Baron Master Gwylym ab Owain Tatershal, OP, DWS, CLA, CSP, CEE
"A Discourse most necessarie for all Gentlemen that have in regarde their honours touching the giving and receiving of the Lie, whereupon the Duello & the Combats in divers sortes doth insue and many other inconveniences, for lack only of the true knowledge of honor, and the contrarie: and the right understanding of wordes, which heere is plainly set downe, beginning thus..."
A study of the art of using a rapier in the Renaissance style would not be complete without looking at the mindset of the time. In order to fully appreciate the art of dueling, the philosophy of the duel must be understood. To help in this area I will discuss the philosophy of the duel as practiced in France, England, Spain and Italy. Honor was of utmost concern to cavaliers and gentlemen of the period. And it was to uphold honor that the duello was at times resorted to. For a full study of the duel I would suggest that you read "The Duel" by Billacois.
How and why then did the duel develop? What factors promulgated the duel and what affected the duel in France, England, Spain and Italy?
To start, it is prudent to give a formal definition of duel. A definition of the word duel may be stated thus: "An encounter between two or more individuals with equal numbers on each side that results in combat where both parties are equally armed. The purpose of which is to settle a point of honor between the parties involved. The duel was strictly organized and the rules of the duel agreed upon before the onset of the combat itself."
Duels in France (and also in other countries) were much different than brawls, private battles, jousts or tournaments and took one of two forms: judicial and extra-judicial. It may be said that the judicial duel was the descendant of the trial by combat of the Middle Ages. These types of duels were presided over by a sovereign and were formal affairs held in special locales.
To illustrate the judicial duel I will give a synopsis of the account of the combat at Moulins, France on February 17, 1538. During this duel Lion de Barbencois (Sieur de Sarzay) did combat François de Saint-Julien (Sieur de Veniers). A quarrel had been in progress for many years between Sarzay and a gentleman by the name of Sieur de La Tour-Landry. Sarzay had sworn that La Tour-Landry had fled like a coward during the battle of Pravia in 1525 (where Sarzay was not even present). La Tour-Landry's honor was placed in jeopardy by this and demanded that Sarzay give the source of this information. Sarzay related that he had gotten the information from Veniers who vehemently denied the accusation of supplying the information; thus giving Sarzay the Lie. Now, the quarrel changed from Sarzay and La Tour-Landry to Sarzay and Veniers. Thus the duel was not held to clear La Tour-Landry of the charge of cowardice on the field but to dispel the suspicion of a lie. Gossip true, but a lie. In this duel, Sarzay was the injured party since he was accused of lying. After the challenge was given the King was petitioned for a field.
Francois I did choose a courtyard for the duel in a town near where the men lived (Moulins). During the combat both Veniers and Sarzay fought with more courage than skill. At one point the defender was injured on the heel (enough to cause bleeding) and the King called a stop to the duel. He declared no winner or loser and that La Tour-Landry was doing his duty on the day of the battle at Pravia. Right or wrong the fight was over.
To start a judicial duel it was the responsibility of the injured party to call out the opponent. In the early part of the 1600's the call or challenge was made by throwing a glove, dagger or favor at the feet of the opponent as was done in Medieval times. By the end of the 1600's this practice was abandoned in favor of an oral challenge (in front of witnesses) or by a cartel (a written challenge). After the challenge was given, the Crown would be petitioned for a field. Basically requesting that the dispute be settled by force of arms.
The field was an open area typically a courtyard or open field where there was enough room to hold the combat and also allow for the judges and spectators. Judicial duels were announced and well attended. Each combatant would have a grandfather who would be the spokesperson and one or more seconds. The grandfathers would come to the terms of the combat (weapons to be used, armor to be worn if any, time of the combat, etc) and they would also check for hidden weapons, armor and amulets of protection (witchcraft was believed to be used at the time, both for protection and to cause injury or harm to one's opponent). The seconds would either fight on the side of or for the parties involved. It also may be said that they were there for moral support. Typically the duel would end when one party had been injured, when one or both had been killed or when the sun set. At times the Crown would call an early end to the duel without even the spilling of blood.
The extra-judicial duel was a private affair and it is this type of duel that most think of when discussing duels in general. The extra-judicial duel was a criminal offense and was held in contempt of the law.
As private affairs the extra-judicial duel was not announced and so did not draw the crowds like a judicial duel would. In the 1600's the Catholic church even went so far as to threaten excommunication for those individuals taking part in duels. They also stated that anyone killed in a duel could not be buried in hallowed ground. In practice this normally was not enforced but throughout the 1600's the voice of the church against duels increased.
Duelling as a practice had its climax at the period towards the end of the 1500's and then small peaks during the early and mid- 1600's. Pre-war and post-war times seemed to be the periods conducive to dueling. But what prompted men to duel? Except for duels for fun, Billacois isolated five primary causes for duels: duels fought over women, by men belonging to rival clans or factions, over public office, following differences or legal cases concerning family or seigiorial inheritances, and because of rivalry over precedence or honorific distinctions. Typically the duel did not result from one isolated incident but as the culmination of the quarrels between two individuals or groups.
