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Duels

DUELS were so common, no later than in the beginning of the reign of Louis XIII. (about 1610) that Houssaie, in his Memoires Historiques, Vol. II. p. 259, informs us, that the first news enquired; after every morning, when the people met in the streets or public places, were, ordinarily, Who has fought yesterday? and in the afternoon, Do you know who has fought this morning?

At this time there was one Bouteville, whom it was not necessary to provoke, to fight; for no man enjoyed with keener pleasure the clashing of swords. If he heard any one say by chance, and in the most friendly conversation, that such an one was courageous, he immediately addressed himself to that person, in there words; “Sir, I am told you are a brave fellow; we must fight together.” There remained no alternative but to conclude with a duel, or continually to suffer his mad insults.

Every morning the duellists met at Bouteville’s house in a great hall, where were always found bread and wine on a table ready prepared, with foils to fence. This hall was the school of duellists, or rather the place where the councils of war of these men were held. De Valençay, an officer of eminence, who was at the head of this society, had such an itch for fighting, that one day, he wanted to call out Bouteville, his most intimate friend, because this duellist had not chosen him for a second in a duel which he had had within a few days. Nor would this quarrel have been compromised, but for another that Bouteville, in the gaiety of his heart, had at that moment with the Marquis de Portes; at which meeting De Valençay, amused himself with the Marquis’s second, one Cavois, and wounded him dangerously.

Respecting this duel an anecdote is recorded, which will serve to characterise the duellists. When the Marquis de Portes introduced Cavois to De Valençay, he observed, that he brought one of the best scholars of Du Perche, (then the most skilful fencing-master in Paris) and therefore he said to De Valençay, you will meet a Rowland for your Oliver. When De Valençay pierced Cavois he cried out, “My dear friend, this stroke does not come from Du Perche, but you will acknowledge it to be as good.” Cavois fortunately recovered, and they were on the best terms imaginable, of which De Valençay gave a distinguished proof. When Cardinal Richelieu desired him to select a brave man to command a company of life-guard men, which he was then raising, he warmly recommended Cavois; and answered on his honour that his eminence could not find a braver. Cavois thus recommended was accepted without hesitation; and it was through this singular duel that the fortunes of this poor gentleman began to flourish.

Bouteville became the pest of Paris; and at length was punished with death. Such was the attractive generosity of his character, that he did not go to the place of execution unaccompanied by the lamentations of many persons. An ingenious appeal to his Majesty was drawn up, and which is remarkable for being a curious defence of duelling. Richelieu was desirous of saving his life, but his death was necessary.

The learned Selden has written a treatise on the DUELLO, or single Combat; it abounds with curious antiquarian information. He only considers this species of Combat in a legal view and has collected, with great learning and industry, the ceremonies, institutions, and occasions in which it has been lawfully allowed. On judicial duels, it is not now necessary to dwell. The refinement of modern times has abolished such barbarous public decisions; and we should also abolish the resenting private injuries by an instant appeal to the sword or pistol, were we not deluded by a false spirit of honour; an idol to which we offer up human sacrifices every day.

I have now lying before me a collection of the Edicts, Declarations, Records, and other pieces concerning duels and rencounters, which were made at various periods by the Court of France, with a view of suppressing duels. From these materials a sketch of the history of modern duelling may be formed.

The first decree against duels is dated the 12th June 1599, It declares, that by reason of the murders and homicides, continually committed in duels, to obviate their frequency, (and which duels are generally practised by persons who consider themselves injured and incapable, but, by this mode of reparation, to fill those public occupations for which they are otherwise qualified) it is therefore decreed that those who revenge themselves of insults, by any other mode than the ordinary course of law, shall be deemed guilty of high treason, and their estates confiscated to the king.

The next edict is made by Henry IV. and is dated April 1602. This great monarch tells us, that so prevalent was the custom of fighting duels, and such was the daily effusion of blood of many brave men, that he should not consider himself as worthy of holding the sceptre if he deferred repressing this enormous crime by the severest laws. He, therefore, in the pathetic expressions of this edict, not being able of suffering any longer the just complaints of many fathers and others, who fear that the temerity of youth may precipitate their children to those dreadful combats, fought by some through an ambition that is destructive of their friends and feelings, and accepted by others, who consider they cannot avoid the combat unless they would appear inferior in courage to their enemy; he declares, in conformity to the former decree of parliament, all who have fought duels, whether they be dead or alive, guilty of treason, and enforces the seizure of their estates, and employing every other means of preventing the effusion of blood.

