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Dueling Class Notes

Here is the video of and my own personal outline for the class I just taught through RUM (Royal University of the Midrealm). They pull largely from Tom Leoni’s chapter on dueling in “In the Service of Mars Part I” and Ann Tlusty’s book “The Martial Ethic in Early Modern Germany”. I highly recommend checking both of these books out. In the meantime, hopefully this will serve as a handy resource for anyone interested in the history of dueling. Also, if you want a more in depth dive into Italian dueling, check out my article on the subject here.

Italian Aristocratic Duel

Honor based society

Honor code: scienza cavalleresca (the chivalrous science)

“honor is the prize of virtue and is paid to none but the good.” – Aristotle

honor was based on the virtues of valor and justice

Honor was not considered to be an entirely isolated attribute.  It was instead something that was defined and given by those around you.

honor was, “preferred to one’s father, one’s ruler, one’s country, and life itself. ” Thus your duty to preserve honor superseded your duty to obey your lord’s wishes

Reality differed, though.  Marozzo says “although many knights professed to prefer death with honor rather than life with shame, the number who had acted in accordance with this assertion was small”

Certain groups were inherently dishonorable (those of lowly professions, Jews, people with dishonorable ancestors)

Other groups were considered without honor (women, children, etc.)

Duels are seen as higher than battles since there’s less luck involved and there’s more risk

            Medieval battles tended to end after one side lost 10% of their forces

Duels are more interested in “justice” than “truth”

The Mentita

Marozzo’s five required justifications for a duel:

  1. You suffered an injury
  2. Hard to prove via credible witnesses
  3. You have to be of equal or higher status than the person you’re accusing
  4. The cause needs to be personal
  5. This can’t have previously been tried in court (with or without a verdict)

Pigna adds:

  • Defendant has to say “you lie” thereby issues the mentita

This puts the burden of proof on the accuser to dissuade frivolous suits and false accusations.

The injury can be either an action (i.e. a slap) or words (talking trash)

            The accuser has to claim not only that this event happened, but that it happened unjustly.  So if you kiss my sister on the street, other people could reliably say whether or not that happened.  If you kiss her unjustly, that is not only harder to prove, but also gives me license to pursue justice.  Alternatively, if you say something bad about my business/family, I don’t just have to prove that you said it, but that you said it unjustly.

Five kinds of mentita:

  1. Mentita certa – You said X of me, I tell you now that you lied
  2. Mentita condizionale – If you said X, you have lied
  3. Mentita generale – (in regards to a person )Whosever said X of me lies OR (in regards to an injury) You have spoken ill of me, thereby lying
  4. Mentita speciale ­– You, on X day said Y of me, and by saying so lied
  5. Mentita sciocca (silly/abusive) – If you ever say X of me, you lie/ If you wish to say X, you lie/ If you have said X or haven’t said X of me, you lie/ you are lying through your teeth (via farting)

Instead of calling someone a liar, you can say “Things aren’t as you say” in order to diffuse the situation.

The one issuing the mentita gets to choose weapons.  The accuser chooses time and place.

            Weapons had to be matched and made easily available.  You also couldn’t force a right handed person to use a left handed sword to your advantage.

            Location couldn’t be seen as too advantageous.

            Terms included weapons, defensive secondaries, whether armor was worn, and whether it was on horseback. 

Seeing as a bigger risk was seen as more honorable, Dall’Agocchie notes how going without armor was the more

Accuser issues a cartello which is a binding document, prompting a riposta from the defendant (issuing the mentita)

Three kinds of cartelli

  1. Cartello
  2. Rogito – signed by a notary
  3. Manifesto – pasted on walls instead of delivered

When legal, these all had to go through the proper judicial channels.

Having to sit down and write this out gave people time to cool off and reconsider.

The Duel

40 days to train and get your affairs in order

            Right to a speedy trial

            Once again gave time for people to consider if this is what they wanted to do.