The temperament and philosophy also differed between the countries of England, Italy, France and Spain. It is believed that duelling and the use of the rapier originated in Italy. At least the most favored teachers and texts were Italian in origin. Spain is also thought to be an early contender. The French and English took to the use of the rapier very quickly. In England however, there were movements to keep the rapier out of the country. Elizabeth went so far as to have the gatekeepers of London break off all rapiers over a yard in length. Silver, a prominent English swordmaster, berated the Italian teachers and taught that their practices were dangerous and that all English swordsmen should follow and adhere to good English traditions.
"Paradoxes of defense, wherein is proved the true grounds of fight to be in the short ancient weapons, and that the short sword hath advantage of the long sword or long rapier. And the weakness and imperfection of the rapier-fights displayed. Together with an admonition to the noble, ancient, victorious, valiant, and most brave nation of Englishmen, to beware of false teachers of defence, and how they forsake their own natural fights: with a brief commendation of the noble science or exercising of arms."
"The reason which moved me to adventure so great a task, is the desire I have to bring the truth to light, which hath long time lain hidden in the cause of contempt, while we like degenerate sons, have forsaken our forefather's virtues with their weapons, and have lusted like men sick of a strange ague, after the strange vices and devices of Italian, French and Spanish Fencers, little remembering, that these apish toys could not free Rome from Brennius sack, nor France from King Henrie the Fifth his conquest."
Silver was a seasoned military man and taught the use of the sword, not the rapier. However, the Italian schools flourished, the most famous of which was Bonetti's school at Blackfriars in London (opened in 1576). Unlike other countries, the English resorted more to the informal duel than the judicial duel. However, the English did not exhibit the fervor for the duel as did the French. Some believe that the English use of animal fights and their use of theater sublimated the thirst for vengeance. It is also believed that the English view of blood being worth money and that spilling blood was a waste could also have been a reason for not taking part in duels. "In England, where Puritanism, capitalism, free enterprise and freedom of thought were important in a society which was otherwise very hierarchical, only isolated and more or less anti-social individuals felt the need to fight duels." (Billacois p. 32). Looking at Shakespeare one may see in many of the plays the thoughts of the time on duelling and things Italian.
Spain at an outward level was similar to England in that few resorted to the duel although history shows that the judicial duel was a legal enterprise for many years. One would think that with the temperament of the Spanish (their values and thoughts on honor), that the duel would have found its Elysian Fields. Period documents do not back up this belief. In fact, the word duello and its normal forms do not occur very often in legal documents of the time.
The duel in Spain was legal only when a field was granted by royal decree. Although the granting of a field was a relatively easy accomplishment, still the duel was not resorted to as in France or Italy. Those that took part in illegal duels were subject to stiff penalties such as banishment or execution. Like England the need for duelling may have been abated by the abundance of other blood sports (animal fights, bullfighting) and cane fighting. One other note is that it was common practice to hire an assassin to perform a murder over slights taken:
"Murder is quite normal in this country on several grounds which are even authorized by custom . . . These things can only be avenged by killing. They say the reason is that after such insults it would not be just to risk one's life in single combat with equal arms, where the offended party might die at the hand of the aggressor; and they will wait twenty years for vengeance if they cannot carry it out before then." (Billacois p. 38)
So duelling in Spain did not take on the dimensions that it did in other countries.
It appears that Italy may be termed the birthplace of the duel. It is from Italy that the majority of the period texts may be found. Italian teachers were the rage in the 16th and early 17th Centuries. The outgrowth of the chivalric sciences (dating back to the 1300s in Italy) grow in preponderance until 1560. Masters such as Giovanni da Legnaro, Muzio, Possevino and other doctors of duels wrote voluminous works on dueling and honor. Although the duel was prevalent up until the mid-1500s, it saw a rapid decline toward the end of the century. The duel was even looked back on as one would look back on a golden era:
A generation later. . . recall that golden age when the duel was 'more practiced in Italy than anywhere else in Europe' and when renowned closed fields welcomed any man with an affair of honor to settle; but 'today' the duel is no longer practiced in this way." (Billacois p. 42)
It appears that the decline in the use of the duel, judicial or extra-judicial, occurs at about the same time that there was a shift philosophically from scienza cavalleresca (chivalric science) to the use of the pareri, opinions or discussions on points of honor. To quote again from Billacois:
gentlemen both great and small 'make declamations about duels and denounce present-day softness, but if they are offered the opportunity for a duel, they dodge it with some subtlety taken from chivalric science, a science which they have turned into a state secret.'"
So it was that even Italy did not resort to duelling in such murderous proportion even though they gave to the other countries of Europe masters of fence and arms and general codes of honor. It is the French who "recklessly engaged in duels" and who we may look to when we study or think of duelling in general. It has been stated that the French practiced duelling because of their national character.
And now, as a final question: Who should learn the right and proper use of the rapier? To quote Saviolo:
"The reason as I take it, is because that amongst Knights, Captains, and valiant Soldiers, the Rapier is it which sheweth who are men of armes and of honor, and which obtaineth right for those which are wronged: and for this reason it is made with two edges and one point, and being the weapon which ordinarily Noble men, Knights, Gentlemen and Soldiers wear by their side, as being more proper and fit to be worn then other weapons: therefore this is it which must first be learned, especially being so usual to be worn and taught."
I hope that you have found some useful information in this work. If you would like to contact me to share information or talk about period fencing, you may reach me at the email address below.