In Ancient Rome, armed combat between two men was regarded as a spectacle fit only for lowly gladiator slaves. It was only in the Middle Ages that the judicial duel was established as a way of settling a quarrel.

Medieval trial by combat differed significantly from the later classical duels of the nineteenth century. In fifteenth-century France, one had to first obtain the permission of the king before fighting a duel, which was held in the presence of royalty as a gala event. At any moment, the monarch could stop the duel by throwing his sceptre between the two combatants.

In the sixteenth century, duels became a private matter. The fashion for duelling grew so widespread among the French upper class that it soon began to threaten the very existence of the aristocracy. Eight thousand French noblemen were killed in duels between 1589 and 1608. More than four thousand died in the first eight years of the reign of King Louis XIV.

Unlike in Europe, there was no tradition of duelling in the life of the Muscovite boyars. The Russian word for “single combat” (poedinok) only entered the language from Poland in the late seventeenth century. The French word duel appeared even later, reflecting the route by which it came to Russia.

Under Peter the Great, the lives of all Russian subjects belonged to the tsar. The bearing of arms by two combatants attracted the death sentence. Killing a man in a duel was punishable by hanging, while the loser was strung up by his legs. Catherine the Great published a manifesto on duels in 1787. In an attempt to offer certain privileges to the Russian nobility, she greatly reduced the sentence for duelling.

This law was upheld in the Code of Laws in 1832, despite the intense dislike of duels of the ruling sovereign, Tsar Nicholas I. “I hate duels,” he said, “they are barbarous. In my opinion, there is nothing chivalrous about them.” The emperor preferred theatrical forms of combat, such as the costumed carousels which developed out of the jousting tournaments once held between medieval knights.

The forms of duelling that existed in the nineteenth century were based on a code of honour and followed a strictly controlled ritual. The duel began with a challenge, preceded by an offence which consequently required satisfaction. From this point onwards, the two adversaries only communicated through their seconds. The gravity of the insult determined the conditions of the duel, which could range from a formal exchange of shots to the death of one of the combatants.

The duel fought by Alexander Pushkin and Georges d’Anthès on 27 January 1837 employed the most extreme conditions and could only end in death: “(1) The adversaries stand at a distance of twenty steps from one another and five steps each from the barriers. The distance between them is equal to ten steps; (2) At a given signal, the adversaries, armed with pistols, walk towards one another and may shoot, but must not cross the barrier; (3) Besides this, after the first shot, the adversaries are not permitted to move, so that both are subjected to fire at the same distance; (4) In the case of no result after both parties have taken one shot each, the duel is resumed anew. The adversaries stand at the same distance of twenty steps and the same barriers and rules apply.”

After the tragic outcome of the duel, Nicholas I ordered both men to be tried by a military court – even though the existing legislation clearly stated that anyone killed in a duel was not subject to a posthumous trial. The court of first instance wrongly applied an article on military firearms exercises, which had previously been abolished, and sentenced both Georges d’Anthès and the dead poet to hanging. The court of second instance reduced the Frenchman’s sentence to loss of his nobility and demotion to the rank of private. Nicholas I approved the sentence and banished d’Anthès from  Russia.

Among the Russian aristocracy, killing a man in a duel was not regarded as bad as cold-blooded murder. This was reflected in the penal code of 1845, which reduced the sentence for killing a man in a duel. Duels were virtually legalised in the Rules on the Investigation of Quarrels Occurring among Officers, published at the initiative of Tsar Alexander III in 1894.

The new codex systematised the entire tradition of duelling in Russia, which had previously been illegal. It insisted on the necessity for duelling in the army if required by a court of fellow officers. Refusal to take part in a duel was punishable by dismissal from active service. These rules existed right up until 1917.

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