August 12, 2011

Illuminations: The Ten People You Would Never Want To Duel


The Viking skald Egil Skallagrímsson, who first killed at the tender age of seven and last killed when he was in his eighties.

Throughout August we will be posting samples from the Illuminations — additional material that will appear exclusively in the first releases in our Hybrid Books series. So sharpen your sword, keep your powder dry and get ready for a month of dueling history, lore and technique. That’s right. Dueling technique…

One of the sections from the Illuminations for The Duel by Giacomo Casanova that brought the most entertainment while editing is a series of brief biographies of the “Ten People You Would Never Want To Duel.” Granted, if you are a healthy human being you will most likely not want to duel anyone, especially someone who is interested in bloodshed. That concept aside, it is not hyperbole to say that to cross swords or raise pistols with the men and women on this list would certainly bring about the end of your life.

There are distinctions to be made when assembling a list like this. The duel is not an affair of military consequence and therefore a renowned General or soldier, like say Alexander the Great or Genghis Khan do not belong on a list of duelists. Likewise, notorious outlaws renowned for their quick draw with a pistol or keen shot with a rifle, people like William H. Bonney (Billy the Kid) or John Wesley Harding also did not make the list. The fair fight was not something they were looking for. Strangely, no gunslinger from the Old West arrived on the list. “Wild” Bill Hickok, perhaps the most storied gunslinger of that era, won only a handful of contests. The ten people on this list were far more prolific.

So who did make the list? The Viking warrior Egil Skallagrímsson and the Napoleonic General, François Louis Fournier Sarlovèze, (Sarlovèze is the basis for the Feraud character in The Duel by Joseph Conrad) were easily the most brutal. Hundreds of people fell to each  man respectively. The real life Cyrano de Bergerac was perhaps the most prolific duelist on the list, save arguably the indomitable Sir William Marshall, who famously remarked, “I have captured five-hundred knights and have appropriated their arms, horses, and their entire equipment. If for this reason the kingdom of God is closed to me, I can do nothing about it, for I cannot return my booty.” Indeed, Sir William, because you killed them.

Then there are the sword masters, the famous Japanese samurai Myamoto Musashi and the Italian swordsman, Fiore dei Liberi, who declared himself “The Flower of Battle” and though many other masters tried to prove otherwise, never once did he receive even a scratch in a duel. Musashi too, never lost a duel, despite fighting the finest samurais of his generation.

The boys were certainly a scary lot, but the supposedly kinder, gentler sex proved far more intriguing. The enigmatic life of the Spanish  Catalina de Erauso is easily the most fascinating. Living transgender and as a solider in the Spanish army serving in the “New World” is just the beginning of her amazing life. As is the one led by the following woman. This is a selection from the “The Ten People You Would Never Want To Duel” as can be found in the Illuminations for The Duel by Casanova.

Julie d’Aubigny
(1670 – 1707)

“The Deadly Diva”

La Maupin was always willing and ready to draw the sword. One night she had the caprice at a public ball to make eyes at a lady attended by three gentlemen. The latter challenged her, supposing they had to do with a man, for she used never to wear the dress of her own sex. They left the ball-room, and la Maupin killed the three men one after the other. She got off with nothing worse than a short sojourn over the frontier in Belgium.

—from The Sword and Womankind: Being A Study of The Influence of “The Queen of Weapons” Upon The Moral and Social Status of Women by Alfred Allinson.

It is unknown why her father taught her to fence alongside the more traditional feminine training she received. Singing and dancing were far more acceptable things for a young lady of her day to learn, but Julie embraced riding and fencing with equal zeal as those ladylike practicessword ihis skill with the sword is of a legendary order piety.

She excelled in all of those endeavors, but fencing was perhaps her most uncommonly exemplary ability.

It was not long before the young d’Aubigny began to develop something of a reputation. After an affair with the Comte d’Amargnac, she was married off to Sieur de Maupin. When he received a new administrative job in the south of France she remained at home. It did not take long for her famous temper to show itself.  In her early teens, she was known to have fought occasional duels with young aristocrats of the city. In time, her prowess was noticed by a young assistant fencing master who she then took up with. They traveled together, performing fencing displays and singing in order to collect money. In time their love faltered as d’Aubigny embraced her sexual attraction for women.

When her first female lover was taken away and placed into a convent, Julie d’Aubigny attained a new level of infamy. In a plan that even Dumas’ musketeers would not dare execute, d’Aubigny disguised herself as a nun and entered the convent. There she took the body of a dead nun and placed it in the room of her lover and set the convent ablaze, absconding with the girl during the confusion of the ensuing conflagration. After their affair lost its luster, the girl went home to her parents, who in turn prosecuted d’Aubigny for kidnapping and arson. She was tried as a man and she was found guilty. The punishment was execution.

She then fled to Paris, where her career reached yet more lurid heights. Once in Paris, she adopted the name of Mademoiselle La Maupin, or simply La Maupin, which in a sense was her legal name through marriage, and utilizing her talent as a singer entered the opera. It was there that she attained widespread fame, and once again, proved to be a tireless duelist. Due to her attraction to the opera’s star, Marie la Rochois, she engaged in a series of duels with la Rochois’ many gentleman suitors. Rumor of her dueling prowess spread and she took up the sword professionally, dueling the unfortunately curious for a price. The culmination of her career was also the end of it. In 1693 she fought three gentlemen at a ball and was prosecuted for the indecent offense.

The remainder of her life was spent in a convent until she made up with her estranged husband and settled down for the final five years of her life.

Throughout her dueling career she was known to wear men’s clothing that yet accentuated her feminine attributes.

Tomorrow we’ll look at one of the more uncommon duels in history, which involved very atypical weaponry.