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A code duello is a set of rules for a one-on-one combat, or duel.
Codes duello regulate dueling and thus help prevent vendettas between families and other social factions. They ensure that non-violent means of reaching agreement be exhausted and that harm be reduced, both by limiting the terms of engagement and by providing medical care. Finally, they ensure that the proceedings have a number of witnesses. The witnesses assure grieving members of factions of the fairness of the duel, and help provide testimony if legal authorities become involved.
From the Roman Empire to Middle Ages
In Rome, the most famous duel was fought between three Horatii brothers and three Curiatii brothers and, respecting precise rules during the 7th century BC., Mark Antony and Octavian also challenged each other to a personal duel, but this suggestion never came to fruition. The Lombards had dueling rituals too, often controlled by local judges. The Norse sagas give accounts of the rules of dueling in the Viking Age holmganga. The 1409 Flos Duellatorum of Italy is the earliest example of an actual code duello in Europe. Fechtbücher of Hans Talhoffer and other fifteenth century masters give rules for judicial duels and "tournament rules" with varying degrees of detail.
A morally acceptable duel would start with the challenger issuing a traditional, public, personal grievance, based on an insult, directly to the single person who offended the challenger.
The challenged person had the choice of a public apology or other restitution, or choosing the weapons for the duel. The challenger would then propose a place for the "field of honour". The challenged man had to either accept the site or propose an alternative. The location had to be a place where the opponents could duel without being arrested. It was common for the constables to set aside such places and times and spread the information, so "honest people can avoid unpatrolled places."
At the field of honor, each side would bring a doctor and seconds. The seconds would try to reconcile the parties by acting as go-betweens to attempt to settle the dispute with an apology or restitution. If reconciliation succeeded, all parties considered the dispute to be honorably settled, and went home.
Each side would have at least one second; three was the traditional number.
If one party failed to appear, he was accounted a coward. The appearing party would win by default. The seconds and sometimes the doctor would bear witness of the cowardice.
Swords were the typical weapon until the 17th century, when pistols became readily available.
When using swords, the two parties would start on opposite sides of a square twenty paces wide. Usually the square was marked at the corners with dropped handkerchiefs. Leaving the square was accounted cowardice.
The opponents agreed to duel to an agreed condition. While many modern accounts dwell heavily on "first blood" as the condition, manuals of honor from the day universally deride the practice as dishonorable and unmanly. Far more common was a duel until either one party was physically unable to fight or the physician called a halt. While explicit duels to the death were rare, many duels ended in death of one or both combatants because of the wounds sustained.
When the condition was achieved, the matter was considered settled with the winner proving his point and the loser keeping his reputation for courage.
Irish Code Duello
Duelling with firearms grew in popularity in the 18th century, especially with the adoption of the Irish Code Duello, "adopted at the Clonmel Summer Assizes in 1777 for the government of duellists by the gentlemen of County Tipperary, County Galway, County Mayo, County Sligo and County Roscommon, and prescribed for general adoption throughout Ireland."
Typical weapons were cased duelling pistols, tuned for identical appearance, reliability and accuracy. In America, the Irish code eventually supplanted the usual method of brutal hand-to-hand combat and gave the combat a respectable feel. However, since the combatants could not control guns as precisely as swords, gun duels had a greater chance of being fatal.
Some duels miscarried because both opponents did not hear or see the starting signal. Agreeing to a signal was helpful.
A custom had grown, before the Irish code, of deloping, discharging one's firearm in the ground (usually to one side) when two friends had quarrelled and one (or both) wished to end the duel without harming his opponent or appearing cowardly. This custom often resulted in accidents and the Irish Duello forbade it.
Marquess of Queensberry
After just a few years many persons wrote rather forcefully that the Irish Code was far too deadly for the necessary business of discovering social positions among the military gentry. Those objecting to the Code Duello included such luminaries as Benjamin Franklin and Queen Victoria in whose day and realm the duel was already nearly extinct.
Pugilism had been growing in popularity and technique in Venice since 12th century, and in England since 1615, when a London armsmaster began offering public lessons in fisticuffs to the gentry. After many years, and several attempts by other men to write acceptable rules, John Graham Chambers wrote the Marquess of Queensberry rules in 1865. They were published in 1867.
He intended them solely for amateur matches, a thinly veiled reference to bouts of fisticuffs between gentlemen. The authorities began to allow prize matches and amateur boxing under this new rule system when John Sholto Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry endorsed its use.
The new rules had a three-minute limit on rounds, required gloves, and forbade grappling and wrestling. The rules prevented permanent mutilation: They did not permit punches to the temples, neck or below the belt. They also forbade kicking, biting and eye gouging.
The result was a viscerally satisfying fight with far less actual hazard than either a sword or gunfight. In other words, it became a nearly perfect vehicle for addressing matters of pride and insult.
As a practical matter, the legal sport of pugilism replaced duelling for most English gentlemen near this time. Only the involved gentlemen ever needed to know the points of honour at stake.
Duelling thereby moved underground and to 'sport' and has stayed there.
Southern US Code of Honor
In 1838 former governor of South Carolina John Lyde Wilson published The Code of Honor; or Rules for the Government of Principals and Seconds in Dueling. The author later stated that at the time of writing he had never seen the Irish code.
Generally similar in intent, the Code of Honor additionally provided for secrecy (in view of laws punishing Duelists and, sometimes Seconds) and enforcement (to propel the disinclined). It counseled self-command and deprecated public resentment, and recommended silence with everyone except the second who would henceforth bear the insulted party's honor. A second not properly received could issue his own challenge. It advanced the concept of "posting" a public notice to degrade a scoundrel who refused to fight, or properly apologize, or participate at all. Southern duels persisted through the 1840s. Commonly held on sand bars in rivers where jurisdiction was unclear, they were rarely prosecuted.
- "The Duel: A History of Duelling", Robert Baldick, Chapman and Hall Ltd., London, 1965; Hamlyn Publishing Group Ltd., London, 1970. ISBN 0-600-32837-6
- "A Polite Exchange of Bullets; The Duel and the English Gentleman, 1750-1850", Dr Stephen Banks, Boydell and Brewer, London, 2010
- "Dead before Breakfast: The English Gentleman and Honour Affronted", Dr Stephen Banks in Sheila Bibb and Daniel Escandell (eds), Best Served Cold: Studies on Revenge, Oxford: Inter-Disciplinary Press, 2010.
- "Challengers Chastised and Duellists Deterred: Kings Bench and Criminal Informations, 1800-1820" Stephen Banks (2007) Australia & New Zealand Law & History E-Journal, Refereed Paper No (4).
- "Killing with Courtesy: The English Duelist, 1785-1845," S. Banks (2008) 47 Journal of British Studies 528-558.
- "Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation", Ellis J., Joseph, Vintage Books Inc., New York, 2002. ISBN 0-375-70524-4
- Code Duello Pages
- Commentary on the 26 Rules
- John Lyde Wilson's Code of Honor
- The 26 Rules of the Irish Clonmel Code Duello
- The Code of Honor, Or, Rules for the Government of Principals and Seconds in Duelling
- Down the river, or Practical Lessons Under the Code Duello - Based in the American South, a humorous story of the Code in action.