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Tricks of the Duel

In the 16th century, dueling became a mania in France and Italy. Thousands died and the lesser-ranks of the nobility perished under one another's blades in droves. The French Wars of Religion and the Italian vendettas between families simply exacerbated the mania. 

It was in the 17th century that the state tried with varying degrees of success to curb dueling, going so far as to threaten both parties involved in a duel with hanging. 

In steps  Pierre De Bourdeille Brantome, a French nobleman who spent his life adventuring around Europe during the mid to late 16th century. He was closely connected to the royal court and was involved in wars, religious strife, duels and courtly intrigues. He died in 1617, having experienced a life full of violence- so much so, he became curious about it.

In Dueling Stories, Brantome put to paper his experiences when it came to dueling. Like myself, he loves anecdotes, and uses exemplars as a means of educating his audience. He is a historian of a sorts, in that he either was part of or heard second hand these stories, but he is in no way rigorous with his sources. The wilder the tale, the more likely Brantome is to tell it! That said, even if looking at his memoirs on dueling with a bit of skepticism, it does give a fascinating window into dueling culture.

Tricks and techniques were of interest to Brantome and he went to Italy to learn them. He was quick to discover that tricks indeed were just that. The Italians, whose dueling etiquette would be modeled by the rest of Europe, were full of tricks, many of which involved the exact wording of a challenge. 

Like the genie who twists wishes to ill, the phrasing of a duel could be used as a form of trickery. 

When I was writing Historical European Marital Arts in its Context, I had much ground to cover, and while Brantome and his stories are used, there were simply too many to tell in the pages I had available. Below, I have compiled some of the highlights of Brantome's memoir on dueling with particular attention paid to tricks. Some made it into my book and others did not. These are summaries of Powell's early 20th century compilation of Brantome's work, in which he too was looking for highlights in the man's memoirs.

Jarnac and Chastaigenraye

The infamous duel of 1547 was a duel of honor in France approved by the king, Henry II. Jarnac was the outmatched fighter, and so in preparation for the duel trained with an Italian and carefully phrased the rules of the duel in his favor.

When the combatants met, they wore armor, had arms locked into shields and yet nothing protecting their legs. Jarnac, delivered a blow toward the more experienced Chastaigenraye's head, who in turned raised his shield to cover. Unable to see, he was not able to protect his leg, which Jarnac struck.

Chastaigenraye fell, but refused to surrender and rose to fight again. Jarnac, who may have only known one trick, did the same thing again to his opponent's other leg. Jarnac, out of options because he was out of legs to cut, stepped back and refused to get within grappling range of his felled opponent. Jarnac was so concerned about wrestling, that he carried with him two daggers! 

Wounded in the legs, Chastaigenraye fell and was unable to rise. The king, who favored him, called the duel off and sent surgeons to bandage the wounded man. Chastaigenraye pulled off the bandages and bled to death rather than suffer the ignominy of defeat.

Henry II was deeply upset and forbade dueling in his presence. This was part of the reason that public dueling was gradually pushed into the private realm- and much of Brantome's dueling history revolves around this famous duel and its ramifications. 

Throw Sand in his Eyes! 

In formal duels, in which there were barriers set, a governing body involved and two participants, there were strict rules about audience participation. "Beware the ban!" was announced before the fighting commenced. Anyone who spoke could be put to death. It was an old law and custom that Brantome believed to come from Lombard Law. 

In one duel, between Baron de Guerres and Lord de Findelles, during the reign of Henry II, something went wrong. Both opponents were armored and the Baron had a 'bastard' sword of some considerable size that he was skilled with. He had been trained by a "Little Breton Priest', who was an notable fencing master. Despite his training, the Baron was wounded and realizing he was outclassed with a sword, he closed in to wrestle. 

Just then, the audience stands collapsed and a great commotion and cry arose. 

The Baron's friends, using the distraction, cried out for the Baron to use the sand of the barrier. Thinking quickly, the Baron grabbed up a handful of sand and stuffed it into Findelles' face and eyes, forcing his surrender. 

Or maybe not. By the time the authorities of Sedan had made sense of the situation, both opponents claimed victory and demanded the other be hanged and burned. The judge consulted various authorities on the matter and in the end shrugged and said neither would die, but both had done a good job.

Beware Charms

Cheating with charms and spells was a serious concern in duels in Brantome's day. Before a duel, participants would be checked for such. 

The usual culprit sought was inscribed on the skin, wicked mottoes, words, or even prayers. 

In Italy, where tricks were commonplace, there was a fear that a magical phrase might be hidden on the head. To prevent this, heads might be required to be shaved before a duel to ensure no magical work was at play.

Brantome saw these charms as very much real, and noted that in war men would have inscriptions on their bodies and that, sometimes, they even worked, but that by and large they were much to do about nothing.


