to reduce it to absurdity by fighting with swords over a point of musical criticism.
Duels have real importance at times in political or civic life. In January 1668 London was all agog at news of a fight between the leading figure in Charles II’s cabal, the Duke of Buckingham, and the Earl of Shrewsbury, whose wife was Buckingham’s mistress; the ill-used husband was mortally wounded. ‘This will make the world think that the King hath good councillors about him’, Pepys wrote in his diary, ‘when the Duke of Buckingham, the greatest man about him, is a fellow of no more sobriety than to fight about a whore.’17 Britain’s burgeoning empire in India was shaken by a duel in 1780, during the second war with Mysore, between its first Governor-General, Warren Hastings, and his rancorous opponent in the council, Sir Philip Francis. Hastings’ bullet was the better winged of the two, but he was, as Macaulay said in the famous essay on him, jeopardizing the whole British position in Asia, which without him might have collapsed at that critical juncture, as British power in the American colonies was doing.
Americans won their independence without shaking off all the social or moral trammels of their colonial history. In 1804 their Vice-President, Colonel Burr, shot and mortally wounded Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s most eminent citizen and one of its founding fathers, on a ledge across the Hudson River from New York; it was a coign where other men of mettle found a conveniently private meeting-place. In September 1809 Britain’s foreign secretary and later premier Canning had an encounter on Putney Heath with the bungling war minister Castlereagh, who was resentful of his colleague’s efforts to jockey him out of the cabinet. An undisclosed factor may have been that the storm-tossed remnants of the expeditionary army sent to Spain under Sir John Moore had been straggling back to Britain and stirring much public sympathy; Lady Castlereagh accused Canning of proposing to her indignant husband a scheme for putting the blame for its defeat on the dead Moore, and making him the scapegoat. Canning was wounded at the second shot, both resigned, a new government had to be formed. Meanwhile Napoleon’s forces were pushing down from northern into southern Spain, and Austria, Britain’s other ally, was reeling under the hammer-blow of Wagram. A century later, only a few years before the First World War, the government of the most powerful country in Europe was jeopardized by an issue of duelling in the German army.
Duelling was a significant strand in the tangled web of European history, not a mere excrescence. There was no time when it lacked critics. In the late sixteenth century the outstanding French writer on the subject, Brantôme, quoted with disapproval some objectors who proposed that enemies instead of being allowed to fight should each be made to drink half of a cup of poison, or be turned loose in a cellar carpeted with razors. More serious threats to duelling were official bans. Yet it proved tenacious enough to survive centuries of thunders of the law and lightnings of the Church. It intertwined itself with politics, and love, and with social habits like drinking and gambling. As any such prominent institution is apt to do, it entered into a wide variety of metaphorical turns of speech. In military parlance an ‘artillery duel’ became a common phrase. Trelawney, the acquaintance of Shelley and Byron, in a self-dramatizing style typical of him looked back on a boyhood fight with a raven as ‘the first and most fearful duel I ever had’. Carlyle wrote of Burns’s hard lot as an illustration of ‘material Fate matched against man’s Free-will; matched in bitterest though obscure duel’.
The vast majority of recorded duels survive only as fossil memories; all the heat and passion that filled them has evaporated without trace. Boswell is a rare case of a man in danger of having to fight who set down his tormented feelings from hour to hour, so that we can know intimately how he felt and what he thought. For the most part, in search of such revelations we cannot do better than turn to the many imaginative writers who have tried to conjure up the sensations that duellists of many different sorts, and their friends and enemies, may be supposed to have experienced. The duel lent itself admirably to the requirements of literature, and its fictional value is still being tapped today. For the relationship between literature and life it offers a rewarding case-study. What serious writers or artists have made of it is often more meaningful than the actual fights, most of them vulgarly trivial, some disgustingly brutal. Their ways of looking at it offer much in the way of insight into the manners, the social or moral atmosphere, the self-picturing of the upper classes.
