Culture.pl brings you everything you ever wanted to know about Polish duels. All the noble drama and not-so-noble ridiculousness of duelling, from its origins in the Middle Ages through to its end in the 20th century. And, of course, famous incarnations of duellists in Polish culture too.
‘This affront demands bloodshed!’ as Aleksander Fredro wrote in his famous 1838 comedy play Revenge. Although his characters only end up considering duelling, rather than going through with it, the quote is an ideal mood-setter for this primer on Poland’s duelling past…
Your honour is restored, monsieur
The first honorary duel is said to have occurred in 1547 in France. The French noblemen Guy Chabot felt insulted by a piece of gossip implying he was maintaining intimate relations with his stepmother. Another aristocrat, Francois de De Vivonne, supported the unkind suggestions and was challenged by Chabot who called him a liar. In the resulting sword duel, Chabot managed to neutralise his opponent with a blow to his upper leg, receiving satisfaction, as the phrase goes. The wounded died a few hours later. The reigning king of France Henri II approved of the way the matter was handled, and, according to historian William Wiley, said to Chabot: ‘You have done your duty, and your honour is hereby restored’. Thus the path of duelling for one’s honour was legitimised. It wasn’t long before France became notorious for them: it’s estimated that in the years 1589-1608, a massive 8,000 people lost their lives duelling.
In the centuries to come, honorary fights remained popular in France, and were one of the influences behind Joseph Conrad’s The Duel, a 1908 novella – based on real events – about two officers in Napoleon’s army who fight a whole series of duels against each other, spanning decades. The Duellists, Ridley Scott’s 1977 film debut, was a screen adaptation of the novel, starring Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine as the two officers.
After duelling over honour became a thing in 16th-century France, the trend spread to other countries, arriving in Poland via Germany. But that’s not to say that other kinds of duels were unheard of in the Land on the Vistula before that happened.
Get off of my foot
In the 13th century, parts of Poland started to use laws imported from Germany that allowed duels as a means of proving one’s innocence – it was believed that God would never let one lose a duel against a false accuser. Wiley readers may at this point find parallels with the way witches were identified by throwing women into lakes and seeing if they drowned.
One of the first Polish judicial duels occurred in 1389 and, like in the earlier mentioned case, was also caused by an insult concerning a woman. The nobleman Gniewosz of Dalewice accused Queen Jadwiga of cheating on King Jagiełło. Consequently, the noble Jaśko of Tęczyn stood up for the queen and challenged the accuser to a duel. The fight, however, never occurred because Gniewosz ended up testifying in court that he had no proof to back his revelations. He apparently confirmed this lack in the oddest way: by crouching under the courtroom bench and barking three times (at least that’s how the story goes). Law-sanctioned duels existed in Poland until the 16th century. They only stopped because people finally realised that the innocent weren’t fortunate enough to win them every time.
Interestingly, the fight between De Vivonne and Chabot is said to have originated from the tradition of the judiciary duel. Still, that clash gave rise to a new type of fight, the honorary duel, that didn’t involve the law or the authorities. The lack of codification entailed that a honorary duel could be fought basically over anything. Here’s what Bartłomiej Szyndler writes in the introduction to his marvellous 1987 book Pojedynki (Duels):
For someone brought up and living in the second half of the 20th century, it’s just hard to believe that it was [once] fashionable to fight lethal duels provoked by nothing more than insulting someone’s honour. Especially that it was immensely easy to insult one’s honour – sometimes stepping on the foot of a person sensitive about their honour and not apologising was enough.
Finish it… sir!
When the practice of organising judicial duels in Poland faded, the void it left behind was eagerly filled by the honorary duel trend coming in from France. In the second half of the 16th century and in the 17th century, fighting honorary duels was commonplace in Poland. There was even regional specificity. For example, in the Sarmatian version not accepting a challenge wasn’t seen as dishonourable, while seconds or assistants weren’t considered necessary as the duels were usually fought in public in a circle formed by onlookers, and finally the weapon of choice was a traditional large sabre.
A classic description of a Sarmatian duel cis given by Nobel prize-winner Henryk Sienkiewicz in The Deluge, one of his historical novels set in the mid-17th century. The impulsive Kmicic fights against the expert swordsman Wołodyjowski, the reason of the duel being, of course, a woman – the beautiful Oleńka whom they are both courting.
