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Today, on the 16th February AS LII (2018), Maestro ibn Jelal has issued to the Kingdom ... Read More

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    The Art and Conduct of the Duel as it pertains to the SCA

    by Luan an Fael

    Originally published 03 Mar 2005



    It is my intention in this article to write about the Art, the forms and the conduct of Duels and how they may and indeed should be conducted in the SCA and in particular in the Fencing Community therein.

    I intend to draw heavily from Bryson's "The sixteenth-century Italian Duel" with modifications and allowances made for the unique nature of the society we are members of.

    In this article I will cover the rules, conventions and theatre to go into the art of the Duel as well as a little of the history, and some of the more entertaining aspects from History to go into making duelling an entertaining part of SCA combat.

    The Challenge

    "Since insults between men who were previously regarded as honourable might sometimes be cancelled by means of litigation, arbitration or direct negotiation between the principles, the writers agreed that only as a last resort should one have recourse to the duel"

    A Challenge to a Duel was a very serious thing in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, and usually resulted in Death or serious penalty. Fortunately in the SCA all that is like to be injured is ego and pride and if a sense of humour and good sport is retained then duelling can be a fun, and entertaining manner of settling arguments and disputes of honour.

    Traditionally the Challenge was given by means of the pegno or pledge, traditionally a glove, which may be accepted by the challenged party or if not, then placed at his feet in the presence of knights or other soldiers. It is from this practice that the tradition of the thrown glove, or slap with the glove developed in countries with less formal duelling standards than that found in Italy.

    Later, in Sixteenth Century Italy the challenge was most often given by means of maifesto or cartello. A maifesto being a general notification used against opponents who were either of grossly unequal rank, of if the challenged party was unknown, as in the case of an anonymous insult. A cartello was strictly speaking a challenge to a definite individual and assuring him of a safe conduct to the duelling field.

    For SCA purposes a maifesto and a cartello should only be used where formality and precise ceremony are required and both should take the form of a letter addressed to the challenged and stating clearly the nature of the insult or grievance, the name, rank and address of the challenger and be "brief modest and unconditional". Once written it should be delivered to the challenged, or posted publicly for all to see. If this still fails to elicit a reply then the document should be presented to the court, and upon judgement of the crown that the challenge is fair, be announced at court and a crier sent to summon the challenged to answer said challenge.

    In Period there were many reasons a person my refuse a duel and in fact many persons were forbidden from accepting duels including women, children, priests, scholars, lawyers, innkeepers and Jews. Although the latter could have said prohibition removed if they were baptised, restored their gains from usury and were taught the Christian faith for forty days. In the SCA however, anyone should feel free to refuse a duel without dishonour or shame, for any reason given or no, although the theatre involved in a formal refusal based upon the plethora of legal reasons used in period to avoid such fights seems almost too much fun not to do so.

    The writers give examples such as: The arms of a cleric are tears and prayers, that a philosopher or theologian should not be challenged as their arms were wisdom and learning and that "no point of honour required a man who was baked by the sun to challenge one who was accustomed to remain in the shade." Thus with a little effort it is possible to find a perfectly good, legal and entertaining reason to refuse a duel in the SCA without lessening the theatre.

    For less formal Duels the age-old practice of tossing the glove, a polite (and above all controlled) slap with said implement (Heavies please leave the plate gauntlets at home for this one) and/or the declaration "I demand satisfaction" are more than adequate to begin the process of the Duel

    The Preparations

    Once the Duel has been accepted, the preparations begin. This is by far the longest section of the Article and is often the most overlooked in SCA duelling, which is a shame because it is where the opportunity to get theatre and ceremony involved occurs as well as the chance to involve others and turn a simple Duel into something much more entertaining.

    First and foremost, it must be decided if the participants would fight personally or by substitutes. In Period this was an accepted practice and governed by restrictions as to the eligibility of the substitute. He must be over twenty five years old, be not infamous, exiled or an apostate cleric. And there were many circumstances where substitutes were forbidden by law, most notably where the challenge involved accusations of treason, homicide, or breaches of faith.

