The Duel in European History: Honour and the Reign of the Aristocracy by Victor Kiernan
Any book that offers a history of so complex a phenomenon as the duel over the course of several centuries and throughout the length and breadth of much of both the Old and the New World must, perforce, go at something of a gallop. Victor Kiernan certainly does. In fact, in his introduction, he casts his net broader still, reaching back into antiquity with, among other things, the contest between Hector and Achilles. In doing so, he begs a question that is never fully explored in the rest of the book: what exactly do we mean by the term “duel?”
Employed at its broadest, it can be applied to any contest between individuals in any culture in almost any context. More perceptively and narrowly applied we are speaking of a mannered and rule-based system of violence, based upon understood conventions and limitations. A further level of complexity is added by the fact that trial by battle satisfies such a definition, although I would argue that, conceptually, battle was really quite distinct from later duelling. Kiernan, in his study, uses the term duel very broadly as did contemporaries in all ages. This is not problematic as long as one is alert to the changing nature of the phenomenon. The chance medleys of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries wherein aristocrats, met, quarrelled, urged their retainers to draw swords, and commenced their indiscriminate hacking, little resembled the formal, crafted, encounters of nineteenth-century gentlemen.
Duelling has its own internal history and it takes time and care to understand its internal dynamics. Kiernan is undoubtedly more engaged in reporting the phenomenon than understanding it, and it seems that perhaps it is his convictions that prevent him further investigating the architecture of honor culture.To explain, writers, historians, and politicians have long been both repelled and seduced by the duel. Kiernan would seem to be a further case in point. Clearly, he is fascinated by it, but at the same time, as a Marxist historian, he seems to feel obliged to adopt a very dismissive view. He sets out his position early and reinforces it with many wonderfully pithy and acerbic comments. Duelling was an entirely worthless activity since “From the delusive rationality of the medieval trial by combat, the invoking of divine judgement, duelling descended in later times to a complete, scarcely disguised, unreason.” The European duel emerged during the Renaissance as “a by-product of rubbish that could be just as infectious.” It was a symptom of “social atavism” practiced by those who “live at the expense of others.” Such people possessed “an infantile mentality, minds incapable of serious thought, and reacting to any stimulus like an automaton. Such minds belong to a class bereft of any social function, or any healthier one than war, that could not be better performed like others, and drying up mentally and morally well in advance of its material decline.” One could go on with the condemnation of the aristocratic class — it is entertaining stuff.
Indeed, the whole book is entertaining, and during the course of its excursions from Southern Italy to the western shores of Ireland, or the eastern fringes of Russia, there is much wry humor on display reflected in a wealth of memorable anecdotes. Who could not be delighted to learn that a duel over an Irish horse race was prevented when one party thoughtfully turned up with a coffin already inscribed with the name of his putative opponent, or that the Fourth Duke of Richmond survived a notorious duel and then the battle of Waterloo only to die from a bite from a fox!
However, in terms of a serious study, the difficulty is, how can justice be done to such a complex, long-lasting, widely-distributed and nuanced phenomenon of the past when viewed through the lens of Kiernan’s dogmatic twentieth-century ideology? Fortunately, although bursts of spleen erupt sporadically throughout the book, Kiernan is far too intelligent and sound a historian to dismiss the duel as a subject of serious enquiry. He is soon acknowledging that “duelling was a significant strand in the tangled web of European history, not a mere excrescence.” There is even a danger at one point of some grudging species of respect “it is part of what makes man human that he should be capable of a conviction, or at any rate of being impressed by it in others, that life is not worth living at any price.”
A difficulty that Kiernan faces is that having derided duellists as mere unthinking social parasites, he then must deal with the reality that many men who made significant contributions to European culture, and whom he himself admires, actually duelled. “Never can a button have served humanity better” he observes when relating the contest between Mattheson and Handel in which Mattheson thrust into Handel’s body only to have the blade shattered on the composer’s metal coat button. How could the duel have been sustained amongs such men of culture and otherwise unimpaired intelligence?
