Settling things like gentlemen – duelling as private justice?

One of the main advantages of working together in a “laboratory of the humanities” is how we instigate each other to think outside our disciplinary boxes. “Privacy” is an excellent catalyst to this kind of interdisciplinary discussion, especially in historical terms. At the Centre for Privacy Studies, we are continually questioning the different ways in which each of our research specialities encompasses aspects of privacy and how we can approach these aspects in a non-anachronistic way. One of the methodologies proposed by the Centre for Privacy Studies is to identify priv* words (“private”, “privacy”, and other variations) in early modern sources, and to analyse in what context they are used. In my case, my first instinct was that I had never encountered any priv* words within my German sources. The words “Privat” or “Privatheit” were not commonly used in early modern German dialects (with few exceptions). My research is mostly on popular healing practices, so most of the books and treatises I examined would use terms like “Geheim” when talking about things that could be considered “private.” But on further inspection, one of my sources was hiding a priv* word right under my nose.

In one of the chapters of my PhD thesis, I worked on the treatise “Magiologia: Christliche Warnung für dem Aberglauben und der Zauberey.” Written by Bartholomaeus Anhorn von Hartwiss – a Lutheran pastor from Switzerland – and published in 1674 in Basel, this treatise described in detail the use of charms and ritual healing by the population. Since my focus at the time was on how this kind of practice was depicted in religious writings by Lutheran and Catholic authorities, I missed the minutia of a chapter of this treatise dealing with the morality of duelling.

Gioacomo de Grassi, True Art of Defense (1594)

In this chapter, Anhorn described how duelling is unchristian and goes against the laws of both God and Men. The justice of a duel would imply that God would have to interfere in defence of the innocent during the fight, therefore testing God’s will. Even if the righteous person wins, they still have taken a life, which is always a sin. After legal and theological arguments, Anhorn stated that duels should be forbidden as a form of proving innocence, but also as a practice to resolve disputes, to compare strength, to entertain, and to perform private retribution.

Anhorn, Bartholomaeus. Magiologia: christliche Warnung für dem Aberglauben und Zauberey. Basel: Johann Heinrich Meyer, 1674, p. 383.

The idea of “private” retribution (Privat-Raach) is fascinating in the context of duelling. We usually think of duelling as a matter of honour, as one-on-one combat to clear someone’s name. That would require formal arrangements, mostly with witnesses and established parameters for the fight: an ordeal of “gentlemen”.

Joachim Meyers Fäktbok (MS_A.4º.2), 1560s.

A duel between gentlemen would be a more “private” form of enacting justice or of settling between parts. The judicial system was slow and required proof that sometimes would be impossible to provide in cases of defamation. In this case, the “private” justice provided by the duel would have the desired public consequence of clearing a dispute or a personal offence that would affect how the community at large perceives the individual. However, Anhorn seems to be talking about this kind of duel more in item 1 in the list above (when the fight to death is not decided by a judge), or even 2.b (a duel as a way to resolve disputes). So why is he highlighting “Privat-Raach” in his list?

It turns out the term “Privat-Raach” seemed to be in vogue in the late 17th century. One of the first sources I found using the term is from 1644, the “Vinculum gratiae, Das ist: Heiliges und Starckes Bandt Deß Innerlichen und Eusserlichen Gottesdienstes der Glaubigen im Newen Testament”, by Wilhelm Christoph Heim. In this treatise, Heim wrote directly against the idea of justice as “an eye for an eye”, and stressed that the Scripture warns us against such private retributions (“Personal Privat-Raache”, p. 121). For Heim, the true Christian should prefer to suffer injustice than to let himself be moved by impatience (“Der gläubige Mensch soll ihm viel tausendmal lieber unrecht tun / als sich zur Ungedult und Privat-Raache bewegen lassen”, p. 123). In late 17th century legal sources, Privat-Raach seems to refer to all forms of vigilante justice.

Following my own stereotypical view of duels as nobles drawing each other’s blood for honour, I never thought of duelling as a form of vigilante justice. While I was surprised to find duels listed among practices like soothsaying, healing by prayers, and harvest rituals in a treatise against superstition, it makes sense that the idea that God would look down to ensure the victory of the righteous part could be seen as superstitious. Besides, if duelling were enacting one’s own sense of justice, it would go against divine punishment and undermined due process by the legal system. It would be interesting to investigate what is happening during the late 17th century that instigated the discussion over the morality of “private retribution”, and how it relates to other forms of judicial control in German-speaking areas during the same period.

Please leave any ideas or comments below, and disagreement is more than welcome. We can always settle things like gentlemen.

One Reply to “Settling things like gentlemen – duelling as private justice?”

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