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Honor and Dueling

A duel was a prearranged combat with lethal weapons between two people, usually taking place under formal arrangements. Each side had a witness, called seconds. The usual cause of a duel is an insult given by one person to the other or over a question of honour. The challenged person has the right to set the place, time, and weapons. Duels have generally been fought early in the morning in secluded places. (Encarta “Duel”)

Duelling to avenge one’s honour has never been legal, dueling has been marked by laws opposing it. The practise became popular in Europe after the famous challenge between King Charles V of Spain and Francis I of France. When the war was declared on Spain in 1528 by Francis, he annulled the treaty between the two countries, Francis was challenged to a duel after being accused of ungentlemanly conduct by the Spanish ruler.

The duel never did take place because making arrangements was too difficult, but this incident influenced the manners of Europeans so that gentlemen everywhere thought they were entitled to avenge slights on their honour by having similar challenges. (Encarta “Duel”)

Duels involving honour were so prevalent in France that Charles IX issued an ordinance in 1566 that was death to anyone participating in a duel. This became a model for later edicts against duelling. Duelling however did survive longer than the monarchy in France. Duelling became a technique for resolving political disputes. (Britannica “Duel) The duel was intensely popular in England, during the Restoration.

Legislation during the 17th century had little effect on suppressing the practice. The English Common Law declares that killing in a duel to be held as murder, but juries rarely convicted in cases of duelling until the custom had ceased to be popular during the reign of Queen Victoria. (Encarta “Duel”)

The earliest form of duelling was the judicial duel or trial by battle. The judicial duel was established because solemn affirmation, or swearing of oaths, in legal arguments had led to extensive perjury and the ordeal has too much of a chance of being manipulated by the priests. If one man declares before a judge that his opponent was guilty of a crime and the accused said that his accuser is lying, the judge would order the two to meet in a duel.

The judge then stipulated the conditions as to the place, time, and weapons. The combatants had to guarantee their participation by throwing down a gauntlet and his opponent accepted by picking it up. It was believed in such a situation that “the right” could not be beaten and the loser if still alive would be dealt with by the law this was thought to be the “judgement of God” and could not be wrong. This form of trial was open to all free men and sometimes serfs. Women, church clergy, the sick, and men under 20 or over 60 could claim exemption. In some cases, persons under trial could appoint “champions” to fight for them, but the person on trial as well as his defeated champion were both subject to legal punishment. (Britannica “Duel”)

The rapier was introduced to Italy in the 16th century, the rapier was a long, thin, lightweight sword, was held one hand, in the other was a dagger, and later a folded cloak which replaced the shield. The use of the rapier spread throughout Europe as the Italian fencing technique. In England and France, the shape and size of the rapier were constantly being modified because its weight and length made it clumsy to carry around. (Encarta “Fencing”)

When the rapier came to England not all Englishmen adapted well to this southern European innovation. The rapier was once criticized for its slender, easily broken blade, its large hilt and great length which made it difficult to draw. The term “rapier” is unclear as to where it originated it could be ascribed to the German word “rappen”, to tear; the Spanish word “raspar”, to scratch. (Bull 96)

Works Cited

“Duel.” Encyclopaedia Britannica


Microsoft Works for Windows 98 (1999). [Computer program]. WA: Microsoft

Bull, Stephen. An Historical Guide To Arms And Armor. Ed. Tony North. New York: Facts On File, 1991.

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