Do 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.