- Where shall we stand? – Kmicic asked vigorously.
- Here… the courtyard’s flat as a table.
(…) In the meantime the noblemen silently formed a circle around the two knights; (…) inside of it the two opponents were gazing at each other. (…) The first clang echoed in the hearts of all the gathered; (…) Kmicic was attacking furiously, Wołodyjowski put his left hand behind his back and was standing calmly, making only very small, almost unnoticeable moves.
It quickly becomes apparent that Kmicic doesn’t stand a chance against his opponent. He eventually utters the famous quote:
- Finish it… sir!... spare me… the shame!...
After that Wołodyjowski delivers a blow to Kmicic’s head, but not a fatal one. By the way, even though the duel ends with Wołodyjowski’s victory, Oleńka still likes Kmicic better. This well-known fictitious fight is also portrayed in Jerzy Hoffman’s 1974 film adaptation of the novel, also called The Deluge, where Kmicic and Wołodyjowski are played by Daniel Olbrychski and Tadeusz Łomnicki respectfully.
Godless & mindless persons
However, as is often the case, the reality wasn’t nearly half as romantic as fiction. Actual duels typically started not with valiant chevaliers stepping forward in the name of fair ladies, but with silly disagreements at drunken parties or political gatherings. The 17th-century nobleman and long-time soldier Jan Chryzostom Pasek left behind in his famed memoirs, considered an important historical source, a description of a real-life duel he himself had fought at a Polish war camp:
The Nuczyński brothers were drinking with their cousin (...) and I was invited too. Though I wish I never had been! When Nuczyński got drunk he turned really mean. I myself, drunk like the rest, said (…): ‘There was no sense in inviting me here since I’m being offended and poured over with mead’. I left the shanty (…) Nuczyński caught up with me and said: ‘Fight me!’. (…) He swung his sabre at me saying: - ‘You’re dead’. – I replied: ‘God will see about that’. – My second or third swing reached his fingers and I said: ‘It seems you’ve found what you were looking for’. I hoped that would be the end of it. But he, either because he was too drunk to feel, or because he wanted to get back at me, jumped at me once more, swinging again and again, blood already pouring over his gob. I hit his vein and he fell.
Duels and fights among Polish soldiers were a real plague, causing numerous friendly casualties and deficits in morale. But even law-making efforts like the 16th-century Artykuły dla Wojska na Leżach (Articles for Quartered Troops) penalising duels with a death penalty just couldn’t root out the custom. It remained popular with soldiers into the following century – such was the strength of the times’ peculiarly understood honour. Pasek and his host (the cousin) were, however, fortunate enough to be only fined for the aforementioned incident.
In Old Poland, civilian duels were illegal as well, but that didn’t prevent anybody keen on the idea. One clever way to avoid the law was for the opponents to sign a disclaimer that no legal action be pursued if the upcoming fight resulted in the death of either of them. In many cases too, nobody bothered to notify the authorities that a duel was taking place. Critical of duelling, the valued 16th-century political writer Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski wrote that: ‘it is an invention of godless and mindless persons’. As you can imagine, that sort of badmouthing didn’t stop anybody from fighting either.
Casanova versus the general
Although frequent, duels in Poland were never as insanely popular as they were in France, where it is believed that in the beginning of the 17th century alone 30,000 people lost their lives duelling. Moreover, the popularity of honorary duels in Poland started to dwindle in the 18th century. This was possibly linked to the ‘crisis of the chivalrous spirit’ that historians Jerzy Cichowski and Andrzej Szulczyński claim occurred – an inevitable result of the wars that had forced Polish troops to fight on both sides of the barricade, ruining their the morale (e.g. the Great Northern War). Still, the era in question saw one of the best known duels that ever took place on Polish soil: the famed Italian adventurer Giovanni Casanova, who was visiting Warsaw, versus General Franciszek Ksawery Branicki, a friend of King Stanisław August himself.
