Every so often, somebody posts some wistful meme about how nice it would be if duelling were legal again.
I'm increasingly less gentle in my response. Partly I don't want non-sword folk to start to thinking of Historical European Martial Arts as some kind of Fascist death cult (we really aren't, and we're a very geeky and inclusive movement).
Mostly though, as a historical novelist, swordsman, and father of a teenage boy, I can tell you that duelling was - and is - a bloody stupid idea.
Look, I like swords. Love them, even.
I revel in their history, evolution and context. I get a buzz from handling originals - earlier this year, I examined a well-notched sword from the Battle of Castillon and I could almost hear the English army annihilating itself by charging a superior force in entrenched positions.
Most of all, I like fighting with swords or writing about people fighting with swords; Zornhau!
All this is what leads me to think duelling is essentially a bloody stupid idea.
OK. I'll make one exception. Ritualised and mostly physically safe duelling, like the German mensur tradition, is not entirely stupid, though it is bloody.
The awesome HEMA writer Christoph Amberger famously did a Jane Goodall and joined a couple of German academic fencing fraternities.
Their kind of duel is less swashbuckling than it sounds. You know how in old movies, the Prussian officer has duelling scars? Well that's what mensur was set up to create.
They wore - wear! - special comedy nose, mouth and eye protection, and tightly wound silk scarf covering all the blood vessels you wouldn't want slashed, and a heavy jacket with even heavier hand and arm protection (video).
They fight... not always entirely sober, and do so standing at a set distance or better still sitting on stools or chairs.
The blades whirl around, parry-riposte-parry-riposte all in a single movement, like intersecting clumps of eightsome reelers. Sooner or later the timing is off and SLASH-bugger-that-hurt! you have a scar, which is the point of the exercise.
It's somewhere between a rite of passage and an extreme sport. It may be bloody, but it's no more stupid than bungee jumping or BDSM. Each to their own. (I wouldn't do it, but I was once treated by a 60-something German surgeon who had scars to show and my god I felt envious of him having done it.)
However, real duelling - pairs of combatants facing off with sharp weapons and the possibility of death - was bloody stupid, and widely acknowledged as so at the time.
Yes, it looks so cool when the Three Musketeers do it.
Stop and think.
Those flashing blades are... blades. Sharp. Long. Not entirely predictable. Lethal and nastily so if they sink more than a few inches into the wrong place.
George Silver, an Elizabethan fencer, ranted against the rapier:
...two captains at Southhampton even as they were going to take shipping upon the key, fell at strife, drew their rapiers, and presently, being desperate, hardy or resolute, as they call it, with all force and over great speed, ran with their rapiers one at the other, & were both slain.
To make things worse, if we're talking classic continental sword duelling culture, and not its more edge-focussed (and less lethal) Medieval and Early Modern precursor, then we're talking rapiers and small swords: thrusting weapons that can kill easily, but not always instantly or reliably. Silver again:
I have known a gentleman hurt in rapier fight, in nine or ten places through the body, arms, and legs, and yet has continued in his fight, & afterward has slain the other, and come home and has been cured of all his wounds without maim, & is yet living.
It was perfectly possible for a duel to result in two dead men, or one dead, and the better fencer dying slowly of internal wounds.
So, just because of the martial arts involved, sword duelling was dangerous, unpredictable, often unexpectedly lethal (and painfully so). Even greatly superior skill did not guarantee survival.
To me, that's enough to make it bloody stupid.
However, it gets worse when you look at what duelling culture was like and how it played out.
People talk airily about duelling as a "safety valve" or a "test of manhood".
However, consider what happens when it's OK and almost mandatory for young men to challenge each other to mortal combat for reasons that can best be called whimsical...
Alfred Hutton - one of the saints of the modern Historical European Martial Arts movement (real soldier, instructor of sabre to the British Army, early investigator of Medieval martial arts treatises) - wrote a wonderful book called The Sword and the Centuries in which he gathered all the anecdotes of tournaments and duelling he could find. Honestly, he should have subtitled it, "500 Years of Aristocratic Testosterone Poisoning".
Especially if you are the parent of a young man, or have ever sustained a sword injury, the sections on French duelling culture are truly horrific. Duelling wasn't so much a safety valve as a public health emergency.
We're talking young men going out for a bottle of wine and coming back in a hearse because another youth caught their eye in the wrong way and they felt impelled to issue an immediate challenge.
We're talking three versus three duels where a stranger gallantly - read bloody stupidly - offers to make up the missing third on one side. And almost everybody dies.
Reading between the lines, we're also talking appalling peer pressure, bullying and legitimised murder - a duel is an awfully handy way of getting rid of an unwanted heir or rival.
The death toll in the reign of Henry IV of
In what universe is any of this a good idea for those involved?
So if somebody posts one of those "Bring back duelling so we can be real men again" memes, please post a link to this article.
Or just tell them to grow up and not to be so bloody stupid.
M Harold Page is the sword-wielding author of books like Swords vs Tanks (Charles Stross: "Holy ****!") and teaches German Longsword for Edinburgh's Dawn Duellist Society. For his take on writing, read Storyteller Tools: Outline from vision to finished novel without losing the magic (Ken MacLeod: "...very useful in getting from ideas etc to plot and story." Hannu Rajaniemi: "...find myself to coming back to [this] book in the early stages.")