By Ken Mondschein
The medieval idea of fighting a duel to determine who is right is one that has some appeal even in the modern-day.
The fiasco at the Capitol, whatever you want to call it—insurrection, the Walmart Putsch, a coup d’état, sparkling white supremacy—was incited not just by Trump himself, but by Rudy Giuliani calling for “trial by combat.” While Giuliani’s idiocy, as well as some of the costumes of the insurrectionists, evoked the Middle Ages, he was, as ever, making up his own facts.
In the Middle Ages, you couldn’t just demand recourse to a duel. There had to be a legal question that needed to be resolved, a question of guilt or innocence that couldn’t be proven by other means. If a case was open-and-shut—like, say, the election—then there was no justification for a judicial duel. While the idea of dueling, like trial by ordeal in general, seems to a rather post-truth way of resolving disputes, the actual ascertaining of guilt or innocence was not as important as ending social conflict. It was thus something associated with a weak state without a strong judiciary system—something that does not describe the modern United States (yet). While in the eleventh and twelfth centuries we find champions of monasteries fighting over such mundane things like water rights, by the fourteenth century, duels were growing rarer as court systems grew more important.
As an example of how judicial duels worked as part of the court system, let’s look at one of the most celebrated incidents in the Hundred Years’ War—and, incidentally, the last judicial duel permitted a court in France as part of a judicial process. In 1386, Jean de Carrouges accused his neighbor, Jacques Le Gris, of raping his wife Marguerite while Jean was away fighting the English. Since women’s testimony was held to be unreliable—this was well before #metoo—Carrogues decided his best chance for justice was to ask King Charles VI for trial by combat. The court allowed him to do so. After a run with lances in which neither was hurt, the two fighters dismounted. Carrogues immediately took a wound to the leg, but redoubled his attacks and ran Le Gris through, killing him.
As legal systems grew stronger, trial by combat was replaced by the duel over a private point of honor. Unlike the criminal trial by combat, the duel of honor was a civil action. Legal thinkers of late fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italy brilliantly turned the conflict between elites that defined themselves by military activity to the interests of law and order: Instead of having noble families battle one another with incessant vendettas, two representatives could challenge one another as individuals. To turn Clausewitz’ phrase upside down, the duel was the continuation of politics by other means.
Like the judicial duel, the duel of honor had to be fought over a “hidden truth,” something that could not be corroborated through witnesses or physical evidence—again, nothing like the election. The instigator would make some sort of accusation—for instance, accusing their would-be antagonist of cowardice. The accused, in turn, would hurl back a counter-accusation and begin a war of words The aim of this was to say something so discrediting the other person was forced “give the lie”—since to accuse someone of lying was a huge assault on their public persona rather than, as in the Trump administration, something to be reveled in. The person so defamed would have no choice but to challenge the accuser to single combat. However, the one accused of lying, and therefore forced to issue the challenge, was at a disadvantage, since the challenged party got to choose the weapons.
By the later sixteenth century, duels of honor were condemned by both rulers and the Church. They thus ceased to be legal processes and became wholly private affairs. If one gentleman insulted another, he might receive an invitation for an informal rendezvous with steel. Codes governing this illegal, but unofficially sanctioned, activity, soon sprang up. This form of dueling persisted up to modern times in almost every European country. The carnage of the World Wars made recourse to blades or pistols seem ridiculous, and there were only two known duels in France after World War II—between two ballet impresarios in 1958 over the changes one made to the other’s work, and in 1967 between two members of the French National Assembly. In Germany, however, student fraternities still fight ritual duels (the mensur) with sharp swords.
Early America was no exception to the dueling craze, with the Hamilton-Burr duel being the best-known example, thanks in no small part to Lin-Manuel Miranda. Andrew Jackson, a populist like Trump, was also well-known as a duelist. Duel-adjacent violence has broken out in the Capitol before: Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina used a cane to beat anti-slavery Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner in 1856 after the latter insulted his relative, Senator Andrew Butler, in an antislavery speech. Caning was what one did to someone who was thought unworthy of being challenged to a duel. The duel, especially in the South, declined only after the Civil War, though it remains part of American cultural memory.
From idealized schoolyard fights to the “showdown” of Western cinema, we live in a country where might makes right—and there has long been a link between white supremacy and a culture of interpersonal violence.
Ken Mondschein is a scholar, writer, college professor, fencing master, and occasional jouster. Click here to visit his website.
Top Image: 16th century depiction of trial bu combat – Bayrische Staatsbibliothek Cod. icon. 393