stage fencing

Dubious Quick Kill - Part Two


Like the rapier itself, the actual practice of dueling underwent an evolutionary process. Initially, duels were impromptu, deadly affairs resulting in considerable loss of life. As time passed, however, changes in the conduct of the duel improved one's chances for survival. The rencountre Dueling with the rapier was already commonplace during the 16th century. In France alone, between 1589 and 1610 some eight thousand souls had lost their lives while engaged in "affairs of honor." Despite its widespread practice and acceptance among the aristocracy, dueling was nevertheless illegal for most of its long history and, consequently, principals frequently met alone and in secret to avoid being discovered. In this way combatants could transact their business uninterrupted and the victors could claim that in their "chance encounters," it was the deceased who had been responsible for provoking the violence and that, therefore, the death of the adversary had been nothing more than an act of self-defense. It soon became apparent, however, that the rencountre could offer more perils than those for which a duelist might be prepared to bargain. 

As the duel evolved, however, it began to take on a distinct air of respectability.

A case in point is that of the duel between a young man by the name of Chateauneuf and Lachesnaye, the young man's eighty year-old guardian. The two Frenchmen met alone to cross blades on the Isle Louviers. Within moments of having begun, Lachesnaye discovered that Chateauneuf had concealed a cuirass beneath his clothing. At a terrible disadvantage, the older gentleman was left with nothing to do but direct his attacks against his opponent's face and neck; unhappily, Lachesnaye's efforts were in vain, and the young ward finally concluded their relationship by running his guardian through. 

An even more shocking display of treachery can be found in the example of the duel fought between the nephew of Marshal St. Andre and an older man by the name of Matas. After having exchanged words, the two sought out a secluded place in a wood to settle their differences in private. No sooner had the young man come on guard when Matas disarmed him, sending his sword flying. The generous victor spared the young man's life and, as he prepared to leave the ground, suggested that the youth learn how to hold on to his sword. With a final caution to the youngster to refrain from crossing blades with skilled swordsmen such as himself, Matas prepared to mount his horse. The moment his back was turned, the humiliated youngster picked up his weapon and stabbed his generous adversary in the back. 

Certainly, an example of consummate deceit may be found in the duel fought in 1664 at Ostuni, Italy, between the Count of Conversano and the Duke of Martina. The quarrel had arisen out of years of hatred between the Count and his neighbor, the Prince of Francavilla, whom the Count had decided to challenge to a sword fight. Because of his advanced age, the Prince offered to fight with pistols instead, but expecting to make full use of the advantage afforded by the disparity in their ages, the Count refused to agree. To provoke the Prince into accepting the challenge on his own terms, the Count siezed an opportunity to strike the older man with the flat of his sword in public. Humiliated, the Prince was enraged, but knowing that he had no chance against his younger antagonist, suggested that he be championed by his young nephew, the Duke of Martina. The Count agreed, and after some time, the two finally met, weapons in hand. The combat began and lasted a considerable length of time, but ironically, the original stratagem of the Count was now reversed. Because of his youth, the Duke's superior endurance enabled him to fight a cautious, defensive game. When the Count's strength finally began to fail, the young Duke went on the offensive, and after wounding his antagonist suggested that, if the Count was satisfied, the affair be concluded. Furious at his unexpected turn of fortune, the Count adamantly refused the offer and continued the combat until he received a second wound which took his life. Fully expecting to win the duel, the Count had been confident enough to have prepared a banquet to share with friends in celebration of his triumph. Unbeknownst to the Duke, however, the count had nevertheless taken the precaution to hire a band of scoundrels to ambush and murder the young Duke on his way home, in the event that he had become the victor.  To provide witnesses to testify against accusations of foul play, and to avoid falling victim to trickery or ambush by an unprincipled opponent, it eventually became common for the duelist to arrive on the ground accompanied by one or more friends, or "seconds." Initially, however, orderly conduct of the duel was difficult to maintain as seconds, eager to enjoy the thrill of the moment, frequently joined in the fray, sometimes with as many as four or more fighting on each side. A notable example, in that it is said to be the occasion which introduced this practice, is that of the duel des mignons, fought in France in 1517 between two favorites of Henry III. Each principal was accompanied by two seconds who also participated in the combat. Two of the men were killed on the ground and two more died of their wounds a short time later. Ironically, although the purpose of the seconds was to insure a fair fight, once an adversary had fallen, it was not at all uncommon for an idle second to seek new employment against an opponent already busily engaged. 

As the duel evolved, however, it began to take on a distinct air of respectability. Strict codes were instituted which governed the conduct of affairs of honor in minute detail. Through these codes the rash, ugly, and spontaneous nature of the duel was refined to one of polite civility, and the meticulous observance of each point of the code gave an affair, right up to the killing thrust, a solemn and stately character consistent with that of a religious service. Eventually, only the principals were involved in the combat and the seconds took on the role of counselors, witnesses, and directors. Their responsibility was to guarantee fair play by agreeing with each other regarding the details of the encounter, seeing to it that the rules governing the conduct of the duel were observed, and after becoming familiar with the details involving the cause of the affair, working toward settling the matter peaceably. Interestingly, the dueling code perpetuated the practice of dueling through certain of its provisions which minimized the probability of a fatality, thereby calming the anxieties of an increasingly intolerant public. Among these were rules which allowed seconds to stop a combat as soon as one of the principals was wounded. While such provisions afforded an opportunity for seconds to come to the assistance of a wounded duelist, it will become evident that the as yet-unharmed adversary might have had much to benefit from them as well. 


In America, it is mainly through motion pictures that the public at large has been exposed to swordplay. The gulf of time separating us from the times of the duel and the ignorance of film producers and directors, however, have given most Americans an inaccurate view of swordplay as it really was during the time when swordsmen crossed blades in earnest. A relatively early film, "The Adventures of Don Juan", is typical of such motion pictures, and provides excellent examples of mistaken notions concerning Swordplay. In the closing scenes of the film one finds some thirty to forty swordsmen curiously engaged in a virtual whirlwind of cut, thrust and parry. Armed with what appear to be cup-hilted rapiers, the actors wield their weapons with a speed and dexterity made possible only by the substitution of authentic rapier blades with much lighter and shorter epee blades of the kind used by sport fencers of today. Though historically inaccurate, these stage props enabled the characters of the film to execute complex, exciting, fast-moving fencing actions, including rapid circular thrusts and carries, otherwise impossible with the long, heavy blades of the authentic weapons. Curiously, while these lighter stage props enabled the actors to move their blades more dexterously, the final combat features daggers used in concert with the larger weapons. The use of the dagger in conjunction with the rapier is historically accurate, of course. Because rapiers of authentic construction were somewhat slow and clumsy, daggers were often employed in parrying away thrusts from the adversary's longer weapon. Because of the speed and facility with which the actors were able to wield their lighter stage props, however, the use of the dagger in these scenes, although flashy, was altogether unnecessary. 

In conjunction with the highly romantic albeit inaccurate depiction of swordplay, the film also portrays the wounding of the combatants in a manner that one may be inclined to question. Without exception each defeated swordsman, as he receives a thrust from his adversary, quickly and most obligingly crumples to the floor, leaving the victor entirely unscathed and ready to take on yet another opponent. Only as the film approaches the denouement do we find a single swordsman unprepared to accept his conventional cue to cease hostilities. 

While in the act of attacking his adversary's outside high line, one of the film's sinister characters lunges into a very neatly executed intagliata and, run through the abdomen, slowly collapses to the floor. Although mortally wounded, the knave fails to expire instantly in the same fashion as his predecessors, but watches from a distance while the one responsible for his impending demise engages the arch villain in the final combat of the film. A full two minutes later, while the two remaining adversaries are fiercely engaged, the dying rogue manages to summon enough strength to draw his dagger and hurl it toward the exposed back of the story's hero. The dagger fails to find its mark, however, and as the weapon glances harmlessly off the base of a column, the fatally stricken wretch finally gives up the ghost. Certainly dramatic, such portrayals of death nevertheless leave one to question whether the movie industry's depiction of death at the hand of the swordsman is consistent with reality. 

Another motion picture of particular interest, because it touches upon the theme of this thesis, is the 1960 film, "Spartacus." Early in the story a scene is presented representing the training of men newly recruited for gladiatorial combat. In this sequence, an experienced swordsman charged with the responsibility for training newcomers to the gladitorial school provides a demonstration in which various areas of a man's body are marked with colored dyes to indicate particular regions where differing categories of wounds may be inflicted. The instructor prioritizes wounds to various areas of the body and instructs his pupils to strive to deliver cuts or thrusts either to the region of the neck or to the central area of the chest where the heart lies, because wounds inflicted in these places, he says, will yield an "instant kill." Next in order of priority is the type of wound which, the instructor explains, yields a "cripple." For this type of wound the arms and legs are indicated. Last, strokes of yellow dye are applied to the surface of the pectoral muscles, to the flank area, and to the abdominal region to designate those areas which, when wounded, yield what the instructor describes as the "slow kill." He concludes by admonishing the neophytes to be wary of an adversary so wounded because, ". . . a slow kill may have enough life left in him to kill you before he dies." While this advice is delivered by an actor from a script written for a medium of popular entertainment, the caution seems reasonable, but given the reputation that motion pictures have for their lack of verisimilitude, the interested scholar may wish to further his investigation of this subject, using resources of a more reliable character.

next time, The Dubious Quick Kill...