An Article on Duels (3 of 6)

Benvenuto tutti.

For this installment I would like to present to you some discussion on the use of armor in the duel. More than a few people have the common misconception that duels were always fought without the use of armor, as it would be considered more honorable to place your life on the line without any protection. Turning to The Sixteenth-Century Italian Duel: A Study in Renaissance Social History by Frederick R. Bryson, Ph. D., The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 1938 we can find some interesting notes regarding this.

Dr. Bryson elaborates that until the mid 16th century most authors on the duel and honor considered it more becoming for duels between noblemen to be fought “on horseback with shield and other armor, lance, sword, and dagger* As for armor, for both horse and rider, it ought to be only that which was customaryBut in general the horse, as well as the rider, was covered with armor as completely as was practicable.” He goes on to state that after the mid-16th century most of the authorities of the period seemed to prefer duels on foot. As to the question of armor “Since in earlier times the absence of this protection was characteristic of fights between ruffians, in the sixteenth century some of the writers regarded armor as generally necessary Judging from the lists which were sent by challenged parties to their opponents, however, it seems that the choice of armor was practically unrestricted.” He further goes on to state, “In spite of the opposition of some of the writers, early in the sixteenth century there arose a custom of fighting without armor. The first of these combats in which the duelists were men of distinction was that between Peopli and Rangone, December 31, 1516.”

There are some examples of duels in armor, most of these from narratives from the Frenchman Brantome’s later biography of Bayard. An early sixteenth century duel occurred in Naples between a Spanish captain, Alonso de Sotomayor, and the famous knight Bayard (the knight ‘sans peur et sans reproche’). Captain Sotomayor had been Bayard’s captive as a prisoner of war and had proclaimed that he had been ill-treated. Bayard issued a challenge to duel over such an affront.

The divisions of the field were marked by piles of large stones. Since the duelists were knights, and since Bayard was suffering from a fever, they arrived on horseback but decided to fight on foot because Sotomayor proclaimed that he was not so expert a horseman as Bayard and that since he had choice of arms it should be as he wished. They fought rapier and dagger and wore armor consisting of a helmet and gorget. The both knelt in prayer before the bout and Bayard prostrated himself, kissed the ground and rose, thereafter making the sign of the cross.

Bayard then calmly approached his opponent “as if he were in a palace dancing with the ladies”, according to Brantome’s narrative. Sotomayor inquired as to his purpose and Bayard proclaimed his wish to defend his honor. They fought some when Sotomayor made a thrust and missed in which Bayard “pierced his throat so deeply that he could not withdraw the rapier.” Sotomayor then grappled with Bayard and the both fell to the ground. Bayard placed his dagger in the face of Sotomayor from this position and asked for surrender or death, but Sotomayor had already died.

Bayard expressed a great regret for not being able to take Sotomayor alive then knelt, giving thanks to God, and he kissed the earth three times. He then removed the body from the field, giving it to Sotomayor’s second, and went to church to exclaim his gratitude for divine favor.

Dr. Bryson does note the following of interest: “Brantome added the following comments. Bayard’s illness could not have excused him from fighting unless he had been confined to his bed and attended by physicians, or unless a few days before the time appointed for the duel he had been seriously wounded in battle. Sotomayor was justified, moreover, in taking advantage of Bayard’s condition by choosing to fight on foot. It was worthy of note that Bayard did not exercise his right to have the body left on the field or dragged off by one of its arms or legs, with no more respect than would be shown to a dog or a piece of wood (Brantome, VI, 263-69)”

Next time: Some more duels with armor.

Honos Servio,

Lionardo Acquistapace, Barony of Axemoor, Meridies

(mka Lenny Zimmermann, New Orleans, LA)

“A soldier uses arms merely with skill, whereas a knight uses them with virtuous intention.” - Pomponio Torelli, 1596.