The Last Duel

tumblr_lngin6s4w21qa3ssoo1_500Do you want to hear the tale of the last sabre duel to be fought in Europe?

Of course you do. In a world where powerful people pretend that lying is honourable, or that to be a tough guy means running crying to your lawyer when insulted, who doesn’t want to remember “an elegant weapon for a more civilised age” as Obi Wan Kenobi put it in Star Wars?

Actually—the Star Wars connection is more than a coincidence, as I will get to in good time. And where is the psychology in this? Well, this all happened in living memory, and the mechanisms that underlie duelling are still present in modern humans—and other animals too.

But first, some back story. Sixty years ago this year, the Hungarians rose up against their communist invaders. The Hungarians—a people once described as folk who could follow you into a revolving door and come out first—have long been known to be the best sabreurs (sabre fencers) in the world. The sabre is a tricky weapon. Whip-fast and, in its duelling form, capable of slicing a human body into long strips of dangling bloodied flesh in seconds.

Hungarians have won half of all the gold medals at sabre in all the Olympics since 1896. But to the old style Hungarians, sporting sabre was just a side-line. In Hungary the sabre was still used to duel right up until 1956. Illegally, of course. And, of all the swordsmen in the army, the best sabreur was Akos Moldovanyi.

I came to know Akos when he was an émigré in London in the 1990s. He taught fencing to a huge range of abilities, from Olympians down to neophytes like me. He was possessed of an old world charm such as, without a trace of self-consciousness clicking his heels and kissing ladies on the hands when introduced. He was, to us youngsters, a vision into an older, more direct and honourable, world. Incidentally, lest it be thought that all this hand-kissing meant a general sexism, Akos had a number of lady students at a time when the teaching of sabre to women was deeply frowned upon by the ultra-conservative fencing fraternity of the time. He was the one who once told me admiringly of the lady duelist Julie de Maupin—but that is a story for another day.

Akos’ old-world charm had teeth too. At the time I was studying sabre, I was training in a lot of mixed martial arts, and had something of a reputation as a scrapper. The story went around that Akos had chased off four thugs who were menacing some young lady. After training that day Akos approached me and asked mildly what I would have done had the four decided to cut up rough. He was asking me for advice! This eighty-year old man, mark you, had without a second thought taken on four men a quarter his age and chased them off. Only later did it occur to him that things might have gone badly if they had been more determined, and sought advice from someone he thought of as more used to this sort of thing. I just looked at him open mouthed. You can’t take on odds of four determined thugs to one and come out on top—fantasy movies notwithstanding. But, Akos would not have cared about such trifles.

Akos was the only man I ever saw who could fence two of us at once. I promise that most of you have never even seen pictures of anyone capable of doing that for real.

We loved him. Every year his students would take him out for his birthday and every year he would have a few too many and tell us the story of the last sabre duel. Inevitably, drink and memory being what they are, minor details might vary from year to year. Anyway—this is one of the versions of the last sabre duel (and not too different from the others):

There were once two Hungarian army officers. The Hungarian army was a well-disciplined group, but men were expected to defend their own honour. To someone who has no concept of honour, the logic of it is quite simple. In a lawless region your only protection is your own reputation. Those who look askance at the fights between lawless gangs and drug dealers, but extol the ethics of the Three Musketeers, are being deeply inconsistent. Once you gain a reputation for being a soft touch in a rogue environment—as a man you are done for. Even if you survive physically, in reproductive terms—you may as well be dead. (1)

And you don’t need to be a historian or travel to exotic places or inner city dives to understand the importance of honour as a protection in lawless places. Anyone who has experienced the law of the schoolyard already has insights into how honour works on young men.

Anyway, one of these Hungarian army officers had insulted the other in ways too terrible for a simple apology. I will leave the details of the insult to later, so heinous are they. Suffice to say—only blood would satisfy the issue. Seconds were swiftly summoned. Would the principals shake hands and forget the deadly insult? They would not. The captain of the unit was summoned and consulted. Clearly a duel would have to take place. The honour of the principals and the regiment itself demanded it.

Now, duels were strictly illegal, so it was imperative that the police would have to be informed, so that they could cordon off the area of the duel and make sure that no-one was offended by such an illegal spectacle. The chief of police duly had the Town Hall surrounded by armed officers to keep the public at bay.