Location was the campo franco

            If you picked a place that was too advantageous, or too hard to get to you would be disqualified and found the loser

If you couldn’t find a lord to host it, it would be alla machia (on public land) away from towns and villages

            This specific tradition begins in Naples

The fight happened inside a steccato

            Looked like a boxing ring

Generally began a few hours before sunset

Given every chance to confess and thus avoid going through with the fight up until stepping into the steccato

Accuser had to deliver an initial committed blow (attore)

            Throwing the pommel

Winning poorly was worse than outright losing.   So hidden weapons, vigorous punching and kicking, not allowing an opponent to replace a broken blade, killing their horse (unless that condition was explicitly allowed), digging a trap beforehand, etc. were looked down upon.

Herald announced that audience must be silent upon penalty of death

Possible victories:

  1. No show/late arrival (*glares at Musashi*)
  2. Defendant confesses
  3. Defendant successfully defends until sundown (again, this benefits the defendant)
  4. Either person touches the ropes with their back
  5. Either person is incapacitated
  6. One person dies
  7. They both die

If one party was clearly injured past the point of being able to fight but continued attempting to do so, the judge could declare the fight over.

These were not to first blood

German Middle Class Dueling


            No Jews, women, etc.

Required to own arms

            Men often carried arms with them outside the house

                        A common punishment was removing this right outside, but not inside, the house

                        One man was forced to wear a bread knife with a broken tip for a year

            Local lords wanted both a populous that could defend itself, but also didn’t want to be overthrown

Guard duty


            Very few lights

            No other police or firefighters

                        Interfering in fights was technically the duty of all citizens

Rising tension between state’s expanding their powers and having to defend your home

            As we shift to households, women’s rights begin to be curtailed

            Stabbing through a doorway was a particularly pointed gesture

                        A public verbal insult was much easier to diffuse/apologize for

            Declining power of the guilds

Military ethic


                        Sumptuary laws restricted ornamentation, but not wearing of the sword itself

                        Fashion was set by soldiers first and then worked its way up to the aristocracy

            Convince people to go over the trench



            Women would threaten to leave if a man didn’t stand up for himself

            It was important to be seen as having died a good death when dueling

                        A good death would also lean towards more lenient sentencing for the killer

Duels were banned in the military, but were culturally strongly encouraged

Church officials threatened excommunication or refusal of burial in churchyards, but this didn’t help

States made duelling illegal but let it slide by as to prevent even larger acts of risk taking

            The state would step in if it was found to be an unfair fight

            By making it illegal, participating now came with increased social capital

            Officials at the University of Gottingen noted that permitting bloodless duels would have only encouraged bloody ones

            Restoring your honor required a certain level of risk/putting things on the line

The Duel

These duels could be impromptu (often as a result of long-lasting tensions) or pre-arranged

            They required a certain degree of fair warning

            Surprise attacks were universally considered to be dishonorable

                        Punishment was either death or a life sentence of fighting the Turks

Parties had to be equally armed

            This included not only the weapons, but also whether or not the combatants were on horseback

            Observers might step in if it’s an unfair fight, but were less likely to otherwise

                        Chivalric idea of the strong protecting the weak

            You generally had to stop if your opponent fell or lost their weapon

Officers had to explicitly ban soldiers from using magical salves

            Seconds in aristocratic duels would often check for magical charms

            All magic was illegal after the Reformation

Thrusting with a sword was generally looked down upon (Joachim Meyer)

            Thrusts were associated with unexpected attacks with hidden knives or stilletos

Sources at the time would often use “brawl” or “fight” instead of “duel” to describe the same behavior in lower social classes

            Schlag means to “strike” with either the sword or the fist, making differentiating harder for historians

State officials cared more about whether drawing a weapon was justified as opposed to who attacked first.  These officials were hardly separate from the same culture of dueling as everyone else.

Universities were a hotbed for duels

            Students from all over

            Students generally didn’t identify with the town where they were studying

            Universities often employed fencing masters, even when they tried to ban students from dueling or even carrying swords

While not written into law, the social around the lead up to duels were socially enforced and clear to everyone at the time

            Every step leading up provided a chance for de-escalation

Published by Arik Mendelevitz

A martial artist since the age of 8, I picked up a rapier for the first time in March of 2008 and have never looked back since.

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