Among the older novelists Smollett is a prominent example. In Humphry Clinker (1771) we first see Squire Bramble preventing his nephew Jery from fighting, and later the nephew trying to dissuade his uncle from sending a challenge: the squire is a sensible man of sedate years, who thinks Jery ‘as hot and hasty as a Welch mountaineer’, yet—as Jery tells a confidant—he is ‘one of those who will sacrifice both life and fortune, rather than leave what they conceive to be the least speck or blemish upon their honour or reputation’. Too often ‘reputation’ meant nothing better than to be known as ready at all times to resent injury or insult with sword or pistol. We see Sir Mulberry Hawk, of Nicholas Nickleby, at night after the races carousing with his amiable dupe Lord Frederick Verisopht, who has begun to be stung into resenting his mentor’s domineering. At a low gaming-house a dispute breaks out between them, and the tipsy disciple strikes Hawk, who, mad with rage, insists on an immediate fight. They post off with their seconds to a riverside meadow, by ‘the avenue of trees which leads from Petersham to Ham House’. Lord Frederick’s sensations on his last journey, his disordered brain ‘one unintelligible and senseless whirl’, make a fine piece of writing, Dickens’s imagination stirred to its deepest. The antagonists fire together, and the young man drops dead.
A recent novel by Gore Vidal has narrated afresh the story of Burr and Hamilton. Science fiction has carried duelling to other planets or galaxies. In one ingenious tale a device has been invented to let Adam’s pugnacious descendants out there work off their animosities without harm to themselves or others, a ‘dream machine’ that allows a man to ‘engulf himself in a world of his own making’. In a fantasy landscape two men stalk each other, each at once hunter and hunted, until one falls, when both return, tranquillized, to their normal existence.
Europe was a chosen home of the theatre, and the duel, itself strongly theatrical in character, was well adapted to the dramatist’s needs, ranging from Mercutio and the tragical down to Bob Acres and the ludicrous. Principals and seconds were actors, carefully conning the parts laid out for them, each word and gesture, ideally at least, carefully calculated for effect. The duel indeed, like the pulpit and the rostrum, must have owed much to the theatre. Man is an imitative creature. It has often been noticed how the cinema, reflecting life with greater or lesser distortion, helps in turn to mould attitudes; how, for instance, young men caught up in wars like that of Vietnam have modelled themselves on their favourite Hollywood heroes. Fiction and stage could induct young men of social strata rising towards gentility, amid the unceasing convection currents of European history, into the patterns of behaviour that their new status would require of them.
Elizabethan drama belonged to an era of exceptionally rapid social change, in the double sense of movement of individuals from one class to another, and of altering mentalities of classes themselves. Single combats abound in its wild medley of situations more or less realistic and beings less or more human. Shakespeare led the way, as in so many other directions, with his Romeo and Tybalt, or his fencing-match between Laertes and Hamlet, a disguised duel so far as Laertes’ intentions are concerned. Corneille made use of the theme more deliberately; the duel was in fact a salient one of seventeenth-century French drama. Inevitably it was not long in finding its way into opera, when this took wing. The fatal encounter in Eugene Onegin is only the most famous example, and the aria Tchaikovsky gives to Lensky, under the shadow of coming death, breathes a spirit as deeply tragic as the extinction of the light-hearted Mercutio. Like the tragic hero, the duellist was often forced into and destroyed by a collision he had not sought, under the pressure of an unthinking world and its deaf laws.
Duelling riveted the attention of a long line of thinkers. Brantôme brushed aside religious cavilling as ‘all right for monks and hermits’,25 but the purpose of his discussion of the duel was to give it a higher, more chivalrous character. More often than not Europe’s judgement was hesitant or contradictory. Shakespeare could see the absurdity of Honour and its heroics as clearly as Falstaff; but his heroes were not free to act on the same logic, and turn their backs on battlefield or duelling-ground. Romeo must avenge his friend, killed fighting pointlessly on his behalf, at whatever risk to himself or his love-quest. Early in the seventeenth century the scholar, jurist, and historian Selden wrote a book on the old trial by combat; he was inclined to think that in some circumstances there is not ‘any other measure of justice left upon earth but arms’.
