I had an idiotic argument in the street the other day, with a guy who considered I had stared at him. Wan’ my picture? he said. Push never came to shove, and we wisely went our separate ways. I couldn’t help thinking that such a nonsense behaviour would have led us, some two hundred years ago, to a deadly fight—a duel! Thus our brutal ancestors defended their honour at the slightest provocation. But how come such a barbaric custom became so generally established among them? When I look for an answer, I have a conditioned reflex: I open a book. The one I picked up on this occasion is a volume of the memoirs of Brantôme (circa 1540-1614); the one Contenans les anecdotes (...) touchant les duels—about the anecdotes linked to duels (A Leyde, chez Jean Sambix—1722). It plunged me into a world of honour, absurdity, and brutal deaths—and it also reminded me of an old ripped coat.
When the Roman Empire fell, the Barbarians left the North of Europe to invade the rest of the continent, taking their customs with them—including duels. Among these new migrants were the Lombards—from the current Germany—, who took over Italy in the late 6th century. “These people were fierce to the extreme,” reads L’Esprit de l’Encyclopédie (Paris, 1798). “They knew no laws, no discipline and had no social rules. All their virtue was at the point of their swords, and they knew no right but might. They settled their problems with swords: the belligerents fought one another, and the winner was always right.” This practice, known as the art of duel, spread like a disease; mainly in France, Spain and Italy, “where,” stated Mr de Saintfoix in his Essais historiques sur Paris (Londres, 1759), “people were a little bit too proud to be men.” Christianity soon justified duels. The idea was simple: God would rather make a miracle than to let injustice prevail. When a quarrel occurred, and when it was impossible to decide who was right from wrong, the belligerents resorted to fight before God. Of course, the winner was sometimes convincted of felony later on. But as our author Brantôme put it: “God moves in a mysterious way, and His gifts of justice, equity and mercy are not to be discussed.” Others claimed that the innocent victims paid for earlier crimes, while their wicked executioners would soon pay for theirs—including this one.
Thus governed by holy and social rules, duels gave birth to fighters as well as theorists. Brantôme wasn’t a specialist, so to speak; and he wisely bowed to the Italian masters, who published numerous books on the matter—he respectfully called them the Duelists. But he was a warlike young man, who almost joined the Knights of Malta at one point, and who knew what he was talking about as well as who he was talking about. While at Court, he collected many stories and anecdotes from the great Captains of his time. His posthumous memoirs weren’t printed before 1655-56, in Leyde, chez Jean Sambix (1), and didn’t enjoy success until reprinted in 1722. They are still sought-after today, and the different titles—including the lives of the great French Captains of his time, of the great foreign Captains, and anecdotes about duels—are often sold independently. The one about duels never came out before 1722. “We don’t know who was the true publisher of Discours sur les Duels,” stated the Notice sur Brantôme (Paris, 1824). “So many reprints appeared in its wake that it would be hard, but also useless, to name them all. Several bear the false indication Chez Jean Sambix (2), including the first one of 1722, which is well-printed.”
Brantôme “wrote just like he spoke,” once said a writer; as a matter of fact, his style is suffocating. The volume about duels features no chapters, no titles. From top to bottom, it is laid on paper like one long breath. But it’s stuffed with incredible details and thrilling anecdotes. “No matter the disorder of his writings,” confessed Anquetil in the 18th century, “Brantôme’s book pleases, because it’s entertaining.” As a matter of fact, this book is a breath-taking reading featuring fierce people cutting each other’s throat over matters of honour that sometimes seem so ridiculous that we hardly believe one could die over them. And yet.
