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A Gentleman’s Guide to Duelling: Review

Gentleman's Guide to Duelling

This book is a modern edition of the 1595 work of Honour and Honourable Quarrels, a guide to the ethics of duelling, by the famous Elizabethan fencing master, Vincentio Saviolo. Let’s cut to the chase. If you are interested in the history of violence, duelling, or moral philosophy, buy this book.

Jared Kirby, the editor, has added thirty pages or so of useful and interesting front-matter, including a detailed argument for the likely location of Saviolo’s school in London, some background on the import of Italian fencing into England in the late 16th century, and as much biographical detail about Saviolo as scholarship has yet uncovered. Kirby also gives all the contemporary references to Saviolo, with complete quotations, in the appendices. To give a flavour of the level of Kirby’s commitment to accuracy: on page seven there is what is now my favourite footnote of any book: “There are no author, editor or publisher/printer details for Alfabetto Citta. The only way to get access is to go to the state archives of Padua and talk to the curator.”

Saviolo’s book is a comprehensive expression of his views on the duel, a critically important issue for Elizabethan gentlemen (and indeed, gentlemen of any era). It comprises eight chapters in about 140 pages, and covers everything from the initial insult, giving the lie, the issue as it regards different ranks in society (lords, knights etc.), choices of weapons, etc. And it concludes with the fantastic “The Nobility of Women” in which he robustly asserts that women are in all respects (culture, intellect, nobility etc.) the equals of men. A must-read for any gender-studies course!

I was initially horrified to read that Kirby intended to modernise the language of the original, and I completely disagree with his assertion that “The natural ability to read and understand sixteenth-century English is a rare gift” (p. xvii): being able to read any language is not a natural ability, or a gift, it’s a learned skill like any other. But his modernisation has been done with a gentle touch, such that reading it I scarcely noticed the changes, and they may save readers lacking the skill referred to earlier the bother of looking up some words or puzzling over some obscure locutions.

There are some interesting additions to the book. Kirby has inserted 16 illustrations, mostly 19th-century drawings, which at times add useful insight, but occasionally come across as complete non-sequiturs. Nothing that detracts from the text, I just wonder at the thinking behind their inclusion (and the lack of source citations in some cases).

In conclusion then, some odd editorial decisions aside, Saviolo’s book is vital reading for anyone interested in the history of the duel and the duelling code, and Kirby’s additional material adds depth of interest. So, as I said above, buy this book!

Disclosure: Jared Kirby and I have been friends for twenty years now, and have fenced together many times, stayed in each others’ homes, etc. In short, friends enough that if I didn’t like his book I’d say so to his face!

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