Spell it: On guard! Why the French would fight at every opportunity


The cry of “on guard!” and the sound of drawn steel swords was once quite common in Paris and other French cities. Dueling was seen as a way to defend one’s honor and was so ingrained in the country’s culture that it appeared in art and even literature, as the swashbuckling tale of The three Musketeerswritten by Alexandre Dumas.

Duels could take many forms. Sometimes they arose on the person, as in the case of the famous French philosopher René Descartes. According to an August 2020 report in National Geographic, one day while walking with a woman he was courting, a rival suitor attacked him. Fortunately, Descartes was a skilled swordsman and disarmed the man in moments. It is then noted that he returned the man’s sword to her, saying, “You owe your life to that lady I just risked mine for.”

Usually, however, dueling was associated with many formal rituals. First, one person had to challenge another by talking to them, slapping them, or sending them a text message. Once a time and date were set, the duel took place, often on the outskirts of town where the authorities did not interfere. Fighters were forbidden to wear armor and often used lethal rapiers that were lighter and longer than ordinary swords.

In the 17th century, the concept of “seconds” was introduced, where a man accompanied each duelist to ensure the rules were followed, and fought the other duelist’s second before coming to the aid of his own partner. Duels often ended in skirmishes and became so common that King Louis XIV enacted laws banning duels in the late 1600s.

It’s a good thing he did. Historians have calculated that during the reign of Henry IV (in the 16th century), about 10,000 duels took place involving 20,000 duelists, and about 5,000 of them lost their lives.

Today, duels are just part of the history books, and more modern rebuttals like scathing one-liners on an Instagram post, or angry emojis via Whatsapp seem to do the job just as well as a macabre duel. .


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William D. Babcock

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