Duel (Latin duellum,"combat between two," old form of bellum,"war"), prearranged combat with deadly weapons between two persons, generally taking place under formal arrangements and in the presence of witnesses, called seconds, for each side. The usual cause of a duel is affront or offense given by one person to the other or mutual enmity over a question of honor. In most cases, the challenged person has the right to name the time, place, and weapons. The sword and the pistol have been the traditional dueling weapons throughout history, and duels have customarily been fought early in the morning at relatively secluded places.

The duel, in the modern, personal sense, did not occur in the ancient world, when single combats generally occurred in the context of national wars. Modern dueling arose in Teutonic countries during the early Middle Ages, when legal, judicial combat was used to decide controversies, such as guilt for crimes and ownership of disputed land. Such combat was first legalized by Gundobad, king of the Bourguignons, in AD501. The custom of judicial combat spread to France, where it became prevalent, particularly from the 10th to the 12th century; even the church authorized it to decide the ownership of disputed church property. The Normans brought this form of duel to England in the 11th century. As late as 1817, an English court authorized a judicial combat between the accuser and accused in a case of murder.

Dueling to avenge one's honor, however, has never been legalized, and its history has instead been marked by laws against it. The custom became popular in Europe after a famous rivalry between Francis I of France and King Charles V of Spain. When Francis declared war on Spain in 1528, abrogating a treaty between the two countries, Charles accused the French ruler of ungentlemanly conduct and was challenged by him to a duel. Although the duel did not take place because of the difficulty in making arrangements, the incident so influenced European manners that gentlemen everywhere thought themselves entitled to avenge supposed slights on their honor by similar challenges.

Dueling subsequently became particularly popular in France and occasioned so many deaths that King Henry IV declared (1602) in an edict that participation in a duel was punishable by death. Similar edicts were issued by Henry's successors, although they were rarely enforced with any strictness. The various French Republican governments also outlawed dueling, making it an offense against the criminal code. Duels, however, still occur in France, although they are rarely fatal.

The duel was exceedingly popular in England, particularly during the Restoration, probably a reaction against the Puritan morality of the protectorate under Oliver Cromwell; in the reign of George III, no fewer than 91 deaths resulted from 172 encounters. Much legislation during the 17th and 18th centuries had little effect on curbing the practice. Although the English common law holds killing in a duel to be murder, juries rarely convicted in dueling cases until the custom ceased to be popular during the reign of Queen Victoria. The British articles of war were amended in 1844 to make participants in a duel subject to general court-martial; thereafter dueling became obsolete in the British army.

Under the imperial regime in Germany, dueling was a recognized custom in the army and navy, although each affair was subject to approval by a so-called council of honor. The German student Mensuren ("duels") were famous in German university life and were regarded as a form of sport. Every university had Verbindungen ("dueling clubs"), and membership in them was considered an honor. Restrictions on dueling, however, were in force even during the empire at the end of the 19th century. The 1928 criminal code of the Weimar Republic made dueling an offense punishable by imprisonment.

In the U.S., duels were common from the time of the first settlement, a duel having occurred at Plymouth in 1621. Such combats, under all conditions and with every variety of weapon, were frequent during the 18th and early 19th centuries and were usually fatal. In 1777 the American patriot Button Gwinnett was killed in a duel, and one of the most famous American victims of a duel was the statesman Alexander Hamilton, who was killed by his political rival Aaron Burr in 1804. The District of Columbia outlawed dueling in 1839, and since the American Civil War all the states have legislated against dueling, with punishments ranging from disqualification from public office to death.

By the beginning of the 20th century, dueling was almost universally prohibited by law as a criminal offense. The major forces in the suppression of dueling, however, have been social changes and social disapproval. The greatest of these social changes has been the decline of the aristocracy, as dueling was a custom reserved for the upper classes. In addition, organizations were formed to promote social disapproval of dueling, notably a British association founded in 1843 and an international league founded by European aristocrats in 1900.

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