The men of our beloved series are all profoundly concerned with honor in a way that is difficult for members of the modern world to comprehend. Furthermore, many of us harbor misconceptions about this now extinct practice thanks to movies and modern literature. This excerpt from The Romance of Duelling in All Times and Countries by Andrew Steinmetz was written in 1868, after the era of our series, and focuses on the French Code of Honor. Still, its descriptions of the mindset of the gentlemen who engaged in duels, and the reasoning they followed, applies to our period.
According to the French code of honour there are three sorts of offences;
- (1) A simple offence;
- (2) an offence of an insulting nature; and
- (3) an offence with personal violence.
With regard to the first, if in the course of a discussion an offence is offered, the person who has been offended is the injured party.
If this injury is followed by a blow, of course the party struck is the injured one.
To return one blow with another of a more serious nature—severely wounding, for instance, after a slap in the face—does not constitute the person who received the second blow, however severe it may be, the party originally insulted.
If in the course of a discussion, during which the rules of politeness have not been transgressed, but in consequence of which expressions have been used which induce one of the party to consider himself offended, the man who demands satisfaction cannot be considered the aggressor, or the person who gives it the offended; the case must be submitted to the trial of chance.
But if a man sends a message without a sufficient cause, he becomes the aggressor; and the seconds, before they allow a meeting to take place, must insist upon a sufficient reason being manifestly shown.
All these are insisted on because the selection of the weapons and the kind of duel rests with the offended party.
A son may espouse the cause of his father if he is too aged to resent an insult, or if the age of the aggressor is of great disparity; but the son cannot espouse the quarrel of his father if he has been the aggressor. As Dr. Millingen observes, this is a very judicious rule. Some of your old men are particular crusty and inconsiderate, and if this rule were not enforced any old gentleman might grievously offend another, screening himself by his age and infirmities, and sending some vigorous, active, and practised “big boy” to do the brave for him. Consequently he should be made personally responsible for his conduct, and obliged to make a most humble apology, if he cannot give personal satisfaction. Besides, the rule prevents the sacrifice of life to which filial affection might expose a generous youth, who in his conscience may condemn his father’s conduct.
If the offence has been attended by acts of violence, the offended party has the right to name, not only his duel, his arms, the distance, but may also insist upon the aggressor not using his own arms, to which he may have become accustomed by practice; but in this case the offended party must also use weapons with which he has not practised.
Honour can never be compromised by the offending party admitting that he was in the wrong. If the apology of the offending party is deemed sufficient by the seconds of the offended, if the seconds express their satisfaction and are ready to affirm this opinion in writing, or if the offender has tendered a written apology considered of a satisfactory nature, –in such a case the party that offers to apologize ceases to be the offender, and if his adversary persists the arms must be decided by lot.
However, no apology can be received after a blow. Such an offence has often led to a mortal combat.
If the seconds of the offending party come to the ground with an apology instead of bringing forward their principal, it is only to them that blame can be attached, as the honour of their principal was placed in their hands.
No challenge can be sent by collective parties. If any body or society of men have received an insult, they can only send an individual belonging to it to demand satisfaction. A message collectively sent may be refused, but the challenged party may select an antagonist from the collection, or leave the nomination to chance.
All duels should take place during the forty-eight hours that succeed the offence unless it is otherwise stipulated by the seconds. As Dr. Millingen remarks, this rule is of importance; forty-eight hours may be considered a fair time to reflect upon the painful necessity of a hostile meeting, and there is in general reason to suppose that a challenge sent long after a provocation has been the result of the interference of busy friends.
It is the duty of the seconds to decide upon the necessity of the duel and to state their opinions to their principals. After having consulted with them in such a manner as not to allow any chance of avoiding a duel to escape, they must again meet, and exert their best endeavours to settle the business amicably.
The seconds of a young man shall not allow him to fight an adversary above sixty years of age, unless this adversary had struck him, and in this case his challenge must be accepted in writing. His refusal to comply with this rule is tantamount to giving satisfaction, and the young man’s honour is thereby satisfied.
If any unfair occurrence takes place in a duel, it is the duty of the seconds to commit the circumstance to paper, and follow it up before the competent tribunals, when they are bound to give evidence.
Such are the chief rules and regulations of the French code of honour. These new pandects were authorized and signed by eleven peers, twenty-five general officers, and fifty superior officers. Nearly all the maires and prefets gave in their adhesion, and even the minister of war, being restrained by a pardonable delicacy and the awkwardness of official position from attaching his signature, took the trouble of writing a formal letter, signifying his approval of the entire arrangement.
Many of the regulations however, are transparently borrowed from the Irish constitutions before mentioned. The important axiom of a blow admitting of no verbal apology whatever, and the almost casuistical theories as to what constitutes “the insulted party,” are common to both.
Strange as may appear such exalted sanction according by the leading men of France to the practice of duelling, we must not forget the very wise remark of Bentham:
“If the legislator had always applied a proper system of satisfaction for offences, there would have been no duelling, which has been, and is still, but a supplement to the insufficiency of the laws.”
Courtesy of Classical Fencing.
Dr. Maturin suggests further reading: