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Rare Books In Focus

Once and Future: The Duel

Jennie C. Meade, Director of Special Collections

Currently on view in the Law Library for the Fall, 2019, semester is The Duel in History: Laws, “Codes,” and Censure. The Law Library’s first exhibition on the legal history of dueling appeared in 2005, drawn from an article by Jennie Meade which appeared in the Fall, 2005, issue of GW Law School Magazine. Since then, the Law Library has dramatically increased its holdings on dueling. So a follow-up exhibition to display some of the more recently-acquired works seemed to be in order. 

The thirteen books displayed in the current exhibition include works from the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries. They shed light on the duel’s evolution from a legal means of deciding disputes between two people – the judicial duel, or trial by combat – to the duel of honor, an extrajudicial means of settling private matters unregulated by law: matters of honor and insult. 

Code of Honor title page image

A deep-rooted practice in both European and American culture, the duel withstood a centuries-long attack by ecclesiastical and legal authorities until it declined toward the end of the nineteenth century in the wake of the Civil War and shifts in the social culture. The works on display include “how-to” manuals of dueling etiquette and procedure, anti-dueling laws issued by several monarchs of France, a nineteenth-century image of women dueling, and several examples of ecclesiastical criticism and calls to end the practice. Also included are several works of classic jurists – Blackstone, Beccaria, and Grotius – who voiced their opinions on dueling, its legality, its control, and imaginative ways to use it (Grotius offered that instead of going to war, states could designate champions to duel, thereby deciding the conflict and saving many lives). 

Two swords are featured as embellishments to the exhibition. One is an American ceremonial sword from the 1930s, the other is a Civil War-era sword. Both are on loan from generous members of the Law School staff. 

Image of a physical sword from the collection

Today, in place of a challenge to duel, American courts offer the option of a lawsuit for defamation. But the notion of dueling dies hard; in October, 2002, the vice president of Iraq drew upon the ideas of Grotius when he suggested that the presidents and vice presidents of the United States and Iraq engage in a pistol duel to settle the problems then leading to war (Shuy, The Language of Defamation Cases (Oxford University Press, 2010)). Grotius had looked back to a medieval device – the trial by combat – to resolve seventeenth-century problems. Iraq resurrected the notion in the twenty-first. 

The Duel in History runs through January, 2020. Soon thereafter, the exhibition will move to our Online Exhibitions page at https://law.gwu.libguides.com/exhibits?group_id=14689 



The Duel in History: Laws, “Codes,” and Censure presents the following works:


Recueil des Edits (1689)                             


Le Combat de Mvtio Ivstinopolitain (1583)


La Ivstification dv Seignevr Richard de Merode (1560)


Le Saint Concile de Trente (1674)


The Burgundian Code (modern translation, 1972)


De Jure Belli Ac Pacis (1650)


Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1769)


Dei Delitti e Delle Pene (1764)


The Code of Honor (1858)


A Tract on Duelling (1790)


The Remedy for Duelling (1809)


Speeches of the Hon. Samuel Prentiss, of Vermont (1838)







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