On 4th March 1766, during the interval of a show at Warsaw’s Saxon Opry, the two men had a disagreement backstage. It was caused, you guessed it, by them being interested in the same woman – the graceful Italian ballerina Teresa Casacci who was performing that evening. Branicki is said to have called Casanova ‘a coward’ after the latter willingly agreed to leave the dancer’s dressing room on the Pole’s request. The Italian found that insult to be ‘a little too much’ and challenged Branicki to a duel. Following Branicki’s suggestion the two decided to fight with pistols, another popular choice among duellists in Poland alongside sabres.
The fight took place in a garden near Warsaw, the day after the incident at the opry. Branicki was kind enough to actually give his Italian opponent a lift in his coach and so the two arrived there together. One can only imagine their conversation during that journey. Apart from the opponents, the event was also attended by the general’s retinue who confirmed what happened. The duellists fired their guns almost simultaneously. Branicki sustained a bad gunshot wound to the stomach whereas Casanova only a small one to his hand. Fortunately, neither of the injuries proved lethal and the duellists even reconciled a month or so later. However, having shot such an important figure as the general, Casanova was eventually given the status of persona non grata and had to leave Poland.
Joseph Conrad’s inspiration?
Toward the end of the 18th century, Poland was partitioned by Russia, Austria and Germany and became subject to the laws of these countries. All three imposed judicial systems penalised the persistent phenomenon of duels, but – like in the Polish system they had substituted – the authorities often just looked away, so duelling just continued.
In 1863, Poland tried to regain its liberty through a rebellion called the January Uprising, during which a noted duel occurred between Joseph Conrad’s uncle, Stefan Bobrowski, and Adam Grabowski. The former was truly devoted to the cause of independence, whereas the latter is remembered more as a political plotter. That’s how he was described by the rebellion’s authorities in a letter Bobrowski brought from Warsaw to Kraków – written in the hopes of exposing Grabowski’s doings, which had deeply complicated the uprising’s situation in that city.
But when the contents of the message became publically known, Grabowski claimed he’d been insulted and didn’t hesitate to challenge Conrad’s uncle to a duel. Bobrowski accepted the challenge, but, being busy with military affairs, he didn’t have time to check the terms himself, leaving it to one of his friends. Unfortunately, they didn’t do a very good job as they had him accept a pistol fight. Given that Bobrowski was very short-sighted, it was to be a tragic mistake. On 12th April in a forest near Rawicz, Grabowski killed him with a shot to the heart. It’s quite possible that this sad story was one of the inspirations that prompted Conrad to write The Duel years later.
Another beloved literary skirmish
A fictitious pistol duel taking place in partitioned Poland is an important episode in The Doll, the 1890 masterpiece by Bolesław Prus, who had participated in the failed January Uprising himself. The novel’s protagonist Wokulski challenges Baron Krzeszowski after the latter jostles him at a Warsaw horse track. Unknown to the baron, the real reason behind the challenge is that Wokulski had seen him being unpleasant to Izabella Łęcka, a beauty who Wokulski is madly in love with.
The duel takes place in a forest outside Warsaw. Just before the shooting commences, the baron notices that his opponent is highly embittered and thinks to himself: ‘This isn’t about any horse, nor about a jostle at the racetrack!...’ He shoots first but misses, after which he puts his gun in front of his face for protection. Wokulski aims for the baron’s head and shoots on target.
(…) Everybody rushed to the kneeling baron who, however, wasn’t dying but was talking in a shrieking voice:
- What an unusual situation! I’ve a hole in my face, a knocked out tooth, but there’s no sign of the bullet… Surely I haven’t swallowed it…
Then the Egyptologist [one of the seconds – ed.] picked up and examined the baron’s pistol
- Oh!.. – he exclaimed – you see… the bullet hit the pistol, and the lock hit the jaw… The pistol’s ruined; a rather interesting shot…
- Is Sir Wokulski satisified? – asked the English count.
The New Testament of duels spreads the good news
In partitioned Poland, nine years before The Doll, the first Polish honorary codex or book containing informal rules concerning duels (e.g. how to organise and fight them) was published. Written by Józef Naimski, it’s titled simply O Pojedynkach (On Duels). Other such publications by different authors followed, but it was only after Poland regained its independence in 1918 that one of them gained widespread popularity.