That great moralist Johnson so often seemed willing to find justification for the duel, that Boswell felt obliged to caution his readers against taking any of the sage’s dicta on it as ‘his serious and deliberate opinion’. Boswell went on to reflect that ‘from the prevalent notions of honour, a gentleman who receives a challenge is reduced to a dreadful alternative’. Carlyle, reviewing Boswell on Johnson, was contemptuous of any admiration paid to mindless defiance of death. ‘Considered as Duellist, what a poor figure does the fiercest Irish Whiskerando make in comparison with any English Game-cock, such as you may buy for fifteenpence!’ Yet in his never-completed work on seventeenth-century England he narrated several duels in detail, and felt constrained to pay tribute to the dauntless resolution they displayed; very much as Hazlitt applauded his pugilist the ‘Gas-man’, still unyielding after dozens of bare-knuckle rounds had left him a bloody wreck. Scott’s young hero Lovel, goaded by the reckless Highlander Captain M’Intyre into taking up a challenge, was a proved soldier, and ‘as brave as most men; but none can internally regard such a crisis as now approached, without deep feelings of awe and uncertainty’. He could avoid death or blood-guilt by a single word, but that word would leave him ‘a mean dishonoured poltroon’ in the eyes of all, his beloved Miss Wardour among them. Yet when M’Intyre lay at his feet bleeding and remorseful, and Lovel’s second urged him to flee—’to stay here is mere madness’—he could only ejaculate ‘It was worse madness to have come hither.’
It is more surprising to find Marx and his friend Engels gravely discussing questions of honour and its demands. Both came from the middle classes, and settled in relatively pacific England. They came, however, from a less advanced Germany. Though he might not have passed muster there as a gentleman born, Marx married into an ennobled family related to the ducal line of Argyle. Fencing remained his favourite exercise down to his early years in London. He had indulged in student duelling during his time at Bonn, and seems to have had one serious ‘meeting’; his attitude to the duel has been called ‘curiously ambivalent’.
All human living-together has generated frictions and tensions, a permanent social stock of irritability, often manifesting itself with astonishing brutality when it gets a chance to break out. Every society has needed licensed channels for the overflow of destructive impulses. The Roman arena, the bullfight, cock-fighting, mass sacrifices of animals to Kali, the goddess of destruction, must all have served as purgatives. Dominant classes in particular have always been riddled by internal feuds, which at an ordinary level are useful for keeping their muscles in trim, but at times have run wild and verged on the suicidal, as in the proscription-lists of the late republican oligarchy in Rome, or the baronial conflicts of the late Middle Ages. Duelling reduced such feuds to symbolic proportions, confined them to individuals, and required only a limited number of victims.
Like all combat, the duel leaves us to ask whether human nature is innately violent. But the individual is always conditioned by his social environment, and the duel is an object-lesson in aggression aroused by social incitements, as well as in aggressiveness brought under social regulation. Some masochistic relish for self-punishment may be at work; in martial peoples the fighting instinct often seems to turn inward on itself. Spartan boys whipped themselves, while Roman tourists looked on; British public schoolboys of the empire era submitted as stoically to fagging and flogging. In all prostrations before creed, country, or class, there may lurk an atavistic feeling from the primitive dawn of religion, whispering of blood sacrifice as the demand of tyrannical gods. The duellist risking death to prove his allegiance to a code of honour may be only one special case of a general phenomenon, or malady.
Disputes and hostilities over women have been part of the life of many of the simplest as well as some of the most advanced peoples. Most quarrels in aboriginal Australia belonged to this category; women changed hands so frequently there that its domestic life has been compared to ‘an endless French comedy’. But nowhere in the ‘civilized’ world apart from Europe were women of rank sufficiently emancipated, and entitled to consideration, to influence a custom like duelling. At tournaments it was the bright eyes of ladies, in Milton’s phrase, that rained influence and adjudged the prize; in later times they were a usually unseen but always acutely felt audience. How the status of women, of the upper classes chiefly, affected the quality of European militarism is a large subject; the duel affords an opportunity to observe it in a more confined sphere.
