Given the relatively small number of recorded duels, there seems to be a remarkably high occurrence of well-read participants. In 19th century Russia especially it seems as if famous wordsmiths barely put down their pens without picking up a sword or a pistol (which makes you wonder what grudges today’s bestsellers are bottling up). Here are some examples of the strange propensity authors have for drastic measures:
1. Miguel de Cervantes vs. Antonio de Sigura (December 1568)
Cervantes is known today as the towering figure behind Don Quixoteand thus the father of the modern novel. But at one time, he was just a struggling scholar looking forward to the prospect of becoming a respected gentleman. It was while trying to further his reputation at the Royal Palace in Madrid that he fell into a violent argument with Sigura, an architect. A rapid duel was fought, and when guards rushed to the scene, they found Antonio disarmed and wounded.
Although gentlemen were practically required to carry swords at the time, it was a major offence to take part in a duel — and even more so when the duel was fought on grounds belonging to the royal family. Had he not fled to Italy, Cervantes would have, at the very least, had his hand chopped off. Ironically, after several years hiding from punishment, Cervantes returned to fight for Spain in the Battle of Lepanto, where he lost a hand to a debilitating sword injury.
2. Ben Jonson vs. Gabriel Spencer (December 22, 1598)
Jonson was a contemporary and friend of Shakespeare, and a brilliant satirical wordsmith in his own right, famous today for writing comic plays such asBartholomew Fayre. Having served in the army and worked as a bricklayer, he wasn’t your typical flower of English poetry either. Spencer was an actor who had roles in various Jonson and Shakespeare productions, but was also famous for bouts of violence. In 1596, for example, he used his still-sheathed sword to kill a man who had thrown a candelabrum at him.
Jonson and Spencer had an unknown disagreement which they took to an archery range in the East End of London and set about one another with swords. Jonson was injured in the arm in the ensuing combat, but managed to strike a fatal blow through the right side of Spencer’s chest. Perhaps even more remarkable than the fight was Jonson’s ability to escape the death penalty at a time when duelling was a capital offence. He pleaded right of clergy — which required him to recite the 51st Psalm and ask for forgiveness — and was tried in an ecclesiastical court. As a result, he was branded on the thumb with an “M” for murderer. The ominous blemish didn’t impede his writing though, as most of his plays follow this deadly duel.
3. Sir Walter Scott vs. Henry Weber (January 1814)
England and Scotland had their fair share of duels through the 19th century. With his fascination with chivalry and catalogue of swashbuckling historical novels, Scott would seem like the perfect candidate to participate in one. He was offered the chance by Weber, a poor German scholar whom Scott took under his wing after he was forced to flee Germany. Unfortunately Weber suffered periods of instability and seemed to harbour delusions about the people around him.
While staying with Scott after Christmas in 1813, Weber approached the writer at work in his library and placed a pistol on his desk. Weber then explained that he had been insulted too long and demanded satisfaction. Scott calmly asked if they might duel after dinner, took the pistol and continued writing his biography of Graham Swift. Before dinner, Scott sent a messenger to one of Weber’s friends who was aware of his condition and then proceeded to ply his guest with whiskey. When the friend finally arrived, Weber simply ran out of the house, never to challenge Scott again.