A duel must be conducted properly. Akos was the best sabreur in the army—he was summoned to preside it.

Shortly before he died in 2011, Akos presented me with his old book—in French of course—for the proper conduct of a duel. Somehow, he thought this would come in handy for me one day. But, until it does, I can check its contents against his description of events, and I can assure you that they tally. This is how a duel should be conducted, and how it was conducted:

Akos summoned the principals to the piste (the duelling strip). They were naked from the waist up—apart from some padding under the arm to protect the radial artery. Bleeding out too soon would be tough to explain to the authorities. But—bare chests make it easy to swiftly spot injuries. A doctor examined the blades and washed them in antiseptic. We don’t want anyone dying of a post duel infection—that would be embarrassing. The blades were offered to the fencers—with the insulted party having first choice. A duelling sabre is not a toy. Light, but razor sharp. Two pounds of pressure are all that are required to open up human flesh. Speed would matter far more than strength. Speed and courage.

The principals are brought to the centre line and asked if they would, at this late stage, shake hands and forget matters. Too dry mouthed to speak, they shake their heads. No one could countenance backing out at this stage—it would destroy one’s honour—but the question must be asked, for form’s sake.

Akos nods at them and indicates that they should take their places. Looking at a half-naked man holding a three foot razor blade, with the avowed intent of carving you up with it, focuses the mind wonderfully.

“Êtes-vous prêt?” He asks each in turn. Both nod. Almost imperceptibly. Their necks as tense as the rest of their bodies.

“En garde!” The sabres come up. Ready to both attack and defend. It’s tough to defend against sabre cuts–which can come in at any angle and with bewildering speed in the hands of an expert. Often the win goes to the fighter who lunges first and fastest.


The fight begins.

At this point, however, it becomes rapidly obvious to the on-lookers that neither party had the faintest idea how to handle a sword properly. Tentatively, they move forward and back. Looking like an amateur dramatic production where the actors think that tapping at each-others blades will pass for a fight, they nervously prod and shake. People start to get bored.

Perhaps now would be a good time to mention the details of the insult? These two army officers were quite fresh in the army. One was a potato buyer, the other a potato seller. The potato buyer had accused the potato seller of putting too much earth in his potato sacks. This was the insult that could not go unpunished. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) the potato trade is not famed for its swordsmanship. This was very evident now.

More by luck than judgement, one fencer took a wild hack at his rival and, much to everyone’s surprise, managed to catch him a glancing shot on the wrist. Blood had been shed. Finally.

“Arrête!” Akos commanded.

The wound was examined. First blood. Was honour satisfied? The duelists nodded gratefully that it was. The duel was over.

That was the last sabre duel—but Akos’ influence goes well beyond that. He was an exceptional teacher who passed on not mere skills, but a way of approaching the world. All his students have strong memories of him and deeply mourned his passing—well into his 90s—on December 3rd 2011. (2)

By an odd coincidence one of his students—Bob Anderson, the legendary fight choreographer, died at about the same time. Anderson is famous for the fights in a number of movies like The Princess Bride and the original Star Wars. In fact, because David Prowse (the body of Darth Vader) never really got the hang of handling the sabre, for the fights in long shot Bob Anderson was under the cowl—he was Darth Vader. So, technically, that means that the person who taught us sabre was the person who taught Darth Vader sabre. Which was Obi Wan Kenobi.


Where’s the psychology in all this, you might ask? The logic of male-male competition has been set out most clearly in Maynard-Smith and Price’s 1973 paper on evolutionary game theory. (3) All across taxa, males engage in sub-lethal (but still credibly dangerous) forms of fighting to establish status because in males status equates to reproductive fitness. These forms of fighting often use specific modes (like antlers) specially grown for the purpose that are not used in other fighting (such as against predators).

Humans don’t grow antlers—they grow cultural practices instead. We often develop highly stylised fighting forms with specific overtones—such as fencing and the ones I explore in my 2013 paper on boxing. (4) Humans are more socially complex than deer butting antlers but the logic is much the same. Violence is often portrayed by social psychologists as necessarily anti-social or pathological but a little thought reveals how superficial such a description is. It may not be the best way of settling disputes, but it can be highly social. I would just point out that, historically, the rise of lawyers is in neat correlation to the fall of duelling as a way to settle disputes. I suppose I have to concede that this is more civilised. Grudgingly.