Each sex, as well as class, views itself in the mirror of its opposite. As in more pacific walks of life, women could help to bring out the best or worst in man, protectiveness or crude truculence. Bjarni the saga chieftain was reluctant to attack Thorstein, who had killed a dependant of his, but who had a blind father to support; it was his wife’s taunts that at length stung him into going out alone to challenge Thorstein. Don Quixote wanted to fight all and sundry to make them acknowledge the charms of his Dulcinea. More laudably a knight-errant professed the defence of hapless dames as one of his prime duties. More realistic, and proof of Shakespeare’s belief in the rightness at times of a resort to the sword, is Benedick’s challenge to Claudio, after Beatrice’s appeal to him—one of the most poignant moments in all Shakespeare—to punish the slandering and death of her cousin. Even Jane Austen, who after all had naval brothers, felt obliged to invent a bloodless duel, when her jilted heroine had a family friend in the army, staid and sensible though he might be, and sigh though the heroine’s sister might over the ‘fancied necessity’.
Women’s respect for physical courage has meant appreciation of a quality they have not been encouraged to cultivate in any like degree; it must have been linked also, through a sense of their need for protection, with an admiration of power, instinctive in the weaker and, even in Europe, very subordinate sex. ‘No woman will ever forgive a coward’, a character in a Lever novel reflects as he plans to insult the man he hates in the presence of ladies. We seldom hear of protests by wives, never of any concerted effort by women to put an end to the duel. Those of the class addicted to it must have grown up thinking of it as an inescapable duty of their men-folk, like going to the wars, or like childbirth in their own case.
The duel was rooted in, and spread out from, regions of western Europe which were also the hearth and home of a peculiar form of feudal organization. From this arose a protracted ascendancy of aristocratic classes, military by vocation or at least never forgetful of a sword-bearing ancestry, and cherishing or concocting coats of arms full of menacing hands gripping deadly weapons, plumed helmets, rampant beasts, some of them as mythical as some of the ancestors. War came to be invested with a mystic value scarcely known elsewhere; something analogous shows in the duellist’s concept of ‘satisfaction’. An injured individual was ‘satisfied’ by being allowed to fight, irrespective of his chances of winning. It must be granted that Italian vendettas and hired bravoes were a good deal more rational as a method of retaliation. Horace tells us of the risks an amorous interloper ran in the Rome of his time; a Roman husband would have judged it lunacy to offer a trespasser an opportunity to do him further damage, with a sword.
‘Satisfaction’ implied that the supreme injury a man could suffer was the imputation of cowardice, if he failed to show his resentment directly and personally, by resort to arms. In warlike Europe the over-valuation of physical courage grew steadily. ‘Coward’ and ‘cowardice’ are words that go back to the thirteenth century, and can be traced to the Latin cauda, tail: surely the same association of ideas as in the expression ‘to turn tail’, or run away. A kindred image, the ‘white feather’, derived from an idea that cocks with white feathers made poor fighters. Yet despite the excess to which such thinking was pushed, the fact of physical courage as a constituent of moral and intellectual courage, though no substitute for them, could not be overlooked by thinkers. It must underlie Shakespeare’s high esteem for the martial virtues. Milton peopled his heaven with angelic warriors. Adam Smith lamented an inevitable decline of warlike spirit in societies softened by civilization; ‘a coward, a man incapable either of defending or of revenging himself, evidently wants one of the most essential parts of the character of a man’.