Two bulls in a pen
Until 1546, duels took place in a camp clos, or closed pen—usually located in a churchyard. In the 9th century, Pope Nicolas I considered duels as legitimate and lawful, and many religious got involved—when necessary, they hired the arms of fighters to represent their church. In the early 14th century, the French king Philippe le Bel ordered the pens to be 40 feet wide and 80 feet long. As stated by Brantôme about the duel that cost the life of Don Alonzo, in Italy—defeated by the famous Bayard—, the pens were often “simply bounded by some piles of big stones.” He who stepped outside the limits had lost. The ceremonial was quite complex and the fighters were expected to ride from their places, with “any reasonable offensive and defensive weapon” carried before them by their kinsmen. Upon reaching the pen, they swore on the crucifix and on the holiness of baptism that they considered to be in their own right. Then the fight started, usually in front of a consequent audience. Duels were barbaric in the way that the winner could dispose at will of the loser—be he dead or alive! Not only did you lose your quarrel when defeated, but you also lost all your goods, your life and your spiritual salvation, as the law adapted from the Lombards’ made it clear that a loser couldn’t be given a Christian burial; “just like an Arab or a Sarasin,” deplored Brantôme. “How cruel!” But you were lucky if you died on the battlefield; because if you survived your wounds, you became less than a beast in the hands of the winner. “He had the right to drag you all through the pen (a jolly idea deriving for the sane reading of Homer’s Iliad, editor’s note), to hang you, burn you, to hold you prisoner,” enumerated Brantôme. “In a word, he could treat you worse than a slave.” But in 1547, a tricky fight put an official end to duels.
The trick of Jarnac
The last duel officially authorized by the King of France took place on July 10, 1547; and it opposed two friends, namely Gui Chabot de Jarnac and François Vivonne de la Châtaigneraie. It all started the day the former boasted of having sex with his mother-in-law to the latter, who repeated it to François I; the King later teased Jarnac, who firmly denied, and demanded justice—but François I opposed the duel. A few months after the King’s death, Henri II gave them the permission, as La Châtaigneraie was his favourite. Several thousands of people gathered the said day on the terrace of the castle of Saint-Germain, near Paris. Five hundred men supported La Châtaigneraie, all wearing his colours—white and rosy pink; Jarnac had 100 men with him, all dressed in black and white. Nobody expected Jarnac to win this fight; indeed, although smaller and younger than his friend, La Châtaigneraie was “one of the strongest and the most skilful gentlemen of France with any weapon; and there was no better wrestler in the kingdom,” wrote his nephew Brantôme. But Jarnac teamed up with a clever master of arms, Captain Caize, who imposed many constraints to La Châtaigneraie. First, he insisted that both fighters should carry a specific shield that restrained the mobility of the left arm; “this was of great disadvantage to my uncle,” wrote Brantome, “who was still recovering from a shot of harquebuse received in his right arm during the assault of the city of Cony, in Piémont.” The Judges of the pen didn’t oppose this constraint; neither did the relatives of La Chataigneraie, who were probably overconfident “in the bold courage of my uncle.” (Brantôme) Then, as he had the choice of arms, Jarnac asked his opponent to equip himself with “more than thirty different weapons; he imposed various horses, such as steeds, Turkish, Barb horses, (...) all harnessed in various fashions (...). He did it to take his enemy by surprise, but also to force him to spend a lot of money.” As a matter of fact, the King had to support La Châtegneraie so he could attend the fight with all the required equipment. And the duelist publicly complained that Jarnac was trying to fight him both “spiritually and financially.”
Nonetheless, the duel took place, and despite being feverish, Jarnac was ready. Most duelists aimed at the head or chest of their opponent, but Jarnac acted in a different way. Thanks to a skilful bout he had practiced with Captain Caize, he wounded La Châtaigneraie a little above the left knee. He did it twice in a row, eventually forcing the King to throw his baton; this gesture instantly put an end to the fight—should any fighter hit after that, he would immediately be put to death. “The Jarnac’s trick has now became an adage,” underlines the Dictionary of Feller (Liège, 1790). “It is used to describe a trick, or an unexpected response from an opponent.” The King intervened, yes; “but too late,” deplored Brantôme. Indeed, his cousin was badly hurt—but mostly in his pride. He refused to have his wound correctly bandaged, and died from it a few days later. Though all parties agreed to declare that it had been a fair duel, “Henry II was so mortified that he solemnly swore he would never permit any more duel,” stated L’Esprit de l’Encyclopédie. But men of honour were stubborn, and a few days later, two soldier friends had a fight in Piémont simply because the first one couldn’t believe what the second one was telling him about the circumstances La Châtaigneraie’s death—“both of them ended up seriously wounded,” underlined Brantôme. This was a foretelling fight. Indeed, the ban on duels curiously made them more frequent.