    In the SCA however a substitute should be acceptable to both parties and chosen only where it is not possible for the challenger or challenged to participate because of infirmity or inability. E.g. A Challenge in which Heavy combat is chosen and the challenger is not authorised for such combat, nor likely to be within the timeframe set down for the duel. Much is also written in Period about the choice of substitute, that they should not be of unequal station or skill nor of a demeanour likely to give further insult to either party. These are also good standards to apply in the SCA as unless the circumstances are prohibiting e.g. some fool challenging the Queen and expecting the King or Queen's champion not to fight just because he himself is a newly authorised fighter is neither reasonable nor sane. However if the Queen in the previous example was the challenger, it would be unseemly for her to choose such an esteemed and seasoned fighter to defend her honour against a complete newbie unless the insult given was most grave, better to choose a squire or unbelted member of her guard so that some semblance of fairness is maintained. Again as with accepting the Duel Period literature is filled with examples and exceptions that a learned fellow might use to justify or refuse the use of a substitute by either party if the need was to arise.

    The Initiative was usually taken by the challenger to find a field suitable for combat. The reasons given for this were that if left to the challenged party he might claim that he could not secure a field, and that since the effort to obtain it was not so much privilege as hardship it should be the challenger that bore the task. Traditionally a choice of three fields was presented to the challenged, and as with most things involved with duels was governed by a wide and varying degree of rules, ordinances and conventions. For our purposes a simple choice of place, time and either public or private duel is sufficient consideration. "Duelling fields were on the whole alike as to their physical features. The tract of land must be large, level, smooth, free from dust etc.; a pebble, for example, by causing the slip of a foot might determine the issue of the duel. The boundary of the field might consist of ploughed furrows, banks, ropes, stakes, a wooden fence, etc. a special section was reserved for seconds and officials and within the field was a platform from which one could see the fighter's movements and hear their words; upon this were stationed the judge of the duel and his counsellors" The standard Eric or list field will serve for SCA purposes as it conforms to the majority of the above and is the default place for Combat to be held.

    Next the permission of the Lord in whose jurisdiction the field laid was needed. Again this was the duty of the challenger unless the challenged took it upon himself to do so. If the lord agreed he gave the challenger an official document, the patente. This stated the place, year, month and day of its issue, the cause of the duel and the time and location it was to take place. It also stated as a matter of form that permission was granted reluctantly. For the SCA's purposes it may or may not be required to get permission from the local Baron/Crown, although one should make certain of said official's opinions on duelling before proceeding without permission. If permission was refused then the duel was either declared null and void or the option to seek a field in another's jurisdiction existed although no obligation to fight in such a case could be imposed.

    The position of judge was next to be filled, for our purposes this can be as simple as the Marshall presiding over the fight or elaborate as the Crown and advisors as the participants may see fit. This, in the SCA, is also the place in which the nature of the Duel should be set. Will it be first touch, first killing blow, best of three? I was the duty of the Judge to ensure the fight was fair and even and during the period preceding the day of the duel the Judge should seek in every way to bring about an honourable peace.

    During the Sixteenth Century the period preceding the Duel was often used to study the opposition, to determine his temperament, his education and heredity. It was also a time for consulting fortune tellers and astrologers as well a numerology and the detailed study of the opponents name and fortunes. It was said that this could greatly effect the outcome of the duel and were taken very seriously by duellists of the time.

    It is now we come to the most overlooked by the SCA, but most serious of Period positions, the Seconds or padrini. It was the duties of the seconds to examine the field, examine either personally or by confident the armour of the opponent, secure for his principle an armourer, make protests, seek to cause any doubtful questions to be resolved in his principles favour etc. On the day before the duel the padrini must go to the judge and announce that their principles are ready.

    Although the prevention of unfairness was the role of the judge, the seconds must insist that their principle receive his rights, even if this leads to a duel between the seconds themselves as was often the case.

    The Arms

    On the matter of Arms much has been written both in period and since. That which is certain is that both Combatants should be fairly armed, and that no armour or weapon adversely disadvantages one or the other.

    As to the Selection of Arms and to whom the right goes, this is a much more complex issue. By the 16th century it is traditionally the right of the challenged party to choose weapons. This however can be changed by a variety of situations including the nature of the insult, the way in which the challenge was given and even the rank of those duelling. For SCA purposes I would recommend that in informal Duels the Challenged party has the right to choose arms, where as in formal Duels that decision should be left to the Sovereign Authority in whose jurisdiction the Duel is to be fought.

    As to the range of weapons allowed, the famous duel between Jarnac and Chataigneraye was said to be so large as to prompt the recipient to note that his opponent wanted to attack both his courage and purse. The most common of weapons used were the Rapier, Broadsword, Pistol and Lance, although any weapon or combination of weapons could be chosen. For the SCA we can disregard those weapons used on horse and limit ourselves to the most common weapons of the duel on foot. It is worth mentioning that many period sources believe it better to refuse a fight than to fight with unfair or ignoble weapons. This said a great many duels were decided by the cunning and often underhanded choice of weapons in such a manner as to disadvantage one party.