As an institution central for very many years to the philosophy or conventions of élite classes in most of Europe, the duel can be expected to shed light on the nature of a ‘class’, its psychology and evolution. Over most of the world’s more sophisticated regions warfare came to be left as a rule to professional groups, who were welcome to claim a monopoly of hardihood. Feudal China was very early reorganized on a bureaucratic basis; in India the warrior caste of Kshatriyas was relegated to the background by the Brahmins, and its place only partially taken by the newer Rajputs. In the European case, on the contrary, readiness to fight was the badge of the entire élite of nobility or ‘gentlefolk’. In terms like ‘gentleman’, ‘gentilhomme’, and their cognates, there survives the first meaning of gentle’: noble, generous, from gens, signifying good family descent. Readiness to draw the sword enshrined contempt or defiance of death, for plebeian mortals the king of terrors. It was a standing reminder of the title under which blue blood kept its place. Every superior class, even the most secure, holds over its members the menace of forfeiture of status if they deviate from its prescriptions. Even a Brahmin can lose caste. In Europe, unlike Asia, the property and legal rights of a man of position were safe, but he could only too easily lose his respectable place among his peers.
Liability to the ordeal of the duel was a burden imposed on itself by the élite as the gage of its right to be considered a higher order. There were times and places where it was a further duty to perform military service and set an example of self-exposure on the battlefield; later on (until the nineteenth century) conscription was limited to the commoners who provided the armies’ rank and file, while the duel stood out as a symbolic or moral imperative for their betters. All claims to collective superiority, or exclusive virtue, partake of the sin of hubris, and seem to demand some penalty, some conspicuous mortification, to render them credible in the eyes of the multitude; a compulsion that an instinct of self-torment, if this is indeed part of man’s make-up, must render easier. Rajput queens submitted to suttee, and to immolation en masse when the enemy was within the gates; often it seems willingly, or with assumed willingness, because their high rank and dignity were bound up with readiness to renounce life when deprived of the submissive respect due to them. Humbler Hindu widows could be tutored to emulate their example. Confucian precepts too could make it incumbent on a virtuous woman to follow her husband to the grave, or sacrifice herself for her parents.
By the ritual of the duel, private resentments were lifted above the merely personal level of revenge; the combatant’s honour merged into that of the class to which both he and his antagonist belonged, and to which they were making a joint obeisance. It was this corporate honour that all its members were bound to uphold. Refusing to seek safety by retreating from the sanctions of his code, the duellist epitomized the determination of his class not, under any threat, to abdicate its leading position. Europe was the home also, more than any other region, of ‘sport’, or hunting, another aristocratic excitement and mode of self-display. In modern England, with no quarry more formidable than a fox, its stalkers had to show their nerve by taking hazardous leaps over fences or ditches; to balk at the challenge of a five-barred gate was only less demeaning than to refuse a challenge to a fight. When elephants tigers became available, hunting could take the form of a contest between lone pursuer and savage beast, with an evident likeness to the duel.
To shirk a duel rendered an individual no longer worthy of membership of his class, and at the same time compromised the reputation and stability of that class. Aristocracy took its stand, when in search of justification, on the community’s need for ‘leadership’, and for protection by an élite dedicated to the cult of Mars. Gentlemen were not to reason why, when called out to fight at daybreak, any more than when called to the colours, however questionable the rights of any particular war might be. A similar note is struck in the Gita when the ancient Indian hero Arjuna is urged on by his divine charioteer, although the battle in prospect is against men whom he has no wish to harm, with the argument that if the Kshatriyas turn away from their vocation of fighting, the dividing-lines of caste will be blurred and all society will fall into confusion.
The duel’s irrationality, a symptom of social atavism, did not of itself imply decadence or insignificance. An old class’s struggle for survival might indeed generate both energy and talent for manœuvre. How its prestige could be helped by the spectacle of its members seeking one another’s lives, oftener than not in defiance of law, may not seem obvious. But men’s habitual judgements have been more impressionable than logical, and if duelling did nothing to making a ruling class liked, it might well make it feared for boldness and arrogance. Moreover some underlying sentiments of the duel could be shared by others, outside the boundaries of heraldry. ‘Notions of honour … percolated far down the social order—certainly far beyond the lowest reaches of the nobility’; every corporation or profession in old Europe had its own.
