The Duel of Honour

The Duel of Honour was invented by the Italians, and while brutal, it had an elaborate set of rules.


It was the Italians who invented the Duel of Honour and during the late Middle Ages and Renaissance they were certainly the most prolific not only in their resorting to such measures, but in their writings on the subject. For Italians, a duel was not just a fight between two men, but a highly sophisticated and formalised judicial procedure defined and regulated by a set of rules as complex and binding as those of any court of law. In fact, the first treatises that appeared on the subject of duelling as early as the fourteenth century were written by Italian jurists.

The Duel of Honour grew out of practices that date back to the most distant historical times. The earliest type of duel was the State Duel where representatives of opposing armies or factions would decide the winner in one-to-one combat between champions. The Judicial Duel dates from the earliest Dark Ages and was introduced into Italy by the Lombards. This state-sanctioned duel would be fought to determine the guilt or innocence of a man accused of a crime. The accused would fight his accuser under the auspices of his lord who would decree the appropriate punishment for the loser, be it the accused who would have to suffer for his crime, or the accuser who would be punished for perjury.

By the twelfth century, the Judicial Duel had fallen into disuse, but out of it had grown the Duel of Honour, fought now to prove or disprove an accusation of a dishonourable act. Duels could also be fought to acquire fame, out of sheer hatred, and, of course, over the love of a woman. However, it was only the formal public duel fought on a point of honour that was considered ethical and justifiable. Though tacitly endorsed by both state and church authorities, official canon law decreed all duelling unlawful and deemed the losing party a suicide and the winner a murderer.

The duel would begin with an accusation or an insult. The offended party would then challenge the other to a duel. Which party was the official challenger could sometimes be disputed if, perhaps, several insults were exchanged, or the duel was deliberately provoked by a man who considered himself already injured. Their friends would beg them to only fight as a last resort and find a peaceful solution such as an apology or a retraction, or by providing proof of the accused party’s innocence or guilt, for no duel could be fought over a manifestly true accusation.

Duels of Honour could only be fought amongst the nobility and knights. It was considered dishonourable to challenge a man of lower rank. A man of lower rank could challenge one of higher rank, but the man of higher rank had the privilege of refusing the challenge. While a challenger would be expected to fight on his own behalf, the challenged party could bring in a substitute, except in the case of an accusation of a crime that could incur the death penalty. One could also fight on behalf of an injured party that was unable to defend themselves.

The challenged party had the choice of arms, though, as noted earlier, which party had that right might be disputed. When there was any doubt, the choice would go to the offended party. The parties must then find a suitable field on which to fight, and then ask permission of the local lord to hold the duel. The duel would be presided over by a judge who would be either the local lord, or a man chosen by both parties. After trying to bring about a peaceful resolution, the judge would ensure the duel was fought according to the rules and declare the winner.

A practice which originated in Italy was the calling in of seconds or padrini. Preferably men of experience, moral courage, justice and urbanity, the second’s duties were to inspect the field and the opponent’s equipment, ensure his principal received his rights and seek to resolve any questions in his principal’s favour even if this led him into a dispute with the opposing second, a dispute which might also be resolved by a duel at a later date. Seconds might also be called on to avenge their principal’s death.

Before the duel could be fought, the judge had to ensure physical equality between the opponents. This might involve fasting or bloodletting by the stronger man, or tying one arm up if the opponent was one-armed or covering an eye (some advocated putting out the eye) if the opponent was one-eyed. As the duel could also be fought on horseback and in armour, they, too, should be equivalent so that no man had an unfair advantage.

Two 15th century illustrations of men on horseback, one with a crossbow and the other with a lance
Illustration from De Fechtbuch by Hans Talhoffer

If the duel was to be on horseback, the most honourable weapons were the halberd and the lance, and on foot knives, daggers and swords. Defensive equipment could also be used such as shields or cloaks, though the sword alone was the weapon of choice. Armour was considered an honourable option as only ruffians fought without it.

The outcome of the duel was considered to be decreed by fortune and determined by one’s guilt or innocence. For this reason opinions differed on how the fight should be conducted. One school of thought decreed that it was acceptable for the duellist to take advantage of his opponent’s mishaps, others thought otherwise. So while it was technically permitted to stab a man fallen to the ground, to attack one recovering his lost sword, or kill a wounded man, many thought it was only chivalrous to let the opponent recover his feet before continuing the fight. If a sword was bent or broken, the judge would decide whether it could be replaced.

Unless otherwise agreed, the duel would be fought to the finish, the point where either opponent died, or when one man recanted, surrendered or fled the field. If one opponent was in the power of the other and still refused to recant or surrender he could be killed, though an honourable man would spare the loser’s life. It was considered very bad form to pretend to surrender and then attack your opponent. If the fight ended in non-fatal injuries, or if both opponents died, it was up to the judge to decide the winner.

The loser might have to pay a fine, forfeit his armour to his opponent, or even become his prisoner. Although not considered a slave or servant, an imprisoned loser would have to serve his conqueror, or if released on parole, promise to come and serve him when called upon. The winner might also turn his captive over to his lord, bequeath him to his heirs or demand a ransom. Now technically without honour, the loser might never be allowed to fight another duel, or only with the permission of his conqueror.

Of course, not everyone followed the rules. If the opponents could not get their lord’s permission, or could not afford the expense of a formal duel, they might fight informally or alla macchia, in an out-of-the-way spot with no judge or rules. Unfortunately, despite their promulgation of the rules, Italians were reputed to flout those very rules with impunity, calling on cunning tricks and ruses to kill their opponents in whatever way they could, in ogni modo, maiming them, or ambushing them afterwards.


© Pauline Montagna 2015

Read more about Medieval Italy…


The duel: a history of duelling by Robert Baldick (1965)

The Sixteenth Century Italian Duel by Frederick R Bryson (1938)



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