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Compte rendu: John Leigh, 'Gentlemen Prefer Swords'

posted 13 Apr 2015, 08:07 by Cambridge EMS   [ updated 13 Apr 2015, 08:07 ]
John Leigh’s object, the duelling pistol, was increasingly the weapon of choice in eighteenth-century duels. His paper explored how this new invention changed the practice of duelling, and considered the symbolic value it acquired with respect to the formerly popular sword. Though pistols had first been used in the seventeenth century, these immensely complex mechanisms were now being purpose built and lavishly decorated. Such ornamental weapons were, said Leigh, an example of a very particular form of luxury, in an individual who could afford to put to humble use a beautiful and expensive object that would be out of the financial reach of most.

Swords had a long history and a classical heritage: their use entailed skill and physical fitness. The pistol, on the other hand, created distance between adversaries, who remained static, and were unable to parry the blows of their opponent, thus removing the notion of defending one’s honour. This weapon levelled the playing field in social and physical terms, even favouring the smaller man, who presented a more difficult target. Leigh described the pistol duel as representing a regression towards the origins of duelling, in which the outcome was left up to divine justice: the move from swords to pistols produced a more passive event, which removed direct responsibility from the participants, and instead relied on fate. 

However, though the pistol might appear to simplify duelling, in fact it added further ritual, particularly enhancing the role of the second, who loaded and inspected the gun before agreeing and marking out the distance between the adversaries. Leigh suggested this figure in some ways acted like the reader of a literary text, experiencing the act vicariously. And indeed, duelling featured heavily in the literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Illegal in virtually all countries throughout this period, it was frequently the subject of literary critique, producing texts that – rather than dissuading readers from taking up the practice – served the dual purpose of giving it an air of mystique, and providing potential participants with detailed descriptions to follow.

The focus on action and physicality meant sword duels were frequently depicted on stage and in visual art. Pistol duels were much harder to depict, and indeed pictorial representations often tended towards caricature. Writers were forced instead to concentrate on the interior turmoil of participants, and a developing genre was the description of the sleepless night once the inexorable mechanism of the challenge had been set in motion. Yet despite this new fascination, the sword and the sword duel continued to have a very specific symbolic value in both life and art, denoting nobility and elegance, and functioning as a way for an individual to make a name in a way that pistol duelling was unable to do. 

Images: wikicommons.