En garde! Why France was the duelling capital of Europe

For centuries, it was common for French gentlemen to defend their honour on the duelling ground, despite a government ban on the tradition.

Thursday, August 20, 2020,
By Alfonso López

On May 12, 1627, at about two o'clock in the afternoon, the Count of Bouteville and the Marquis of Beuvron met in a Paris square, for the express purpose of defending their honour. A skilled swordsman, the 27-year-old Bouteville was a veteran of many duels and had killed at least half of his opponents. One of his victims had been a relative of Beuvron, who spent months trying to arrange a duel with the count for vengeance.

The two men removed their coats, and fought, first with a sword and dagger and then with a dagger alone. Their duel ended with a grapple, each holding a dagger at the other’s throat—at which point, both men decided to stop. Even so, blood would indeed be spilled that day: Their friends, witnessing the duel, had become embroiled in a scuffle that left one of them dead and the other seriously wounded. Although duels had the air of formality, they too often descended into chaos and bloodshed.

Place des Vosges in Paris, a square built between 1605 and 1612, and the scene of the famous duel between Bouteville and Beuvron in 1627.

Photograph by MYLOUPE/UIG/GETTY IMAGES

Affairs of honour

The cry of En garde! and the sound of drawing swords was common in Paris and other French cities. The custom was widespread in other countries, but France seems to have been the duelling capital of Europe. Affairs of honour were so ingrained in the national consciousness that they appear in some of France’s most iconic stories, such as The Three Musketeers, written in 1844 by Alexandre Dumas and set in the swashbuckling 17th century.

Duels took many forms. Sometimes they sprang from a chance encounter without any formal preparation. For example, in 1613, the Chevalier de Guise was walking along Rue St. Honoré in Paris when he happened to spot a man, the Baron of Luz, who had spoken badly of Guise’s father. Guise dismounted, drew his sword, and called on the baron to do likewise. The baron was an old man and barely able to defend himself against the young and impetuous Guise, who killed the baron with a single thrust. Even by the standards of the day, this encounter resembled murder more than a duel. (Did this gilded sword belong to Blackbeard?)

Like many noblemen of his time, the great philosopher René Descartes had mastered the art of fencing and once fought a memorable duel. It took place when he was in the company of a lady he was courting, and a rival suitor attacked him as they walked together. Chivalry won the day: After disarming him, Descartes returned the man’s sword to him, saying, “You owe your life to this lady for whom I have just risked my own.”

Photograph by ERICH LESSING/ALBUM

A series of rituals were usually associated with duels. One of these was the preliminary challenge. When a man’s honour had been offended, he could challenge the offender to a duel by speaking to him, slapping him, or sending him a written message. For example, after burying his father, the Baron of Luz’s son sent his squire to Guise’s house to present him with a card that read: “Monsieur, you are hereby invited to do me the honour of meeting me, with sword in hand, to receive justice for the death of my father. This gentleman [the squire] will take you to the place where I await you with a good horse and two swords of which you may choose the one you prefer.” The duel took place. Having killed the father, Guise then killed the son.

Duels often took place on the outskirts of town where the authorities would not interfere. In Paris, an area near the Seine known as the Pré aux Clercs was well known as a popular spot for duelling. But affairs of honour could also take place in the city. In the 1630s Cardinal Richelieu complained that “duels have become so common in France that the streets are turning into battlefields.”

Rules of combat

A series of informal rules regarding clothing and weapons ensured the honour of all participants. Duelists often fought in shirtsleeves with their chests exposed to a rival’s sword. While prohibited from wearing armour, some combatants attempted to wear protection concealed in their clothes.

Throughout the 16th century a key change took place in the type of sword used in civilian combat. The old type of sword was heavy and slow, causing opponents to fence one another as if in battle. It was discarded for the rapier. Light, elegant, and pointed, rapier blades were thinner and longer—sometimes reaching three feet in length—and able to inflict ever more lethal wounds.

Photograph by BRIDGEMAN/ACI

The most popular weapons of choice were swords, specifically rapiers. These elegant instruments did not cause mutilations or disfigure the rival’s face—they were, however, the most lethal of all swords. Although firearms were considered contrary to the aristocratic ideal of personal bravery, many cases of duels with pistols are recorded, especially later in the 17th century. (Scientists look at whether it's advantageous for duelling gunslinger to draw first.)

A new feature of duels in the 17th century was the presence of seconds. These men not only accompanied the duelists and made sure the rules were followed, but also could—as in the Bouteville case—end up fighting each other, too. When a second defeated his rival, he could even go to the aid of the duellist he was accompanying, creating a situation of two against one. This action did run counter to the notion of settling scores between two men. Writing in the second half of the 16th century, the great essayist Michel de Montaigne noted: “’Tis also a kind of cowardice that has introduced the custom of seconds, thirds and fourths... they were formerly duels; they are now skirmishes.”

In spite of the potential for chaos introduced by seconds, alternatives to fighting existed that could both satisfy honour and prevent tragedy. In addition to the opportunity for reconciliation before crossing swords, duellists could accept satisfaction from the moment one of them slightly wounded the other in duels to “first blood.” Sometimes fights were a farce to save face and the two opponents might accept satisfaction after exchanging a couple of blows. But many duels ended with the death of one of the participants. From information provided by a mid-17th-century French chronicler, Tallemant des Réaux, it can be calculated that, of the hundred or so duels and challenges he describes, more than a third did not take place because prior agreement had been reached. Of the duels that did go ahead, half ended in the death of one or more combatant. (See the medieval sword pulled from a Polish bog.)

“’Tis also a kind of cowardice that has introduced the custom of seconds, thirds and fourths... they were formerly duels; they are now skirmishes.”

Michel de Montaigne

Out of favour

Other historians have calculated that during the reign of Henry IV of France (1589-1610) around 10,000 duels took place in the country, involving 20,000 duelists, 4,000 or 5,000 of whom lost their lives. Some “duellists” used the ritual as a cover for butchery. A certain Chevalier d’Andrieux, for instance, killed 72 men until he was tried and executed.

Increasingly, throughout the 17th century, the authorities had reason for concern at the proliferation of such spectacles. Legislation against duelling became ever stricter, in spite of the fondness some had for this tradition. Bouteville, for instance, was arrested straight after his duel with Beuvron, and Cardinal Richelieu had him sentenced to death. King Louis XIV later issued edicts banning duels in the late 1600s.

Although the practice declined over the years, it lingered until surprisingly late. The last duel in France took place in 1967, when René Ribière challenged a fellow politician for having insulted him. Filmed for posterity, the sword-wielding combatants agreed to halt only after Ribière was wounded twice.

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