Duelling is intrinsically associated with the chivalric code of honour practised by medieval knights. Although often linked with the royal courts of France and England, duelling is also known in the ancient world and is depicted in Greek and Egyptian iconography.
Once engaged, duellists rarely actually killed their opponents. Bound by a strict code of conduct, a gentleman would use the duel to defend his honour and demand satisfaction. A duel was proposed when an individual deliberately insulted someone of the same rank, or possibly to defend a woman’s reputation.
The time and place was arranged by a second appointed by each individual – they also agreed upon a suitable location. The duel would be undertaken in a remote area during the early morning or late evening, ensuring that the event remained unchallenged by the authorities and free from legal consequences if death ensued.
In ancient Egypt duels took place in temples as entertainment. The weapons used included sledgehammers, maces and chains. But the most dramatic duels took place in ancient Rome. The Retiarius was armed with a net and a trident, his only protection a shoulder guard. He used his weapon to create a distance between himself and his opponent. His attack was designed so that he could snare his opponent in the net.
In medieval times, various swords were used during duelling matches – the most common weapons being basket-hilted swords. However, many gentlemen were trained with the rapier and short sword which were designed as thrusting weapons. The duellists used cutting and thrusting actions that enabled them to lunge at their opponent’s body. The contestants aimed at vulnerable areas of the body, namely the neck and the thigh.
After the invention of firearms, duels were fought with pistols. This was dangerous and often resulted in serious injury. Participants employed prized single-shot flintlock pistols kept in pairs, and no respectable Englishman travelled without his guns for protection. The two men select a gun, which they held upright in their hand, and are asked to walk a short distance until they reached a marker in the ground. Here they would turn, advance and shoot. Although the dishonoured party was able to stop the duel at any point it was often the drawing of first blood that ended the proceedings.