It is easy to imagine, from reading Georgette Heyer, for example, that all Georgian men walked about, sword on hip, ready to fight for their honor in a duel at a moment’s notice. This ‘spoiling for a fight’ attitude might be a bit over stated, but the sword was, at least during the early Georgian era, a perfectly acceptable, and even expected accessory for the well dressed man. By Jane Austen’s day, however, swords had been replaced by pistols as a means of personal defense (not that all men walked about armed!) and the sword had been relegated to a lovely, if practical accessory of the military man. As the sister of naval officers, Jane was, no doubt, familar with the small sword as a sidearm.
The small sword or smallsword (also court sword, fr: épée de cour or dress sword) is a light one-handed sword designed for thrusting which evolved out of the longer and heavier rapier of the late Renaissance. The height of the small sword’s popularity was between mid 17th and late 18th century. It is thought to have appeared in France and spread quickly across the rest of Europe. The small sword was the immediate predecessor of the French duelling sword (from which the épée developed) and its method of use—as typified in the works of such authors as Sieur de Liancour, Domenico Angelo, Monsieur J. Olivier, and Monsieur L’Abbat—developed into the techniques of the French classical school of fencing. Small swords were also used as status symbols and fashion accessories; for most of the 18th century anyone, civilian or military, with pretensions to gentlemanly status would have worn a small sword on a daily basis. Continue reading The Small Sword: Self Defense and the Georgian Gentleman
Although one might need to read Georgette Heyer, rather than Jane Austen, to get a peek at a Regency duel, however, the activity is by no means ignored in Austen’s novels.
In Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Bennet voices her fears that her husband will fight Mr. Wickham, leaving her daughters to be turned out of their home by the Collins’. This may have been due to her over dramatic sense of self pity, but in fact, Sense and Sensibility’s Col Brandon and Mr. Willoughby do meet in an attempt to defend the (doubtable) honor of Eliza Williams.
“One meeting was unavoidable…I could meet [Willoughby] in no other way. Eliza had confessed to me, though most reluctantly, the name of her lover; and when he returned to town, which was within a fortnight after myself, we met by appointment, he to defend, I to punish his conduct. We returned unwounded, and the meeting, therefore, never got abroad.”
According to one definition, “A duel is an arranged engagement in combat between two individuals, with matched weapons in accordance with agreed-upon rules.”
During the 17th and 18th centuries (and earlier), duels were mostly fought with swords (the rapier, later the smallsword, and finally the French foil), but beginning in the late 18th century and during the 19th century, duels were more commonly fought using pistols. Special sets of duelling pistols were crafted for the wealthiest of noblemen for this purpose.
The duel was based on a code of honour. Duels were fought not so much to kill the opponent as to gain “satisfaction”, that is, to restore one’s honour by demonstrating a willingness to risk one’s life for it, and as such the tradition of duelling was originally reserved for the male members of nobility; however, in the modern era it extended to those of the upper classes generally. From the early 17th century duels became illegal in the countries where they were practised. Continue reading To Punish or Defend? The Regency Duel