  • Daly, M., & Wilson, M. (1988). Homicide. Transaction Publishers.
  • Maynard-Smith, J.; Price, G. R. (1973). “The Logic of Animal Conflict”. Nature. 246 (5427): 15–18.
  • King, R. (2013). Fists of furry: at what point did human fists part company with the rest of the hominid lineage?. Journal of Experimental Biology, 216(12), 2361-2361.

11 thoughts on “The Last Duel

  1. Evolutionary explanation for the existence of honour and the idea behind the duel..

    In a species where reproductive success occurs in the context of long lifespans, long memories, and gossip, the consequences of any self-indulgent aggression could be catastrophic. Reputational wealth is everything.

    But being pleasant and neighborly can only go so far without the backup mechanism of communication networks. If sharing food becomes a biological strong drive, the workers become vulnerable to freeloading and cheating. This is why reputation – and the networks that permit people to know OF other people even if they do not know them directly, is so essential. A strange male or female, arriving at a camp, would be welcomed if they could recite their networks and find points of connection with known and trusted companions. Either would be welcomed even more warmly if they came with a known and trusted person. But if that trust is betrayed, word will spread and eventually these people will find no welcome in any local band. So moral acts develop cultural valiance: some things become taboo: the sacred comes into being along with the banal.


      1. Actually reputation (for courage, responsibility, diligence, and thus having a wide network of friends and family) was THE single most important attribute found in a study of what factors make a young man attractive to a potential mater. It was called “relationship wealth” and was noted to be somewhat heritable – in other worlds, if a young man came from a family (especially direct parents) with a huge network and high reputation for all the social virtues (generosity, diplomacy, honour, loyalty compassion courage etc) his attractiveness to female visitors was enhanced.

        The “inequality” and “wealth” of people in the oldest known human economic system was all about honour and reputation… and when I did fieldwork in another hunter-gatherer group, I found the same thing the men with the largest and most far flung networks of family and friends were the ones with the largest camps and the only ones in my sample with mor ethan one wife (two cases). Women’s reputations for similar values and especially fierceness and loyalty, were equally prized. See the following “sacred story” I recorded.


  2. Temperamental and emotional reactions tend to balance impulse control mediated by the prefrontal cortex. When infractions of equality and just sharing are perceived, strong emotional reactions to frustration, slights, and injustices, and a certain spiteful outrage and venting, , balances the etiquette of cooperative inclusivity. This sets some very familiar limitations on the potential for exploitative opportunism.

    Any attempt at freeloading and greed tends to be sharply highlighted under such conditions. A minor disagreement or misunderstanding can blow up even between close relatives, and lead to the breakup of a camping party. Local groups, heavy in young dependents can balance dependency ratios simply by permitting irritations (at excessive workloads or unequal sharing) to find a voice. We have plenty of evidence of argument, violence, and murder in human societies, often among close family members. Even young children are aggressive and violent when thwarted in some way. The tightening of social controls through taboos, etiquette, and harsher punishments for infractions, does not seem to eliminate all instances of defiance or maleficence. Why is this? Does this also have any possible evolutionary significance?

    Among humans in general, social control tends to be a collective activity. It is not a matter of a dominant individual keeping everyone in line. The bonding of individuals for cooperation, and particularly, the collaborative bonding of men – based on honour – to control internal violence and injustice, has been called “the egalitarian syndrome” . Coalitions of counter-dominance may be very ancient, and have co-evolved with sensitivity to injustice. We see this kind of group action operating in many social species and deal with predators and other threats, but rarely to intervene in dominance hierarchies.

    Turning this mechanism inward within a community, as social control based on moral/behavioral codes embedded in the collective cultural niche, and hence internal to each individual, marking a pronounced shift, away from stress-inducing aggression-based hierarchies found in many other primates. It would have led towards the cooperative management of, and minimization of, socially induced stress.

