Book Review: A Polite Exchange of Bullets

Stephen Banks, A Polite Exchange of Bullets: The Duel and the English Gentleman 1750–1850 (Woodbridge, 2010).

Review by Eamonn O’Keeffe

This book is a welcome addition to the literature on duelling. It provides a helpful synopsis of the origins of the practice, stretching back to Renaissance Italy. The volume also examines the diverse motivations and actions of duellists through analysis of a wide array of case studies, a selection of which are helpfully summarized in an appendix.

Refreshingly, Banks takes duelling seriously as a phenomenon. Rather than caricaturing the institution as a bloodthirsty anachronism, he looks past the rhetoric of the Victorian anti-duelling movement to explore the culture of honour that drove men to risk death over seemingly minor slights.

Although he concedes that duelling was relatively rare and confined to an exclusive stratum of society, Banks convincingly argues that the study of this practice provides useful insight into elite social structures and values during a period of significant social and political change. Even though only a small minority of gentlemen duelled, the institution nonetheless played an important part in constructing elite conceptions of masculinity, serving as a social marker differentiating the high-born from the commoner.

Drawing on a database of almost eight hundred duels reported in The Times, along with further encounters documented in selected provincial newspapers, Banks analyzes the incidence of duelling, the social backgrounds of duellists and the geographical spread of these affrays. For instance, he demonstrates that over half of known English duels took place in or around London, with very few occurring in the countryside or in growing industrial cities like Manchester and Birmingham. Interestingly, the bulk of English duels outside the metropolis took place in port cities where army and naval officers – an occupational class especially prone to duelling – were most likely to be stationed.

Banks provides fascinating insight into the hitherto under-researched responsibilities of the seconds, charting how their role evolved over the course of the eighteenth century from that of retainers who often joined in the fight themselves to intermediaries who tried to resolve disputes amicably. Banks also convincingly demonstrates the divergence between the de jure and de facto treatment of duelling under the law. While duelling had always been illegal, most duellists who killed their opponents could expect leniency in court. Many (though not all) judges were complicit in the tacit societal acceptance of this often-deadly institution. Juries typically acquitted defendants as long as the duel was deemed to have been conducted fairly according to the prevailing code of honour.

With the exception of brief forays to British colonies, Banks primarily focuses on England, paying scant attention to Ireland and Scotland. However, he does provide instructive comparisons to duelling in France and Germany, arguing that the nineteenth-century bourgeois embrace of duelling on the Continent gave new life to the institution. This stands in pointed contrast to Antony Simpson’s argument that the increasing participation of the middle classes in duelling and honour culture in England undermined and devalued this time-honoured ritual in the eyes of the aristocracy, precipitating duelling’s Victorian-era demise.

Indeed, Banks challenges Simpson’s influential thesis, contending based on his dataset of known affrays that the social status of duellists did not decline significantly during the nineteenth century. The temporary flirtations of socially aspirant surgeons and lawyers excepted, Banks suggests that the middle classes in England never embraced duelling. He further argues that Victorian public discourse contains little evidence of any widespread concern that the ‘aristocratic’ institution of duelling was being subverted by bourgeois parvenus.

Banks charts the increasing condemnation and public ridicule of duellists in the nineteenth century, but refuses to attribute the practice’s demise to any single factor. The evangelical revival and the rise of middle class values emphasizing self-restraint over public displays of courage may indeed have turned gentlemen against duelling. Further, Banks suggests that an invigorated culture of professionalism in the armed forces, prioritizing discipline and collective military aims over individual honour, may have helped discourage the practice amongst military men. He also asserts in the closing pages of the book that a crisis of confidence amongst the English elite, shaken by the French Revolution and social unrest, hastened the demise of duelling. This argument seems plausible and may well have merit, but would have been more convincing had Banks marshalled more direct evidence.

While his research is unquestionably impressive, Banks could have done more to document duelling in the armed forces – widely acknowledged as the strongest bastions of the custom by the early nineteenth century. Banks draws on the diary of Colonel Bayley of the 12th Foot, a helpful source with several relevant examples, but unfortunately did not cast his net much wider even though scores of Napoleonic-era military memoirs, sprinkled with discussions of duelling, are now readily available online. Looking beyond often terse newspaper reports, he also might have consulted the courts-martial records for duelling officers held in the UK National Archives to enhance his analysis of encounters between military men. That said, given the state of the field, this book probably offers the best account of British military duelling published to date, and Banks’ analysis of the military’s honour culture is always astute.

In sum, Stephen Banks’ monograph is a commendable and insightful study – the most comprehensive analysis of English duelling published to date.

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