The Duel in Early Modern England: Civility, Politeness, and Honour

The Duel in Early Modern England: Civility, Politeness, and Honour

The Duel in Early Modern England: Civility, Politeness, and Honour

The Duel in Early Modern England: Civility, Politeness, and Honour


Arguments about the practice of the duel in early modern England were widespread. Markku Peltonen, the distinguished intellectual historian, examines the debate, and reveals how the moral and ideological status of duelling was considered within a much broader cultural context of courtesy, civility and politeness. Understanding the duel involves knowing crucial issues in the cultural and ideological history of Stuart England. Peltonen's wide-ranging study engages the attention of a significant audience of historians and cultural and literary scholars.


Richard Hey, a fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge, wrote in 1784:

Perhaps, however, it will even be urged, that some private Vices are directly beneficial to the Public; that the Vice of Luxury, for instance, promotes every useful Art and a general Civilization of Manners. But, whatever Good may in fact arise from any Vice, it is enough to see that the same Good might be produced by other means, if all Vice were taken out of the World.

A highly important issue was clearly at stake. Hey firmly maintained that vices must never be accepted even if they happened to promote a ‘useful Art and a general Civilization of Manners’ simply because these same benefits could always be produced by better means. in particular, Hey was convinced that a ‘Refinement of Manners… as an external ornament… will spring up as the genuine fruit of the Heart’ — that there was a close link between outward civility and the inner self. the crucial question was not, however, whether luxury was beneficial or detrimental to ‘a general Civilization of Manners’. Luxury was merely Hey’s illustrative example. the real issue at stake was duelling: Arguments there fore in favour of Duelling must be intirely nugatory, even if they can prove that it counteracts the operations of other Vices, or is directly productive of some good Effects.’

As Hey’s ruminations suggest, duelling was closely entangled with the larger debate about civility and politeness in early modern England. Hey’s account also indicates that there was a sharp disagreement over whether duelling was beneficial or detrimental to civility. Many agreed with Hey who endeavoured to distance duelling from civility. But we can infer from his urgent need to emphasise this distinction that there were some who argued that duelling, in fact, played a highly beneficial role by enhancing the level of politeness.

Richard Hey, A dissertation on duelling (Cambridge, 1784), pp. 93–4.

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