However great the severity of these edicts may appear, they availed little against this false honour with which the French were so dreadfully infected. In the next edict, published only seven years afterwards, June 1609, we observe Henry lamenting, that notwithstanding the rigour of the laws, it seemed rather to provoke than banish this inhuman custom. He, therefore, besides the penalties before imposed, ordains punishments for all persons who are concerned, in any way whatever, of duelling; not only for principals, and seconds, and bearers of challenges, but also for spectators, who shall come to the field and not prevent the shedding blood. However, that he might in some manner not exasperate the prevailing disposition of the nation, he permits those who imagine themselves injured beyond the redress of law to make their application to himself, or to the marshals, governors, &c. and, according to the nature of the affront, he promises to allow them the duel, if no other satisfaction be deemed sufficient.

This severe edict was of great benefit during the latter part of the reign of Henry the Great, But in the commencement of the reign of Louis XIII. to elude its force, a novel mode of duel was invented; the parties gave no challenge, but met as if it had been by accident. On this Louis XIII. published a declaration, dated 3d July, 1611. He there confirms the preceding decrees in all their force, and extends them to all rencounters; whenever they could be proved not to have been occasioned by accident. On the 18th January, 1613, he was compelled to publish another, in which he declares; with a view that all hope of pardon might be destroyed, that whoever shall dare to make application to his mother, the queen regent, to intercede for pardon of such offences shall incur his indignation; And, also that whoever shall conceal the criminals shall be reputed an accessary to their crimes. In the next year we meet with an edict published by the parliament, at the motion of the king’s attorney general, in consequence of the frequent duels which occurred in the streets of Paris.

We will pass over several edicts, in which always some new punishment was added to the former ones. In April, 1624, we find a remarkable one concerning our duellist, Bouteville. He and three others are there condemned for having fought a duel on Easter-day. They are sentenced to be degraded from all privileges and titles of honour, are declared infamous, to be hung on a gibbet in Paris, and, if not apprehended, to be hung in effigy; their houses to be rased to the ground, never to be rebuilt; the trees growing about them to be cut off by the middle, that they may remain as a perpetual monument of their crimes; a pillar of free stone, with an inscription on a copper plate, to be erected there, containing an account of this demolition; and the estates and property of the culprits to be confiscated.

It merits observation, and clearly proves how universal must have been the practice of duelling (and in fact persons of the first distinction had rendered themselves obnoxious to the laws by it) that when the sister of the king of France was married to Charles I. that monarch being desirous of granting to his subjects some public act of grace as a mark of his joy on the occasion, none could be thought of more acceptable to them than a general pardon for duels.

In 1627, Bouteville and his accomplices were apprehended, and suffered condign punishment. In May, 1634, the rage of duelling was still alive; for by a declaration then published the parliament revives all former edicts, and solemnly swears to grant no pardons; and, in 1635, it declared the will of a person of distinction who had fought a duel to be null.

When Louis XIV. came to the crown, an elaborate edict was published, dated June, 1643. This monarch was more successful in his attempts to abolish this pernicious practice than his successors; and it is not to be accounted amongst the least of his great enterprises. He effected this by having formed into a body a variety of useful regulations, which have been called the laws of honour. They originated from the following circumstance, worthy of being imitated by ourselves.

Several gentlemen of distinction in France, lamenting the deplorable progress of duelling, subscribed to a public declaration, in which they solemnly protested to refuse all kinds of challenges, and never to fight duels. This declaration they presented to the marshals of France, prelates and doctors of the Sorbonne, all of whom alledged their reasons for the abolition of this fatal and prevailing vice. The marshals were then enjoined, by an express order from his majesty, to meet together, and form a short code of laws concerning satisfactions and reparations of honour. This they have performed in nineteen regulations, afterwards confirmed and enlarged, signed by the great marshals of France, and dated August 1653.

It must not be considered that this article relates merely to a curious incident in the history of other times. Duelling appears to be making no slow progress at the present moment; and if some great and good minds, who are always independent of the prejudices of their age; would now imitate the example of those persons whose declaration we have noticed, the public tranquillity would be less frequently disturbed, and our domestic felicities would preserve a stability, which, while this fatal practice is prevalent they never can know.