When looking at the subject of fighting especially within a historical context, many tend to look through rose tinted glasses. For so long the entertainment industry has built up an elusion of ethics and fair play based on the use of the chivalric code of conduct. Either with scenes of dueling where both participants fight one another in a regulated and fair manner to depictions in literature of the gallant knight or musketeer. Even some of the old masters of the art and science of defense speak within their texts about showing ones superiority and virtue by disarming and sparing the life of the opponent.
However the reality is usually far more brutal and darker, now this is not to say the above never happened, we do have accounts showing at times that acts of chivalry have been done, but sadly much of the fighting was not done in a fair manner. Even the chivalric code itself, was a way for only the nobility to be spared in a lost battle and that is if they could afford the price tag(ransom).
With the above in mind I would like to take this article as a chance to explore some of the ways fencers would cheat in a fight to gain the upper hand. Many will be of the opinion that a fair fight is the better option and we should salute such thinking. But as history often shows, when faced with the potential possibility of your life being taken. You will often use any means necessary to protect it, or at least one of you will.
The rules of dueling
In order to look at how fighters bent and broke the rules set out at their given historical times, we will use accounts of dueling. In a military context breaking the rules of war was not as noticeable as in a duel,depending on the level and severity.
For this article we will use the duel as a way to depict some of the extents to which fencers would go to cheat and which laws they risked breaking but first we must look at the duel, why in was done, how it was meant to be conducted and more importantly the rules to which both participants must have abided.
Dueling within itself has been one of those events which has been conducted throughout human history. Especially in western Europe. The duel itself has never really changed, it consisted of two participants fighting over an act of honor. This can be down to Land, Insult, marriage and a host of other reasons. The one factor that did change however was the manner the duel was conducted, the rules and the laws at the time. We will look at the 17th and 18th century for this article as dueling in a lot of towns and cities in Europe was banned in the 16th century, for example France and England lost much of their upper classes to fatality’s leading to dueling being outlawed. This can be seen in the sixteenth century, a number of historians argue, the French dueled more than any other nation. They estimate that approximately 350 died in duels each year during Henry IV reign from 1589 to 1610. About half of France’s noble population of 100,000.
In order to begin a duel in the 17th century, an insult to ones honor or family or dispute over land would need to happen. Once this had happened the two parties would need to agree on terms. This involved the selection of time, location, weapons, and to what extent the fight would last. Then the individuals involved would need to find a second (an individual you trusted to handle your weapons) and usually a third party to rule out any disagreements.
The rules depending on the time would be for example to first blood, rather then killing the opponent. (some cases this could be a hangable offence)
All going to plan the duel would proceed with the victor being correct in the matter at hand and both participants honor being saved. If one where to die of their wounds at a later date, this would be seen as an act of god. If one died during the duel due to the intentions of the other (outside of agreed terms) then the victor would be punished by the law or flee to become an outlaw. Ireland itself saw many instances of dueling with many duelists being well known.
During the eighteenth century, Ireland was Europe’s wild west, where the sword was the constant companion of every gentleman, soldier, and rogue. Here, in the dimly lit rooms of Dublin’s popular coffee and chocolate houses, among its public parks and cloistered back yards, fearsome duelists such as George Robert “Fighting” Fitzgerald, Alexander “Buck” English, and Captain David “Tyger” Roche fought for life and honor with the sword and pistol. Here, countless swordsmen—colorfully dressed in ruffled silk—stained the ground of St Stephen’s Green with blood, and celebrated their survival over glasses of cherry brandy.
its notorious armed gangs such as the Bucks, Cherokees, and Pinking Dindies, who terrorized the people of Dublin with the small-sword, knife, falchion, and shillelagh, and engaged in vicious battles with members of the city’s Night Watch.
An excerpt from Irish swordsmen by ben miller.
Dueling did not always go to plan, this can be seen by the fact that duels where mainly outlawed in many parts of Europe and also to the fact that duels had to be witnessed. Back in the 14th century this would involve a full judicial committee which was a public affair (many problems arrived when dueling went private as seen in France or Italy, this allowed matters of honor to be dealt with privately) an historical example of a public duel can be read in the last duelist:
Therefore, with a ring of innumerable crowds standing by, and also the king and princes ranged about according to custom, with the contested lawsuit before them, and both men having entered the agreed place for the upcoming battle, next to the walls of Saint-Martin-des-Champs, they were about to test a questionable martyr.
For as soon as the marshal gave the signal for mutual attack, the two men abandoned (abigerunt) their horses and, with threatening swords lowered, advanced in slow steps and engaged one another bravely and boldly. In this first attack, the other man [Le Gris] pierced Lord Jean’s thigh with his sword. This blow would have served him well if he had pressed it into the lord’s wound; but, having drawn it out right away, blood arose, a spectacle for the crowd.
Then Jean, marshaling his soul into his strength, stepped in closer and exclaimed “Our quarrel is judged this day!” With his left hand, he seized the peak of Jacques’ helmet and drew the man to himself. Stepping back a little, he threw him alone to the ground, prostrate and weighed down by heavy armour. Having done that, he drew his sword and killed his enemy with great difficulty, because he was encased in armour.
Even though the vanquished man had not renounced his claim when the victor threw him down and commanded him many times to admit the truth, it was adjudged that he [Le Gris] be dragged to the gibbet, as was the custom for duels.
One of the ways for duelers to gain an advantage was tampering with the location, this could be done by knowing a fault in the landscape such as trip hazards, ditches etc. Therefore, agreeing on location was a delicate matter for most.
Arms and armor
Accounts of individuals tampering with equipment is one of the main areas in which duelists would try and give themselves the upper hand. In the case of pistols, filling the pistol with a none lethal ball usually a mixture of straw and flack making the projectile nonlethal or simply damaging the firing mechanism.
Other accounts speak of duelists hiding metal plates under and in parts of clothing, this would not only allow protection from strikes but also an advantage in goading the opponent to strike that location knowing it to be protected and in turn opening themselves up for a counter attack.
Swords used were also a concern with the blades being checked and re checked often not being put down until the duel starts and even then being minded by their second ( the individual picked to help you in the duel)
Other tricks where implemented outside of tampering with equipment or picking a favorable location. Kicking sand and dirt in the eyes of the adversary was a popular one along with the use of additional weapons hidden on the body.
Breaking the agreed rules was also In use, some duels requiring that the opponent dose not grab or seize the sword (an effective and historically accurate technique)
The above is a small example of the kind of problems individuals would face, for instance when it came to the use of pistols many duelists would fire into the air or ground to show they had the honor and bravery to fight but the good sense not to.
Sometime this would lead to one being killed due to misreading the intent of the other.
Conflict outside of dueling
When it comes to open conflict, history is full of horrific accounts, some of the worst examples of humanity can be seen in the history pages and accounts by historical fencing masters, many of whom would recommend learning to fence but avoiding using it.
Cheating in the case of war where many would think a code of conduct would be implemented was wide spread. Unsurprisingly if cheating happened in the regulated affair of dueling then it happened in times of war. One of my favorite depictions of just how far two soldiers will go in a fight is depicted in an image where both soldiers use everything at their disposal with the conclusion of the fight having the victor steals the others jacket.
There are many images depicting underhanded fighting and of those willing to take advantage. But who can blame them when faced with the very real possibility of losing their lives.