Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Jamie's Honor: The Duel in the Bois de Bologne

By: Sara Mordzynski, MD
Special Guest Blogger

“Jesus God, Claire! You’d try to stop me taking my vengeance on the man who made me play whore to him?”  Dragonfly in Amber, Chapter 21

With that loaded question, Jamie reveals the way to reinforce the walls of  his “fortress” he started to rebuild.  For most of us, the thought of recovery from the trauma of Wentworth would never entail challenging the instigator who shattered it.   Sure, we might, in a fantastical kind of way, imagine doing some brutal retaliatory act, but that is as far as it would go. Psychological trauma would never be redressed that way while  “retribution”  for physical brutality would be  relegated  to our justice system.   But that was then and this is now—and when did that change?

I thought it would be interesting to explore the culture of dueling - why it was not a far-fetched method of vindication and justice to an 18th Century  mindset. Thus far, we already know from Jamie’s ex-flame, Annalise de Marillac that he engaged in at least one duel during his earlier adventures in France (in the era of "BC" - Before Claire).

What is Jamie’s Honor?
Defining what honor is will delineate under what circumstances a duel will be initiated. Honor is a perception by self and society of worthiness, respectability and self-esteem. This is not the self-serving honor of ego and reputation for power and wealth, but of a moral/ethical essence; “the bit that makes you, yourself and not anyone else.” (Outlander, episode 204)

Rough Justice: Where Did It All Begin?
It is believed to have evolved from an early form of protection and rough justice. In an age without strong centralized institutions which could enforce a codified system of law, what recourse would one have if you or yours were subject to theft of land, property, cattle or worse -physical violence? Swift brutal revenge was the key. Establishing a reputation as that kind of protector not only meant the survival of those under your care, but that kind of renown itself could prevent further violations.  In such cultures of honor, its utility was quite clear and necessary, providing a certain level of stability and safety to your social unit.

What’s up HolmBoy?

Eventually more formality and structure evolved. The Medieval  judicial duel (the Vikings would call it a holmgang - love the way that sounds- makes me want to grab a battle-ax) was supervised by a judge after which the specific rules and conditions were set.  Enacted as a feat of arms between two combatants or as chivalric combat in which  two opposing teams of knights and their squires defended their honor or settled disputes.  Initially the losing side was  executed. But by the mid-to-late Middle ages and subsequently into the Renaissance (12th-16th centuries), acknowledging the winning side was the end point along with some form of  compensation.  In feudal societies, this reigned in (to some extent) the violent tendencies of a warrior class by channeling the aggression via a set of rules and conditions.  In addition, by establishing a chivalric code of conduct emphasizing such values including protecting weaker members of society, the  violence is  diverted away from its destructive, random tendencies.  

Knights and Squires and Jousts! Oh My!

Subsequently, this transformed into spectacles. Tournaments were staged contests between  individual knights jousting (individual events) or 2 groups of knights and squires in mock battles called melee (team events).  Like a major sport event, the winners acquired wealth and fame.  Not only was it a method to control a violence-prone warrior class, it was a sanctioned form of entertainment and a way to maintain, and display, one's skills - a kind of  job fair for knights. Still, these were dangerous events and unarmed bystanders were injured or killed. The Church was never keen about these events and kings often banned them when it resulted in public disorder which threatened their authority.

Duel Personalities
During the Renaissance,  warfare tactics and strategies  changed.  The duel evolved from its earlier purposes as a method of executing judgement/justice and providing  protection for the non-warrior members. No longer part of the military solution to end sieges or determine battle outcomes, it was now a more personal confrontation between aristocratic men over issues associated with how society perceived you - as a gentleman.  It became the method for resolving personal disputes because reputation was critical to your standing within  Upper Class circles. These  ramifications  could influence who you could socialize with or marry (with consequences to wealth and power) and in an age where aristocrats staffed bureaucracies, patronage was the way to obtain a job or promotion.  
In “The Duel of Honor: Screening for Unobservable Social Capitol”,  D.W. Allen and C.G. Reed suggest that in an age of patronage,  your resume relied not on modern criteria, listing academic or practical experience, but instead on social capitol.  Its value depended on a complex interplay of schools attended, club and church affiliations, as well as business and family connections.  Since verifying job performance was difficult,  a reputation of trust and honesty,  predicated on social capitol, was  more important then skill and ability.  If you were not willing to defend your honor when challenged, your social capital depreciated significantly. In other words, duels served as a screen for opportunity and promotion.

Dueling became entrenched in European culture, in spite of  the varied efforts by monarchs to ban the practice. In “The Dishonor of Dueling,” Ariel Roth states: "within a two-decade period under Henry IV of France (1553-1610), 4000 duel-related deaths were recorded and also within a similar time frame, under Louis XIII (1601-1643), 8000 murder-related pardons were issued to the surviving duelist utilizing a self-defense argument."