    Hierarchical organizations based on coercive force, which permit a minority of individuals to use force to control the activities and fates of many others lower in rank, are extremely stressful. The kinds of aggressive dominance hierarchies found in common chimpanzees, and baboons, and many other primates, feature frequent physical and psychological coercive interaction.

    This may be incompatible with kind of social environment that would positively select for human cognitive evolution, especially the evolution of the prefrontal cortex. Stress – induced by coercion and trauma, but even the stress of having low social status – is extremely detrimental to human brain function today. Rational thought and learning is more difficult, and memory is impaired.

    Stress due to aggression based dominance hierarches would have been devastating in smaller and more isolated populations of early foraging Australopithecus as well. Furthermore, continuation of such stress might have been incompatible with kind of social environment that would positively select for human cognitive evolution, especially the evolution of the prefrontal cortex. In fact, stress in most social animals gives rise to higher levels of cortisol, which set off sudden fits of aggression.

    Rank based on protective behavior – and the courage to defy bullies – redirects such stresses. Closing ranks against a violent individual within a group shifts the whole dynamic of leadership. It becomes a function of moral courage, of protecting and supporting those younger and smaller than oneself. It becomes about generosity and resolute action, creating gangs of loyal companions rather than subordinates.

    It becomes about respect, not fear. Instead of aggression to maintain rank, the use of reputation based on mutually cooperative and supportive behavior, reduces stresses on the young and the old, and on anyone disabled. Among humans today, losses of reputation, and of friendship networks, have been found to be associated with higher rate of depression and suicide, as well as lowered immunity and higher mortality from various diseases, especially among men. Such emotional pain can actually be measured and is comparable to physical injury.

    Compassionate, nurturing behavior that keeps weaker individuals alive increases the potential contributions that they can make to the survival of the group… especially since older and disabled adults can be a rich source of information and instruction; not to mention moral intervention in disputes.

    Once you have symbolic communication – in language, pictures, skits and song, you have a big boost to your available options when there is a crisis – environmental or social – that the younger adults have not faced before.

    We cannot be sure if similar dynamics operated among our earlier ancestors, but it is instructive to consider the consequences of such a shift.

    1) The most stressed in the group would no longer be the youngest or the weakest, but rather the least generous, least diligent, least cooperative, least benevolent.

    2) Moreover, the process of relocating the sources of stress turns individual productivity and action, which determine evolutionary fitness, away from the self and directs it to the benefit of the rest of the group.

    3) Individuals, who protect and help each other, will be sought after by mates and companions. Where such politics prevail, the survival chances of children will benefit from the general flow of reciprocal good will, food, and watchful tending.

    4) Furthermore, the longevity and health of individuals is inversely correlated to adversity experienced in early life, so this redirection of stress helped keep the whole community alive – and well.


    1. You are working from an assumption that all humans are/should be alike.
      This assumption is shared by blank-lsaters and genetic determinists and it proceeds from the same false assumption–that biological = fixed at birth. Th eonly difference is that the blank slaters think they ahve to believe this because to do otherwise is to sacrifice equality, while the determinists are happy to sacrifice equality (keen to in fact) and therby think that intervention is doomed.
      Both groups are wrong and a plague on both their houses.
      Fixity and homogenity isn’t true among chickens and guinea pigs let alone human beings. In fact the big 5 (openess, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism and agreeablenss) vary in predictable ways across taxa. They are typcially seen as variable ecologically responsive settings that tend to maximise fitness.
      Thus talk of “controlling this” or “repressing that” assume that its always good to control or repress these things.
      Not only does this import an utterly irrelevant moral dimension to a factual discussion–its just plain wrong. It can maximise fitness to be open to experience or be aggressive in some settings but not others.
      The early bird catches the worm…but the second mouse gets the cheese. There is no one right way to be human–we are not (nor should we be) a homogeneous blob.
      That said–if we want a nicer society then the solutions should tend towards rewarding those attitudes and behaviors that make the place generally more aggreable and less contentious. However–wishful thinking is unlikely to take us far in this regard.
      If you take an eighteen year old black kid from the streets of Compton and put him on Death Row his life expectancy actually goes up. Good luck telling him to play nice, turn the other cheek, and it will all turn out alright in the end. It most likely won’t. And his genes know it–that why they adjust his responses accordingly.

      Liked by 1 person

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