Aristocracy was nowhere so closely sealed off within its charmed circle as an Indian caste. New blood was always filtering in, or waiting for entry. Two entities evolving over a long epoch in close proximity or symbiosis with each other, like nobility and bourgeoisie in Europe, would develop an ambivalent relationship compounded of hate or contempt and respect or admiration. Duelling was one of the things round which such uneasily fluctuating feelings could gather and crystallize. It has been observed how great a debt nineteenth-century Russian literature owed to the stimulating tension in Russian minds between native and foreign, Slavophil and westernizing, ideas. Something like this can be said equally of the tension between antithetical but interacting classes, and can help to explain how the duel came to mean so much to European literature.
With a potent admixture of snobbery, acceptance of the standards of conduct epitomized in the code of honour could help to incorporate middle-class candidates, native or immigrant, in an old aristocracy, or in later times to promote a partnership. It could form one aspect of what has been called the ‘invention of tradition’, the adjustments by which the novus homo, the newcomer to ‘good society’, is induced to identify himself with its way of thinking and behaving. German student duelling has been pointed to as an instance of how rising new élites can be assimilated into ‘pre-bourgeois ruling groups or authorities’; English public-school life, with its fisticuffs, supplies another, less sanguinary example. At the same time, in each case, an upper-middle class was finding means, in a nineteenth century of indistinct social limits, to mark itself off from those below.
It is part of what makes man human that he should be capable of a conviction, or at any rate of being impressed by it in others, that life is not worth living at any price. He needs the assurance—illusory it may be—of an impregnable inner self that the outer world cannot tamper with; thepundonor, the point of honour, is its boundary-stone. Yet conscience, the dictate of duty, is itself moulded by the world around. A ‘person’ was originally a mask, then an actor; personality began as a social construct, what we are to others rather than to ourselves. ‘Honour’ has always a twofold nature, external as well as internal. The word has sometimes stood for the tangible rewards bestowed by society on those who obey its rules: the cursus honorum, or sequence of offices to which a public man in Rome was elected, or the ‘honour’, or fief, bestowed by the crown on a high feudal vassal in England. Taking the abstraction honour in its outward sense, of the pressure brought to bear on an individual to behave in a certain fashion, it has very often been no more than a matter of ‘saving face’, as the Chinese put it.
What society wills may be a mandate from the past, no longer in harmony with men’s maturing ethical sense. It is always warped by society’s class divisions, which dislocate its standards of conduct, detach them from any all-embracing moral concepts, and overload them with prejudices and interests of a minority. Yet however much distortion the idea of honour suffered from its feudal origins, it could permeate the social whole, as may be seen from common turns of speech like ‘word of honour’, ‘on my honour’, ‘honour bright’, often glibly conventional, but not without true meaning. Honour led soldiers and duellists to quickly forgotten graves, but in other garb it led martyrs to graves sacred to the causes they stood for. ‘Set honour in one eye and death in the other’: Shakespeare’s high-souled Roman conspirator is an illustration of what the oligarchic outlook had to contribute to the progress of all Europeans, as well as to the qualities that enabled Europe to subjugate the world.
Tributaries from the same hilltop may flow into valleys far apart, and feed opposite streams. The irrational has had an immense part in the thwarting of men’s better social purposes; yet men have not always been wrong in admiring the recklessly adventurous, like the ‘madmen’ of Muslim tradition who sacrifice all for love or an ideal. A commentator on the Cuban revolution spoke of how Castro found a response in the ‘feudal strain in Cuban character’, among the most impoverished country-dwellers, ‘the mystic bonds of a fellowship of sacrifice’ that could carry them out of their cramping daily lives into ‘exhilarating dangers, and the taste of nobility’. The duel is a salient instance of how intricately entangled has been mankind’s moral history, and by what devious channels its recognition of higher things than personal survival or advantage has evolved.