The Arts of Fencing and Dueling

The Arts of Fencing and Dueling

For the last two months, I have gone to fencing classes with a group of ninth graders. The instructor told us that fencing has changed very little over the years. Originating in France, it’s been a sport for hundreds of years and was one of the first sports featured in the Olympics.

One of the first things that struck me about fencing is that it would be extremely difficult for any woman in a Regency gown to participate, just based on the fact that most moves involve deep lunging. Here are a few example from 19th Century fencing manuals:


No matter what we may have seen in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, women really should be wearing pants if they wish to engage in swordplay.

Men, of course, practiced fencing during Jane Austen’s time, mostly as a sport, but also as a way to prepare for duels. Jane Austen mentions dueling twice in her books. Most of you are probably familiar with the slight mention in Pride and Prejudice when Mrs. Bennet fears that her husband will fight Mr. Wickham:

The whole party were in hopes of a letter from Mr. Bennet the next morning, but the post came in without bringing a single line from him. His family knew him to be, on all common occasions, a most negligent and dilatory correspondent; but at such a time they had hoped for exertion. They were forced to conclude that he had no pleasing intelligence to send; but even of that they would have been glad to be certain. Mr. Gardiner had waited only for the letters before he set off.

When he was gone, they were certain at least of receiving constant information of what was going on, and their uncle promised, at parting, to prevail on Mr. Bennet to return to Longbourn, as soon as he could, to the great consolation of his sister, who considered it as the only security for her husband’s not being killed in a duel.

This duel, of course, never happened, thanks in part to Mr. Darcy’s efforts.I can understand Mrs. Bennet’s concern, however. Dueling was a common way to settle disagreements during that time, and Mr. Wickham, being a young militiaman, would have definitely had the advantage.

Another duel did happen, however, in Sense and Sensibility, although it is only mentioned in the dialogue. This one was between Col. Brandon and Mr. Willoughby. Col. Brandon describes it thus:

One meeting was unavoidable…I could meet [Willoughby] in no other way. Eliza had confessed to me, though most reluctantly, the name of her lover; and when he returned to town, which was within a fortnight after myself, we met by appointment, he to defend, I to punish his conduct. We returned unwounded, and the meeting, therefore, never got abroad.

Since I have probably watched one too many duels in Western movies, I wasn’t sure what to make of the fact that they both returned unwounded. As it turns out most duels weren’t fought to the death. In fact, there was a great deal of etiquette involved. The Irish wrote up a “Code of Honor” for dueling in 1777 that specifies conduct for duels. I gather from the code that many duels ended just as Brandon and Willoughby’s, with both men remaining unwounded. They were, therefore, much like a modern fencing match. Others were fought to the first sight of blood or to the first wound. (Does this remind anyone else of the sword-fighting scene from The Princess Bride, where they agree to fight to the pain?)

I can also infer from reading the Irish “Code of Honor” that most duels during Jane Austen’s time were fought with pistols. Gunmakers produced special matched pistols for duels, and it seems that pistols weren’t considered any more dangerous than swords. My sister-in-law, who works as an emergency room doctor, has verified that knife wounds can be just as difficult to sew up as bullet wounds. In addition, pistols would place both parties on more equal ground than a sword fight, where a taller or fitter participant could have an unfair advantage.

A set of early 19th century dueling pistols from France

Generally, the offender could avoid the duel altogether by apologizing. However, if he wasn’t willing to apologize, the men exchanged two or three shots, after which the offender had another chance to apologize or explain his actions. They could also choose to keep firing until one of them was wounded. Another alternative was that the offended party could hit the offender with a cane until he was “disabled.” (They were apparently not allowed to fight with their fists.)

The rules for dueling with swords was as follows:

If swords are used, the parties engage till one is well-blooded, disabled or disarmed; or until, after receiving a wound, and blood being drawn, the aggressor begs pardon.

“N.B. A disarm is considered the same as a disable; the disarmer may (strictly) break his adversary’s sword; but if it be the challenger who is disarmed, it is considered ungenerous to do so.

“In case the challenged be disarmed and refuses to ask pardon or atone, he must not be killed as formerly; but the challenger may lay his sword on the aggressor’s shoulder, than break the aggressor’s sword, and say, ‘I spare your life!’ The challenged can never revive the quarrel, the challenger may.

I’d always considered dueling to be a barbarian practice. Watching the teenage boys participate in their fencing lessons, however, I could see how the milder forms of dueling–without wounds–could have a useful function in society. Perhaps when tempers grow heated, young people today could challenge each other to a fencing match or a video game battle to help bring out the offender’s apology. What do you think?

16 Responses to The Arts of Fencing and Dueling

  1. Interesting article. My grandsons fenced in High School. They went to school in Illinois where fencing is quite popular. We live in northwest Indiana and there wasn’t any fencing here but since then, we have a fencing club and one school does fencing and competes with schools in Illinois. My grandson went to the Junior Olympics two years in a row to compete with his epee. My other grandson fenced sabre. I couldn’t believe how fast they could move back and forth. Much counts on the footwork as to how good a fencer can be.
    Thank you for sharing!

  2. There is a book on Fencing by d’Angelo that has all the moves. Masks were not always worn during practice and fun matches. I think swords are much more civilized for duels than pistols.. considering that I think duels are silly and barbaric.
    I think Brandon and Willoughby used pistols and neither pistol shot straight. Brandon should have been able to shoot. That duel solved nothing. If Brandon had been killed the young girl and her child would have been left without any support .
    I must confess to liking the old swashbuckling movies with the fantastic sword play. I also have a book that d’angelo compiled for the cavalry. Quite different from the training for rapier. The boys at Eton and other schools could take fencing as an extra even after gentlemen no longer wore swords.
    d’Angelo’s academy of fencing was as popular as the Gentleman Joe’s ( boxing) or Manton’s ( shooting). It isn’t mentioned as often in novels but there were gentlemen who perfected their style and accuracy despite the general use of pistols. Sword canes were handy and easy to sue.

  3. I fenced when I was in college in the early 70’s. It was a great sport and a good physical work out as well. I still have my epee in the attic.

  4. I believe you can also find a lot of information on YouTube. The videos from the Olympics are fun to watch.

  5. Interesting. Jack Caldwell (I believe) had somewhere (maybe on a blog) described the various moves and positions and terminology. I did not commit it to memory. Thanks for sharing.

    • That’s fun that he still has the equipment. I know my sons would love to fence. I just never knew there were any clubs near us.

  6. It’s amazing to me that something like duels had so much etiquette and that so many walked away unwounded. I always imagined that they only ended with someone wounded or dead.

    • Yes, I learned that even in the famous duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, Hamilton had no intention of injuring Burr. Burr basically broke the etiquette of the duel by killing Hamilton. That’s putting it mildly of course, but most duels did not end in death.

  7. I know a couple of people who enjoy fencing although I’ve never done it. It does seem like it is high tech tag when you think about it!

    • I thought it looked fun. The odd thing was that the girls were much more hesitant to try. The boys took to it more naturally.

  8. I have a different view of modern fencing. I know someone who was a volunteer coach of a college fencing team for almost twenty years, where both men and women participated. College fencing records hits electronically in fencing meets. He described fencing, not as a form of combat or even martial arts, but as “high tech tag.”

    • Haha. That’s a good description. Our students played without electronics, so it didn’t seem as high tech to me.

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