Honour and the Sword

Joseph Farrell


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Signal Books Limited
24 June 2021
ISBN: 9781909930940
320 pages

From the publisher

The popularity of the musical, Hamilton, featuring the death of Alexander Hamilton in a duel with Aaron Burr, then Vice President of the United States, has revived interest in duelling, but also aroused incredulity that such events could ever have occurred. Where did the custom originate, and why did it spread so quickly all over Europe and the Americas? 

Duelling was once commonplace. Prime ministers and poets, artists and journalists, and even some ladies went out to the ‘field of honour’. Casanova fought with a Polish nobleman in Warsaw, the Duke of Wellington duelled with an English earl in Hyde Park and the Russian poet Pushkin died in a duel in St Petersburg. There were many enigmas associated with the phenomenon. As well as displaying skills with the sword or the pistol, a duellist had to silence problems of conscience. Could duelling be squared with the commandment against killing one’s neighbour? Did the fact that both parties were inspired by a gentlemanly code of Honour make the duel superior to a vulgar brawl?   

The moral justification of duelling intrigued thinkers and intellectuals. Dr Johnson returned to the issue several times, while Rousseau was baffled by the question. Duels added drama to mediocre novels or plays, but featured in the theatre of Shakespeare and later in the work of such masters as Walter Scott, Conrad, Chekhov and Pirandello.

Duelling has been too long regarded as an embarrassing sideline in western culture, but for centuries it was an integral part of history. Joseph Farrell attempts to clarify what the duel actually was and why men ever behaved that way. Exploring the social and cultural forces that encouraged what now seems an extraordinary anachronism, he traces the international evolution of the duel – and its many representations in literature and art – from Renaissance Italy to the whole of Europe, including Britain, and onto the US.