The duel is a specialized, highly ritual form of combat with deep historical roots. One-on-one combat is probably as old as humanity itself and is well-documented in such places as Bronze-Age frescoes from Crete and various mythologies, and so Victorian fencing historians often traced the roots of the duel and of fencing in general back to classical or even pre-classical, legendary times. However, the duel itself places tight restrictions on the actions that may be taken by either combatant, and forces them to agree on the conditions of their combat for the sake of fairness and equality. In this light the traceable origins of the civilian duel lay much more recently in the middle ages. These restrictions place the duel apart from “unregulated” combative situations where the interest of one or both parties is of immediate attack or defense (such as on the street or in a bar), in that the interest of both combatants lies in the maintenance of their public honor. Because honor above all else drove the private civilian duel, any action which broke the conditions of the combat – even for the purpose of saving oneself from death or injury – would cause a severe loss of face. Without these restrictions and preconditions, the combat cannot (and would not have been) considered a duel – merely a fight.
In this form, then, the private civilian duel has its origin in judicial duels which date back as early as the 5th century in Burgundy. These combats were a form of legal proceeding in either criminal or civil cases, where two combatants presented themselves to a feudal lord to fight in defense of their claim. It was generally thought that God’s will in regard to the case – and thus the truth of the claim of the rightful combatant – would be expressed by the outcome of the combat. Spain and Germany and a number of other countries followed this custom as well, with different procedures for combat between nobles, non-nobles, and even for combat between men and women. These combats were usually fought to injury or death, and it was seen as a dishonor for one combatant to ask for quarter. Moreover, an accused party (or accuser) could seek out the services of a surrogate combatant, or champion, to fight in their place; these champions were often professional fighters who received reimbursement for their services.
In 1547, the French king Henri II banned the judicial duels, which seem to have broadly fallen out of favor in Europe after that point. Indeed, though anti-dueling laws had been passed before, the ban of judicial duels initiated a long, slow legal trend toward banning the duel entirely. However, the mentality of using personal combat to defend one’s honor had cemented itself firmly in the mindset of European gentry by this point. Without judicial duels, they began to make their duels private, civilian affairs which were carried out away from the watchful eye of legal authorities (or else those authorities, who were also gentry, turned a blind eye to such affairs). Thus, despite increasingly strict edicts, duels continued throughout Europe and the Americas until the early 1900’s, when the impact of two World Wars seems to have finally dimmed upper-class tastes for it.
In order to maintain honor and fairness, therefore, increasingly complex dueling codes were written between the 1500’s and early 1900’s, each one prescribing the exact manner in which a duel should progress from the initial insult to the combat itself. These codes resemble nothing so much as legal documents with their conditions, caveats, and procedures, and different countries developed slightly different forms and protocols over time. External parties, or seconds, were generally always included to negotiate the conditions of the impending duel for the primary combatants, hopefully with the intention of forging a peaceful settlement to the dispute. Seconds would also be present at the combat to make certain that no foul play was involved, though it was not unheard of for them, too, to join the combat as it progressed. In this way many duels resulted in several injuries and deaths, rather than just one or two. Regulation of later duels progressed to the point where a “director of combat” was recruited to maintain protocol, and a physician recruited to provide whatever medical services might be needed on the spot. Apart from the principles themselves, who could end the fight whenever they felt they had received satisfaction, the seconds after consulting with the doctor had the power to end the duel.
Generally, the earliest duels were fought with swords – rapiers and small-swords – though as pistols became increasingly common they became more frequent on dueling-grounds in several countries such as Britian and the United States. Any weapon could technically be considered fair game for a duel, and so harpoons, sabers on horseback, and bowie knives are all known to have been occasionally (if infrequently or rarely) selected. However, our romantic notions of the duel most commonly bring to mind notions of swordsmen at dawn, stripped to the waist, and indeed it is this genre of the duel which brought about much of the evolution of fencing. As firearms increasingly limited the use of the sword on the battlefield the sword became increasingly common as a civilian weapon, specialized for street defense and for the duel. Though its battlefield examples did not truly vanish until the first World War, the sword became increasingly suited to the needs of those individuals who used them in private quarrels. With battlefield needs eliminated or reduced, various forms of swords appeared with one-on-one combat specifically in mind, and methods of using them changed to meet these needs as well. Thus the widespread practice of dueling did a great deal to bring about the evolution of fencing as we know it, with slightly varying preferences and versions across several different countries producing a variety of weapons such as German schlagers, French small-swords and épée, and Italian spade, spadini, and sabres. Most of the history of fencing, as we know it, is therefore tied to the history of the duel.