En garde! Why France was the dueling capital of Europe

For centuries, it was common for French gentlemen to defend their honor on the dueling ground, despite a government ban on the tradition.

Market vendors go about their business while two duelers fight, exhorted by their seconds, on the Pont Neuf in Paris. Detail from an anonymous 17th-century painting. Musée Carnavalet, Paris.
Photograph by BRIDGEMAN/ACI

On May 12, 1627, at about two o'clock in the afternoon, the Count of Bouteville and the Marquis of Beuvron met in a Paris square, for the express purpose of defending their honor. A skilled swordsman, the 27-year-old Bouteville was a veteran of many duels and had killed at least half of his opponents. One of his victims had been a relative of Beuvron, who spent months trying to arrange a duel with the count for vengeance.

The two men removed their coats, and fought, first with a sword and dagger and then with a dagger alone. Their duel ended with a grapple, each holding a dagger at the other’s throat—at which point, both men decided to stop. Even so, blood would indeed be spilled that day: Their friends, witnessing the duel, had become embroiled in a scuffle that left one of them dead and the other seriously wounded. Although duels had the air of formality, they too often descended into chaos and bloodshed.

The cry of En garde! and the sound of drawing swords was common in Paris and other French cities. The custom was widespread in other countries, but France seems to have been the dueling capital of Europe. Affairs of honor were so ingrained in the national consciousness that they appear in some of France’s most iconic stories, such as The Three Musketeers, written in 1844 by Alexandre Dumas and set in the swashbuckling 17th century.

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