M. Harold Page, guest-posting at Charles Stross’s blog:
Every so often, somebody posts some wistful meme about how nice it would be if duelling were legal again.
I’m increasingly less gentle in my response. Partly I don’t want non-sword folk to start to thinking of Historical European Martial Arts as some kind of Fascist death cult (we really aren’t, and we’re a very geeky and inclusive movement).
Mostly though, as a historical novelist, swordsman, and father of a teenage boy, I can tell you that duelling was — and — a bloody stupid idea.
Look, I like swords. Love them, even.
I revel in their history, evolution and context. I get a buzz from handling originals — earlier this year, I examined a well-notched sword from the Battle of Castillon and I could almost hear the English army annihilating itself by charging a superior force in entrenched positions.
Most of all, I like fighting with swords or writing about people fighting with swords; Zornhau!
All this is what leads me to think duelling is essentially a bloody stupid idea.
People talk airily about duelling as a “safety valve” or a “test of manhood”.
However, consider what happens when it’s OK and almost mandatory for young men to challenge each other to mortal combat for reasons that can best be called whimsical…
Alfred Hutton — one of the saints of the modern Historical European Martial Arts movement (real soldier, instructor of sabre to the British Army, early investigator of Medieval martial arts treatises) — wrote a wonderful book called The Sword and the Centuries in which he gathered all the anecdotes of tournaments and duelling he could find. Honestly, he should have subtitled it, “500 Years of Aristocratic Testosterone Poisoning“.
Especially if you are the parent of a young man, or have ever sustained a sword injury, the sections on French duelling culture are truly horrific. Duelling wasn’t so much a safety valve as a public health emergency.
We’re talking young men going out for a bottle of wine and coming back in a hearse because another youth caught their eye in the wrong way and they felt impelled to issue an immediate challenge.
We’re talking three versus three duels where a stranger gallantly — read bloody stupidly — offers to make up the missing third on one side. And almost everybody dies.
Reading between the lines, we’re also talking appalling peer pressure, bullying and legitimised murder — a duel is an awfully handy way of getting rid of an unwanted heir or rival.