Honorable Combat?

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The duel, from the Latin duellum, meaning combat between two was always prearranged, in the days when it was considered the thing to do to regain one’s honour. This always took the form of combat with deadly weapons, the two persons involved obeying formal arrangements, in the presence of witnesses, called seconds.

It was usual for such extreme measure to be implemented when one person found themselves affronted or offended by another, though or mutual ill-feeling often played a part. The person called upon to accept the challenge had the right to name time, place, and weaponry to be used.

Traditionally, duels were conducted using swords or pistols, almost always fought early mornings at relatively secluded locations where disturbances were unlikely. Not that duelling was an ancient tradition by any means, old world single combats generally only happening in the course of war

The more familiar duel was conceived in arose the early Middle Ages, in Teutonic lands at first, judicial combat, legal of course, used to decide guilt for crimes and disputed land ownership, first legalized in AD501 by king of the Bourguignons Gundobad.

The custom spread to France, prevalent, from the 10th to 12th centuries, and even sanctioned by the church when it involved church property. 11th century Normans brought the duel to England, and even as late as 1817, a case of murder was ordered settled by judicial combat by an English court.

Nonetheless, duellingas a matter of honour never did get legalized, history instead marked by laws banning it. Indeed, the practice in France caused so many deaths that, in 1602,King Henry IV declared duelling an offence punishable by death. In Englandduring the reign of George III, 91 deaths happened because of 172 duels.

17th and 18th century attempts at banning it were ineffective, mainly because, though English common law held a duel killing to be murder, juries rarely convicted. The custom fell out of favour during Queen Victoria’s time, and in 1844 participation in army duels made the combatants subject to general court-martial, though it was 1928 before duelling was outlawed in Germany.

American duels were commonplace from 1621 onwards, frequently occurring during the 18th and 19th centuries and usually fatal. American patriot Button Gwinnett died in a 1777 duel, and statesman Alexander Hamilton was killed by political rival Aaron Burr in an 1804 duel. Duelling was outlawed in 1839 in one US state, becoming nationwide by the start of the 20th century, at which time it was almost universally prohibited by law as a criminal offense.

The main reason that duelling fell from grace was the simple fact of the the decline of the aristocracy, since the custom always had been the preserve of the upper classes. Realistically speaking, the combat indulged in had never, at first, been intended to be to the death, but as this became usual than simple injury, the attraction slowly started to wane. It may all have been done in the guise of settling a matter of honour, but there was rarely anything honourable about it.


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