Why did people once settle grudges with deadly duels?

Today, anyone with a beef might hire a lawyer to settle a disagreement in court or simply argue in online message boards and let public opinion decide the victor. But from the Middle Ages up to the early 20th century, men from the upper crust of European and American society relied on one-on-one combat to seek “satisfaction” for even minor slights to their reputations. And so went the “duel,” a deadly deal struck between two men (duelists were nearly always men) to resolve a dispute by calmly standing face-to-face, drawing pistols (or swords), and attacking each other.

Although not all duels were to the death, thousands of men – including famous politicians and military commanders – perished from injuries received in these ghastly grudge matches. Abraham Lincoln escaped a sword duel by apologizing to a local politician he had offended in a newspaper story. Even after duels were outlawed, deaths were still common and victors were often pardoned – as long as they followed the rules. Duelists adhered to a strict code of conduct (known as the code duello, a document typically kept inside every gentleman’s pistol case). To break the rules meant bringing shame on your name, which many considered a fate worse than death.


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