Written in 1919 by the lawyer and prospective captain in the Polish Army Władysław Boziewicz, this new hit was called Polski Kodeks Honorowy (The Polish Honorary Codex). Valued for the clarity with which it explained the intricacies of honorary issues, it quickly became the go-to publication for all those curious about how and when one ought to fight a duel. And there was no shortage of such individuals – Interwar Poland saw a surge in the number of duels, for example, caused by the very sensitive approach to the honour of officers in the newly re-created Polish Army. Despite duels being prohibited by law, in the 1920s there were over 400 annually.
So, in what ways did Boziewicz’s codex make life easier for those who wanted to risk their own and others’ lives? Well, for one thing it specified who may or may not partake in an honorary duel. Naturally, anybody of noble birth was worth fighting against, also all those who had finished school and passed their matriculation exam (that surely must’ve motivated some to get an education…). Artists were also allowed, but only if they were noted ones – the codex serves up painters and writers as examples – and anybody else ‘who raises above the normal level of an honest man’, such as a peasant elected to parliament. Excluded from this merry lot of potential opponents were women, clergymen, notorious alcoholics, and a number of other categories of people. The most notable category is probably tabloid journalists, since, like today, they were obviously at high risk of making others go into a duel-demanding frenzy.
Boziewicz’s codex also specified the rules and types of duels. You could choose between a sabre and pistol fight which would last either to first or second blood, or until a ‘complete duelling inability’ of one of the parties had been attained. In the codex’s second chapter, intriguingly titled ‘The Insult’, one can find that ‘the subject matter of every honorary case is an insult and its honorary compensation’.
Unfortunately, the insults considered worthy of a duel in the early 20th century were equally as ludicrous as throughout earlier epochs. In his paper On Duels, Boziewicz’s Codex and Men of Honour, Dr Leszek Kania writes:
The subjectively understood insults were often caricatural. The lawyer Stanisław Mianowski reminisces that when he was serving as an auditor of a court-martial in Vilnius, he was challenged to a duel by Lt Wasilewski whom he asked to leave his office when he was interrogating a witness.
Fortunately, this particular affair didn’t end with a fight as the brash lieutenant eventually reconsidered, but the anecdote does provide some insight into the curious realities of Interwar Poland.
Filthy rags & last call at the casino
Boziewicz didn’t help contain the number of duels despite writing in his codex that he doesn’t ‘defend the medieval phenomenon of the duel’ and that ‘a gentlemen should never respond to an insult with an insult’. Yet he managed to somewhat civilise the custom of honorary fights, for example by advising to disinfect the sabres, not only before the duel commenced but also whenever one of the blades touched the ground during the clash. When Kmicic’s sabre falls in the dirt in the previously-mentioned duel in The Deluge, he simply picks it up and starts hacking away again. Because of behaviour like that, duellists often died not during the actual fight, but afterwards due to infections. Boziewicz wanted an end to that sort of filthy business.
A noted interwar sabre fight occurred in 1926 between Colonel Wieniawa-Długoszowski, notorious for never passing an occasion to duel, and journalist Wacław Drozdowski (not a ‘tabloid’ one, apparently) of the Gazeta Warszawska newspaper who had written an article the military man found to be ‘a great insult’. It’s hard to establish the exact content of this text but since it wasn’t uncommon for the interwar press to employ downright malevolent language, it shouldn’t be taken for granted that the wrong done to Wieniawa was entirely ‘caricatural’. Though obviously, whatever it said, making it a life or death matter would incline many to say he probably overreacted. The fight took place at a Warsaw barracks on 24th April and ended after the colonel was wounded once and the journalist twice. Fortunately, the injuries didn’t prove lethal. Sadly, after the fight the two still couldn’t reconcile.
It is widely accepted that the last honorary duel in Polish history took place as late as just after World War II, this time in Britain. In 1946, two ranking Allied veterans, Leonard Zub-Zdanowicz and Zygmunt Pohorski had a disagreement at a military casino. In the ensuing sabre duel, Pohorski gave Zdanowicz a bad wound to the cheek and that was the end of it.
Looking back on at all the history of violence above, let’s just hope this little post-war scuffle was indeed the last honorary duel in Polish history. In fact, in any country’s history! Though perhaps at times romantic, duels don’t seem like they were overly sensible. Also, can’t we all just get along?
Author: Marek Kępa, Dec 2017