Kiernan is surely right to recognize the importance of the dialogue between fact and fiction in sustaining honor culture. He knows a very great deal about the history of the theater and one of the most informative sections of his work concerns the contributions made by Shakespeare, Jonson and Marlowe to the bravura of duelling during the early years of its transmission into England. Both theater and literature served as educative tools for those entering into the estate of gentlemen. Fictional replication of honor culture ensured its real life survival amongs parvenus, who were even more likely than established gentlemen, to show their mettle by standing on their honor. Kiernan’s review of contemporary literature is impressive and expansive although never analyzed in such a way as to give a solid sense of the duel’s frequency and social location. He is alive to the fact that social convention impelled some men to fight against their better inclinations. Duelling, as abolitionists argued, was as often a manifestation of a species of moral cowardice as it was a display of physical courage. Kiernan powerfully describes it as “a strange blend of anarchic individualism with servile obedience to an unnatural rule.”
Where the book falters, though, is in its failure to deal, other than haphazardly, with the duel as a dynamic phenomenon that influenced and engendered social change. As we move into the modern age, duelling, according to Kiernan, remained the occupation of an “obsolescent and for the more purposes useless class… If the chief ordinary occupation of the duelling class was killing animals, it might be felt as no great departure if they occasionally tried to kill each other, by way of a change.” I however, would argue that much happened in the later history of the duel that remains worthy of more serious analysis. The duel breached the walls of the aristocracy and passed into the hands of soldiers, lawyers, bankers, editors, clergymen, politicians, doctors and so on. Is it not remarkable that, as Robert Nye has shown us, in France the duel, apparently that most aristocratic of activities, passed into the hands of Republicans opposed to the autocracy of Louis Napoleon? Or indeed that duelling suggested itself to Marx and others?
Kiernan never systematically explores the content of honor culture embedded in any specific culture context in the way that Ute Frevert, Markku Peltonen and others have done. Despite this he does touch upon some questions of great moment to those interested in locating the duel in its historical setting and in considering the contribution to human development made by the ideology of an honor culture. As the book draws to a close, he recognizes that what followed the demise of the duelling culture, that he has so much derided, was not necessarily benign. He himself does not go very far but one might observe that individual honor became ever more displaced by national honor and the claims of national destiny. As all in Europe know, the consequences of this transition did much to disfigure the twentieth century.
All in all, one can scarcely fail to be impressed by the width of Kiernan’s knowledge. This is a very entertaining and thought-provoking volume. I am heartened to see it in print again and believe that it continues to be an excellent introduction to the duel. However, I have reservations: the book has a faint air of those works on so called “primitive” tribes once written by English Victorian gentlemen. Rain gods and talking trees — look what these simple, foolish, people believe in! Such was the subtext of many an early work of proto-anthropology produced by gentlemen who were entirely confident of the superior rationality of their own culture. Kiernan has no doubt about the superior rationality of his particular belief system when judging the past. At one point, he cites Brantome “belle vie, belle mort” and concludes that Brantome’s “salute to the duellist has the accent of an infantile ability to peer beyond the momentary burst of applause into the long silence of nothingness.” Perhaps so, but for my part, I would respond that honor culture, like belief in rain gods, indeed represented an attempt to make sense of the problem of what it meant to be alive in the world. Whether the rampant nationalism, capitalism or indeed revolutionary Marxism that have succeeded honor culture have offered more convincing solutions to that problem, I have my doubts. There is much to treasure in the reissue of this notable work. However, anthropologists have rightly moved on from their earlier condescending judgements about other belief systems and so have the more perceptive of the modern historians of the duel.
Reviewed by Stephen Banks, University of Reading
The Duel in European History, Honour and the Reign of the Aristocracy
By Victor Kiernan
Publisher: Zed Books
Paperback / 248 pages / 2016
Published on March 15, 2018.