Fencing masters in the 16th century were careful with how they shared their information. Historical European Martial Arts treatises from the 16th and 17th century are full of theory and techniques, but most people learned not from a book, but from a fencing master who was jealous with his knowledge. 

Brantome notes that when an Italian fencing master took on a pupil, he would swear him to total secrecy and before each lesson they would search the room to make sure no one was hiding and listening in. 

What was taught was trick as much as actual fencing technique. 

A duel is very much a contract between two parties, in which each has to agree before the duel can even take place. It is during this contract that many tricks were pulled.

In Rome, Brantome heard the story of two men who  wished to duel and they agreed to wear armor all over the body, except a two hand-spans over the heart which would be left bare. 

One of the combatants had, prior, trained with a master to do one and only one thing. Stab at the heart.

Needless to say, he won.

Glass Swords

In another Italian example, the participants agreed to use swords and daggers made out of a material called 'vitrine' which was similar to glass. Used incorrectly, the weapon would shatter, but in the hands of one who knew its properties, it could hold up.

As the two duelists went to work, one had their weapons shatter, the other, ran him through. You can guess which one suggested the use of vitrine blades in the first place.

A Trick of Technique 

The famous French knight Bayard was in a duel with a Spaniard over a matter of honor. Bayard had captured Don Alonzo de Soto Mayor and held him as a guest for ransom. Don Alonzo left, claiming he was not treated well. Incensed, Bayard challenged him to a duel.

The two met in Naples, as it was not unusual for men to duel outside their home country, and agreed to fight on foot. They wore open-faced helms and gorgets and were armed with spears and daggers at the side. 

Bayard, who was feeling ill, but agreed to all of Don Alonzo's terms anyways, scored a strike to the Spaniard's face. After that, Bayard was unable to make any headway. He noticed then that Don Alonzo was using a trick, or what we would call a technique. 

After every thrust, Don Alonzo immediately parried. 

Bayard saw Don Alonzo ready a thrust, and he made a move as if to parry it, instead, when Don Alonzo thrust, Bayard dodged the attack while delivering his own attack. Such a void was risky, but paid off, as his lance sunk several fingers deep into Don Alonzo's throat. The mortally wounded man tried to wrestle with Bayard, who in turn drew his dagger and demanded Alonzo's surrender. 

Alas, it was too late, and Alonzo died then and there. Bayard could have insisted the body be hung or burned, but in typical chivalric grace, allowed the dead man's friends to carry his body away.

The Good Cause

The cause of a duel was important, because people believed that God did play a role in who won and who died. In one of Brantome's examples, an Italian ended up in duel in which he suddenly worried that his cause was not just enough and that God, in his infinite wisdom, would punish him with death. 

Thinking fast, the Italian crossed swords with his opponent, then suddenly ran away.

The other cried out, "Ha, coward! Thou fliest!" 

The Italian just as suddenly turned back around, blade at the ready. "You lie! Now I've a good cause. Come on!" 

Iron Man

In the duel between Millaud and Baron Vitaux, as was custom, the seconds inspected the duelists. 

Bravely, or so it seemed, Millaud threw open his shirt to reveal bare flesh and said he was ready to fight the duel without armor.

The two went at it, and after a moment of fencing, Millaud killed the Baron. This was a long vendetta in coming, for the Baron had killed Millaud's father in a duel and Millaud in revenge had killed the Baron's brother. 

Millaud eventually ran the Baron through, but people were suspicious. The Baron had landed several thrusts and cuts to no avail and upon inspecting his sword, his seconds found that the blade's tip was bent. The theory was that Millaud had not been naked under his shirt, but in fact had worn a metal cuirass painted expertly to look like flesh.

Brantome has other stories that run in a similar vein, though he is hesitant to acknowledge their truth, partially so as not to disparage the winners- who were often the ones accused of wearing secret armor.

Dueling and Tricks

There is a sense from Brantome's work, that while techniques did exist in the 16th century, that they were of not much interest to him, or many others. Fencing masters are noted, including Jarnac's master, Captain Caizo, jealous Italians and even priests, but as Brantome makes clear- what they taught might well be in the form of trickery in the way the formal challenges were worded.

A duelist could say the weapon of choice would be a cup of poison they shared, or that participants must fight on a floor covered in razors - though Brantome says that the opponent might refuse to accept the terms. 

Terms were important more so than 
technique, for example, in one duel, it was agreed that each would wear iron collars with blades inside them. The taller man found he could not look down at his shorter opponent- and so was vanquished. 

The stories are fantastical, but, even if they are exaggerations they do give an insight into the mindset of mid to late 16th century dueling.


Dueling Stories of the 16th Century 

From the French of Brantome

by George H. Powell.

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Many of these anecdotes and 

much more can be found in my 


Historical European Martial Arts in its Context

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