The gun was ravaging the soul of the warrior. To many among them, virtually the whole purpose of battle was to demonstrate courage. Custom dictated that an international corps of heralds hung like scavengers about the battlefield, ascertaining brave deeds to be recorded by chroniclers. Bullets were making the whole process ridiculous; the standards of courage were becoming the standards of idiocy. Insistence on close-in fighting, elaborate rituals of identification, and pairing off were not just inappropriate on a battlefield full of guns; they helped reveal the impotence of the ruling classes.The bullet-riddled environment of the sixteenth century [C.E.] demanded a basic redefinition of what constituted courage. This would take time; but an incident near Brussels in 1582, during the Dutch rebellion, foreshadowed the direction it took. It was an early-spring afternoon and Alexandro Farnese, the Duke of Parma, Philip II of Spain’s most famous general, decided to dine with his staff outdoors, near the trench works. No sooner had they sat down when a cannonball took off the head of a young Walloon officer, and a skull fragment also struck out the eye of another gentleman. The table was cleared only to have a second ball kill two more of the guests. Their blood and brains strewn over the previously festive board, the remaining diners lost all appetite and got up to leave. Yet Parma calmly insisted his guests resume their places, ordering his servants to take away the bodies and bring a clean tablecloth.A traditional hero might have charged the cannon…not Parma. His response was passive disdain. If flesh and bone were unequal to flying lead and iron, the spirit was. Parma’s defiant hospitality was a prototype. One day men of courage would be inclined to stand fast and take it. Other than ferocious aggressiveness, not flinching became the sine qua non of the warrior class.
If a gentleman issued or accepted a challenge in proper form and, fought like a gentleman, with a gentleman, then to be vanquished; was no defeat. Certainly it was nobler than suffering the insult or refusing the fight. And to be killed in a duel by your equal was, if not exactly a pleasure, at least honorable. Your grandchildren could tell of it proudly.
Courage, not manners, was the hallmark of a gentleman. As the duel epidemic spread, courage came to mean a thin skin and an unruly temper, the thinner and more unruly, the more gentlemanly. A gentleman was proud of his temper and indulged and cherished it. There may have been, off in remote country estates, phlegmatic gentlemen landowners, waistcoats bulging with good claret and venison, who chuckled at insults, waved them away, and opened another bottle, but in the cities, the armies, and the universities, prickliness was a point of pride, as proud youths in tough neighborhoods are quick to avenge being “dissed.” An easygoing temperament meant your blood was slow, and cold, and lowly.
In The Three Musketeers, the noble Aramis studies in the seminary for ten years to fulfill his dream of becoming an abbé, but a jealous officer insults him, and he quits the seminary and goes off to take fencing lessons daily for a year. Then he finds the officer, calls him out, and strikes him dead. “I am a gentleman born—my blood is warm,” he explains.
In The Tempest, Prospero threatens Ferdinand, son and heir to the king of Naples, and Ferdinand promptly draws his sword. Miranda cries, “0 dear father, make not too rash a trial of him, for he’s gentle, and not fearful.” By gentle, she doesn’t mean he’s kind to dogs and small children. She means he’s well-bred, and therefore bad tempered, armed and dangerous. Not to be trifled with.
As its first definition of “gentle,” the Oxford English Dictionary, both feet stubbornly planted in the past, gives “well-born, belonging to a family of position; originally used synonymously with noble, but afterwards distinguished from it, either as a wider term, or as designating a lower degree of rank. Also, in heraldic use: Having the rank or status of ‘gentleman,’ the distinguishing mark of which is the right to bear arms.”
Gentlemen bore arms. In the Scottish Highlands, where nobody would think of leaving the house without a sword, or perhaps even sitting down to dinner without one, true gentlemen distinguished themselves from their lowlier neighbors by a feather in the bonnet as well—as in “a feather in his cap”—but elsewhere only gentlemen were entitled to the sword. Swords were the badge of a man who needed no help “beyond that of his heart, his sword, and his valor.” The French called it “la noblesse de l’epee.”
— Gentlemen’s Blood, p. 28-29
Despite repeated laws forbidding dueling, to deny a challenge marked one as unworthy. The abbé de Saint-Pierre charged in 1715 [C.E.] that [a military] officer who refused a challenge would “find himself forced by the other officers and by the commander himself to leave the regiment.”
One counts for nothing that an officer would rather pass for a coward…than to commit a mortal sin and a capital crime in formal disobedience of the law and the will of the prince; one counts for nothing that he does not want to risk his safety and the loss of the good graces of his king; he does not fight, therefore he is a coward; he is a coward, therefore he must be driven away.”
The explanation for duels lay much more in the symbolic than in the real, for by their nature, duels were irrational. Ultimately, the aristocracy’s fighting spirit was driven by the individual’s drive to prove himself within the standard of his own class and thus win gloire. The nobility set standards that must be obeyed, or else the individual would lose caste. As one historian of the duel insists, dueling was “another religion.” A duel was a human sacrifice to the god of peer opinion, and so was a battle.