The Age of the Gentleman
Proponents defended the practice of dueling as an essential part of upholding civility.  In the 18th Century,  conformity to a rigid set of rules regarding etiquette and behavior became sacrosanct not only within aristocratic circles but amongst the  growing upwardly mobile Bourgeoisie.  This was believed essential to the orderly functioning of society.  Books and periodicals which set forth the specifics were all the rage. A step-by-step how-to included ways to conduct debate and conversation: to address others with elegance, and what constituted proper dress and  mannerisms.  In the age of the “Gentleman,” you wanted to be one.  Blunt talk was out; subtext and innuendo were in. Check out that scene between Jamie and Black Jack at Versailles (Outlander: Episode 205).  Anger and confrontation found an outlet in the duel. Scholars including the esteemed British essayist/author, Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) defended the practice:

         “A man may shoot the man who invades his character as he may shoot him who attempts to break into his house”

I Second that Emotion
WWJD – What Would Jamie Do?   

How the formal duel would be initiated:

1. Jamie would issue a formal challenge.  
2. The “seconds”, usually trusted friends (Murtagh), would negotiate a possible “peaceful’ resolution to the conflict. (In Jamie’s case however, this was not even a consideration). 
3. If nonviolent resolution was not possible, the conditions including date, time and endpoints, were set.  These details could take weeks or months to hash out before the actual duel took place.  
4. The challenged party (Black Jack) was given the choice of weapon. Defensive equipment such as shields, armor or helmet was unacceptable.

Armed and Dangerous
The weapon of choice for an 18th century aristocrat was the saber. Sabers were a curved variant of the backsword or as a Highlander would call it , claidheamh cuil.  A single-edged cutting blade with a flat back edge, and  single handed grip with knuckle guard, its mastery required skill and training.  Eventually when pistols became in vogue, — it democratized the event so it was accessible to the Middle Class since guns did not require as much time investment to master. 

Cultural Catch Up
“Cultural adaptations that may have been functional at some point persist even when the conditions that gave rise to them are gone….cultural lag”- The Psychological Foundations of Culture.  JA Vandello and D Cohen (2004).  

Approaching the Modern era, Western culture moved from an honor-based society to a culture of law. What does that mean?  With strong centralized authorities which can support a codified system of justice in conjunction with a police force that can enforce obedience to the law, a social contract was made with members of society. People willingly give up  some personal, individual freedoms, such as retaliation against criminal actions, because there is a trust in a system that will punish the transgressor.  

The reality was that the “guilty” were not always on the losing end of that saber. While establishing a mutual respect was the goal, the duel of honor lost its veneer as it was quite often trivialized  and even worse, served as a platform for criminally motivated aggression. Views on violence, as well as honor, changed with the Age of Enlightenment,  while a bit later the Industrial Revolution would place greater value on skill/achievement  (rather than who you knew) for advancement.  As far as reputation and defending it-that moved into the burgeoning realm of printed media (Book fans will be familiar with how that pops up in later books and I hope we get to see it in future seasons —are you listening Sony/Starz?)

Back to Jamie
As mentioned earlier, honor was not an issue of patronage or a certain perception he wanted to present to society. Jamie’s definition of honor was his inner spiritual  core, what defined him as person and yes, a man.  Black Jack brutally defiled it. Ironically, Randall  was also part of the established culture of law - and therefore, Jamie, labeled a criminal already by that system, could in no way obtain the justice he so desperately sought.  Likewise, psychological trauma, and how it was addressed, is a modern construct, and therefore not something Jamie could relate to as a way to rebuild his fortress.  It  was not only justice for him; Jamie wanted a redemption of his soul and for him, that could only be accomplished through his hands…or with a sword.


  1. Interesting, thanks for sharing.

  2. Fabulous article. We get a real sense of what the duel means for the times and for Jamie. It is also interesting that the process of executing the actual duel wasn't immediate, but rather progressed over a period of time.

  3. I thought it was because BJR hurt the little boy? To me that would make sense why he would go back on his word.

    1. Hello, thank you for your comment. Jamie agreed to delay the duel for the reasons he initially gave Claire in episode 206 (and as I mentioned, most duels were planned events). The reasons for issuing the duel remained the same--the fact that he broke the promise does not invalidate his underlying reasons. Fergus' rape added a new layer to Jamie's definition of honor and this one- he could not sanction a delay. The fact that it was a child--added a much more emotionally volatile response from Jamie unlike his initial invitation to duel which was calm, calculated. - Sara M.