    As to who provides the weapons, traditionally the Challenger is responsible for providing the weapons for the duel, although the challenged party may choose to bring his own weapons to the Duel. In the SCA I would advise that if possible both parties bring a range of weapons to the field so that if a combination is chosen that one or the other has no access to, then it can be readily provided.

    The Combat

    "On the Day of the duel the judge must decide at what hour it should begin. This ought not to be so early that the eyes of the contestants would be dazzled by the sun, nor so late as to make possible the objection that there was not sufficient time. Entrance to the field was prohibited to all except the duellists, the judge and his advisors. When the duellists appeared, the first to go upon the field must be the challenger. After his opponent had entered also, the former approached him and said that as the challenger he came to prove his cause, if his opponent did not confess himself to be in the wrong. The challenged party replied that he was present to defend himself. They should use no discourtesy."

    So begins the Combat. Much is written on this matter, including volumes that speak of the nature of the insult, the giving of new insult and the changing of the quarrel before the duel begins. Whist both informative and insightful, it is for our purposes fairly irrelevant and should be left to the scholarly pursuits of the individual.

    For SCA purposes I recommend the following format. Once the duellists are present, the Judge or Herald in the case of a formal duel, announces the grievance and asks both parties if they wish to continue or if reconciliation can be reached. The Judge then calls the seconds forth with the weapons and masks/helms of the combatants and bids them arm themselves. At this stage seconds should take the opportunity to examine the weapons and armour of their principle and his opponent to ensure fair play. Once armed the Judge will remind the duellists of the Chosen Format for the duel and bid them lay on.

    Of note however is the fact, that it was not permissible to renounce the fight entirely after entering the field, as this would be dishonourable. The challenged party may however confess his wrong and be disgraced, however depending on the nature of the matter this confession might not be enough. If this "disclosure of evil" concerned the public welfare then the judge or Lord upon whose field the duel was to be fought might insist the duel continue regardless.

    As to the nature of the Combat, this appears to have been a varying as the nature of the insults given to provoke them. In all cases it is important that the fight be honourable, and that both combatants should act according to the relevant duelling codes and that of Chivalry. In Giraldi's Ecatommiti there is mention of a knight of Ferrara, Piero Balletti, who had fought twenty-four duels and had won them all; but he would never attack a man whose weapon had fallen or been broken, even if this had been caused by Balletti himself. He said that, if he should win by such means, he would be eternally shamed.

    Much that we see in the SCA derives from Period practices; such things as the playing to three wounds, or points were valid period practices. Ultimately the nature of the duel should be decided upon by the combatants and ruled upon by the judge. Fights to the Death were most common in earlier duels but had fallen out of favour by the late 16th century. Of note was the fact that a person using a champion was bound to the same fate as their champion and there are examples in history where gallows were erected and the principle placed in the noose to await the fate of their champion upon the field.

    The Results

    After the Duel the Victor was free to revel in the spoils of triumph, often including the loser's arms, banners, saddles, horses and fine clothing and in some cases even property or the right to take prisoner the looser or force marriage upon him or a member of his house. The looser, if he survived, would be subject to both infamy and ruin the extent of which would only be limited by the victor's generosity and the will of the local lord. By the latter part of the 16th Century the loss of honour and humiliation of defeat had become the chief forfeit of the loosing duellist fortunate enough to escape with his life.

    In the SCA we should expect some forfeit, either a token or prize in the case of informal duels up to formal apologies and admissions of villainy in court for more formal matters. The nature of the forfeit should be decided upon prior to the duel and must be one agreeable to both parties and to the Crown. As the idea of this article is to inspire not discourage duelling I would recommend that these forfeits be kept reasonable and well within the means of both participants. Likewise if a duel is to result in an admission of infamy so foul as to embarrass or disgrace the participants then perhaps it is a matter best dealt with in other ways as so to avoid the duel turning nasty.

    I hope this article will help in someway to encourage and foster duelling the SCA as a fun activity for both the participants and the general populous. It is important to remember that Duels should not be taken to seriously and should only be used to enhance the game not to settle serious personal disputes or grievances. This Festival (2005) we hope to be playing a Duelling game involving a wide range of people and I would hope that anyone participating read this article and be encouraged to go out and study further the Art of the Duel.


    Lord Captain Luan an Fael - Company of the Wolf Rampant

    Last updated on 8 Apr 2011, 22:16:37.