A Brief Primer on Dueling Weapons and Rituals

Hi I have just stumbled upon your blog and it is amazing 😀 Thank you for all the effort you put in every question it is really helpful as a writer having a guide in things some may not know about 🙂 Hoping to not bother you Could I ask you which kind of swords were generally used in medieval and later on in 1800 ; which kind of reason there could be for a duel in medieval times and how it will be executed? All of of my questions concern particularly France for a WIP I am working on thank you for keeping up such an interesting blog Have a nice day : )

Starting with the question of, “which kinds of swords? That’s a huge swath of weapons, and these weapons changed significantly over time. The Oakeshott typology identifies 13 distinct categories of medieval sword (numbered X through XXII), which saw use between the 11th and 16th centuries, with additional subtypes that are similar to the main 13, but show significant variations.

(Incidentally, if you’re looking at older posts, and wondering why the number went from 12 to 13… it’s because I screwed up. I subtracted 10 from 22, and said, “ah, there are 12,” without considering that Type X is one of Oakeshott’s.)

Oakeshott was expanding Jan Petersen’s classification of Viking swords, Petersen defined nine types from, roughly, ninth to eleventh century. (Though, without checking, I think some Knightly Swords or Arming Swords do fit into the Petersen typology.)

The important takeaway here is that there were a lot of variations in swords. Ranging from the one-handed arming swords up through the greatswords.

By 1800 France, you’re looking at two distinct varieties of swords. You had lightweight dueling weapons, like the epee or rapier, and you had military sabers. (Along with a lot of older swords that still existed, and may have been in circulation or on display.)

The Saber came to popularity in military circles in the 17th century (originating with the Polish Hussars), so by the 1800s it had become the primary military sidearm across most of Europe. (It wouldn’t surprise me if there were nations that hadn’t adopted sabers at that point.) So, if you’re looking at early 19th Century France, students from military academies, and military officers would have been using sabers.

The Rapier was a product of continuing development of the longsword. However, unlike the Saber, the Rapier (and other lightweight dueling blades), found a home with civilian users. Specifically, the rapier was an evolution of the side sword, a kind of straight blade intended for use as a sidearm. The earliest rapiers were French blades in the fifteenth century. Lightweight dueling blades were extremely popular among the rising merchant middle class, and they would remain a popular status symbol and self-defense tool into the 19th century. (There’s a technical distinction here, the rapier would be replaced by the small sword, dress sword, and epee, over time, however, these are extremely similar weapons, to the point that distinguishing between them requires knowing what you’re looking at. In the case of the dress sword, it was sometimes used as a pejorative term for these kinds of dueling blades, rather than an actual type of sword.)

Also, “épée” is the French word for, “sword.” It is a specific, lightweight dueling blade, but the name itself is a simple French word.

By the early 19th century, pistols were already becoming a popular dueling weapon. So, it’s quite possible that a duel in the 1800s would have used dueling pistols rather than blades.

As for the cause of a duel? That could be nearly any dispute. If one party was believed to have caused offense to the other, that was enough. In theory there was a complicated ritual, with both duelists designating a trusted friend to function as their Second. The Seconds had an obligation to attempt to avoid bloodshed (at least in theory), and they would handle communication between the duelists. In more formal situations, a lot of these messages would be transmitted in writing, so there’s a fair amount of surviving primary sources if you want to dig up the exact language.

Dueling persisted to some degree up into the 19th century, and there are still cultural remnants of it in some subcultures today. If you’re asking specifically about 18th Century French dueling, I would assume that would be the aggrieved duelist would challenge their foe, probably verbally, with a statement of cause, and then throw down the gauntlet. (In this case, literally taking their glove and throwing it in the path of the individual they were challenging.) At that point, seconds would be designated, and it would be the seconds’ responsibility to schedule the duel, select the weapons (usually we think of swords or pistols, but this could be anything; in one 1843 French duel, the duelists fought using billiard balls), and attempt to prevent the duel entirely if possible (remember, these are the friends of the duelist who they’re representing, and probably not acquainted with one another, so their loyalty is to keeping their friend alive, meaning it’s quite possible they wouldn’t be able to avert the duel.) On the day of the duel, they would need to be present, and oversee the execution of the duel, they would inspect the weapons to ensure there was no foul play by the other party. Then, two people would try to kill each other. My understanding is that the defeated duelist’s second would be responsible for any arrangements related to a corpse, but I’m not sure, and it’s not a topic I’ve seen come up very often.

By the 19th century, duels were falling out of favor among the general population. French royal decree had outlawed dueling in 1626, but this hadn’t ended the practice. While it was illegal in the 1800s, the legal penalties were slight.

Dueling in the Medieval era was a little different. Depending on exactly when you’re talking about, it was a legally recognized, judicial practice. You can think of this like a modern court case, except the method of dispute resolution was violence. The last judicial duel in France was in 1386, though there were legally sanctioned duels into the sixteenth century. I’m not familiar with the specific legal procedures for a fourteenth century French judicial dual. I know there was a degree of very specific ceremony involved, but anything beyond that is a little outside my area of expertise. The Last Duel by Eric Jager covers this in more detail, if you really want to get into the historical context.

One thing that makes this a little tricky is that the medieval era is roughly 5th to 15th century. Early modern is 15th to 18th. Modern is 18th to present. I’m not completely certain what you’re asking for in medieval dueling. Depending on your definition, this could include things like Viking Holmgangs, and while I’m not aware of any that occurred in France, I’d be genuinely shocked if there were no Holmgangs in tenth and eleventh century Normandy.

So, this is a question about roughly a thousand years of history, and it leaks forward into the modern era. This does make it a little difficult to pin down exactly what you’re looking for. These processes and rituals changed dramatically over time.

-Starke

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you, and come join us on Discord.