Combatere a la mazza
The successors of Henri II all reinforced the laws against duels, and the Council of Trent made it clear that the Church no longer supported this custom: “If an Emperor, King or any other Prince or Lord, enables some Christians to fight a duel on his lands, he shall be excommunicated and deprived of his lordship,” read L’Histoire du Concile de Trente (Pierre Chouët, 1635). The same treatment was to be applied to “those who advise the duelists”, and to “the mere spectators”. Notwithstanding this dreadful warning, duels grew more numerous, especially in France where the King never ratified the Council of Trent. Mr de Saintfoix had an explanation: “Before that, upon fighting surreptitiously, a man lost his honour, and was considered a petty murderer. Furthermore, when officially asking for a duel, he informed of his quarrel; and people around him always tried to end it in a peaceful way. The man who was wrong was also necessarily impressed at the oath he had to take before the fight; and you had no choice but to win or die without honour.” Less regulated, duels flourished as duelists started to call each other at la mazza—in the open field. According to Brantôme, this new form of duel originated in Naples, Italy, where “people started to call each other outside the cities, in the fields, in the forests or among hedges and bushes—hence the expression “combatere a la mazza.” The beginning of the end for the learnt theorists, who unanimously condemned this new savage way—mainly, stated Brantôme, because it meant fighting without protection, “like gross beasts”. Things even got worse as the witnesses started to wonder: What are we doing while our friends are fighting? Let’s fight as well! Thus, duels became pitched battles! And all these people killed each other “for the pleasure rather than out of animosity” (Brantôme). The winner ran a penalty risk, but was usually granted a complacent royal pardon—Henry IV issued more seven thousands in less than 18 years. That’s probably why Mr Feller wrote, in 1791: “These duels between individuals (at la mazza, editor’s note) have shed more blood in the last two hundred years, than the duels in closed pens since their origins.” It looks like people were wholeheartedly cutting each other’s throat at the slightest remark, fearing no danger, and standing as true heralds of honour in a world long disappeared. Yet, throughout Brantôme’s book, it seems that man has been man ever since David slew Goliath in a duel; and that when it comes to defend one’s life, all is fair.
Gentle Merciful Men
Duels might have taken place in the Bush, they still obeyed complex and unwritten rules. For instance, suppose you decided to spare your enemy’s life once he was at your mercy. What were the proper words to utter on such an occasion? Brantôme seriously reasoned about the matter. “To say “Ask for mercy and I’ll spare you!” or “Beg for your life, and I won’t kill you!” is a terrible thing to do, as no man of heart will ever accept to utter them, and would rather suffer a hundred deaths.” Really and truly, it was nicer “to gently and gracefully spare your opponent’s life.” Some went as far as pretending to be wounded, to belittle the shame of their victim. It happened, reported Brantôme, with two Captains in Piémont. The first one wounded the second one and decided to let him live, as both men were friends. But the defeated soldier asked another favour, probably as important as life to him: “Please, be merciful all the way, and wear a bandage for a few days, so it won’t be said that I was wounded without wounding.”
But “too good, too dumb”, goes the French saying; and a hold hand at duels such as Matas should have known better than to leave his opponent unarmed after he had disarmed him in the Bois de Vincennes in the late 16th century. “You can go, young man,” he said. “And learn to hold your sword firmly, and not to attack a man like me; go away, I forgive you.” But as he was mounting his horse, the young man took up his arm, ran to him, “and pierced him to death on the spot.” (Brantôme) Matas was mourned, and blamed for his lack of foresight. Other duelists, especially the Italians—the most cruel, said Brantôme—, left a mark on the face of their victims, or left them lying on the ground, half-dead and, ideally, definitely maimed; thus they could neither retaliate nor deny their defeat—as most of these duels took place without witnesses, the two versions of the same fight often varied. After all, honour and precaution can go together, cant’ they? Well, let’s put it straight: when it comes to fight for your life, honour comes second—even when you fight over it.