(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.
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.
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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