How to avoid conflict: Lessons from 16th century Italian duels

It's only when disputants are so 'pig-headed' as to not accept a sensible process of mediation that the duel takes place, according to York University PhD student and master fencer, Aaron Miedema. He's researching over 300 cases of duels from the 16th and 17th century. Turns out there are lessons for us from 500 years ago which may prove useful in today's climate of public blaming and shaming.

Rituals performed are a 'complicated fashion show, with blood!'

Aaron Miedema not only studies history; he re-enacts it with replica armour and authentic sword-fighting techniques. (Tom Howell/CBC)
Listen to the full episode53:59

* Originally published on December 20, 2019.

What if men had to be "true to their word"... or else face death?

Thanks to certain trailblazing male politicians, there has never been a better time to lie blatantly in public.

Old requirements to merely bend the truth or wriggle verbally to avoid slipping into outright dishonesty… these now look like quaint traditions from a bygone era.

That makes it harder to imagine and understand a culture that drove Italian men to face each other in single, mortal combat over the simple suggestion that one of them had told a lie. Welcome to the world of the 16th-century Italian duel.

"Duelling takes place in this world where, if there's a challenge, you have to respond," says Tom Cohen, professor emeritus of history at York University. He specializes in Rome during the renaissance period, a time when notions of honour dominated everyday social life.

"Italy was Christian, profoundly Catholic— the capital of the Roman Catholic Church. How often do people say a Christian thing about 'what he did,' 'what she did'? Almost never! It is almost always the language of honour," Cohen told CBC Radio's IDEAS.

You have to call them a liar — and then they have to challenge that and say, 'I'm not a liar and I will prove it with weapons'.- Aaron Miedema, PhD student, explaining how a formal duel starts

PhD student Aaron Miedema studies the intricate social codes and practices that led Italian men to face each other in duels of honour.

His research involves everything from poring over the details of handwritten letters from centuries ago, to donning fencing gear himself and learning authentic sword-fighting manoeuvres.

"You have to look really, really small at things and see the little peculiar and particular details," explained Miedema, who is the latest subject of the CBC documentary series, Ideas from the Trenches, highlighting the work of Canadian PhD students.

'Ideas from the Trenches' presenter Nicola Luksic interviewing Aaron Miedema. Aaron is the thirtieth PhD student to be featured in this documentary series. (Tom Howell)

A duel starts before the swords come out

Miedema argues that the true culture of dueling depended on a complex web of negotiations between many members of society, not just a face-off between two hot-headed gentlemen. In his definition, the duel begins long before the swords come out. A series of ritualized exchanges had to take place, although these varied across Italy.

For instance, the 'Lombardic' tradition featured a formal declaration to the man who had supposedly told a lie.

"In the Lombard laws," Miedema told IDEAS, "you have to essentially 'give somebody the lie' — you have to call them a liar — and then they have to challenge that and say, 'I'm not a liar and I will prove it with weapons.'"

It's a very interesting complicated fashion show, with blood!- Tom Cohen, history professor, describing the rituals of the Italian duel

The ritualized exchanges would stretch to include padrini, respected members of society, and an official offer by a local landowner to host the eventual combat at an appropriate venue, if the conflict could not be resolved in other ways. The combats could become important social events in themselves.

"It's a very interesting complicated fashion show, with blood!" commented Cohen, who is also Miedema's PhD supervisor.

Swords represent noble status

The duelling tradition came into conflict with both Catholic and state law at various points through history, and yet it persevered across Europe for centuries, serving as a formalized process for managing the potential violence and disorder caused by mens' need to protect their reputation as well as the honour of their families and other dependents.

York University PhD student Aaron Miedema’s first trip to the Roman archives, in 2015. (Tom Cohen)

While the choice of weapons had to be negotiated in each case, it's fair to say that renaissance duelling tends to be associated most commonly with sword-fighting.

"The sword was the symbol of your noble status and your manhood," remarked Laurie Nussdorfer, professor emerita of History and Letters at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. She also specializes in gender and masculinity in renaissance-era Italy.

I think there are peaceful ways in which you can bring up your complaints … We don't have to resort to weapons!- Laurie Nussdorfer, history professor, on why we shouldn't bring back the duel

Nussdorfer does not see the decline of duelling to be a huge loss for Western societies. "I think honour is ridiculous," she told IDEAS.

"I think that there are peaceful ways in which you can bring up your complaints about how you've been treated and sometimes you need to organize support for that. But all of that can be conducted peacefully. We don't have to resort to weapons!"

However, Nussdorfer muses that perhaps it would save a lot of money if world conflicts could be resolved by one-to-one combat between leading politicians rather than through sanctions, bombing campaigns, and large-scale military exercises.

Coin-toss combat

For Miedema, the potential lessons of Italian duelling for modern politics and social situations matters less than getting the small details right about what exactly occurred. His approach might be called "micro-history" or "embodied knowledge," a style of scholarship that involves getting closer to moments from long ago.

News of the 1526 duel between Ludovico Vistarini and Sigismondo Malatesta spread all the way to Rome thanks to the advent of the printing press. (Aaron Miedema)

His research takes him to archives across Italy, looking for angry letters or other documentation relating to quarrels during the 16th century. He then pieces together the story of how these did or did not end in a sword fight, as well as the community interactions that occurred in relation to the disagreement.

"People were quarrelling all the time. It ending in combat — that was the more rare thing," Miedema said.

"One of the key points of the duel is to make it essentially a coin toss. You make things as equal as possible so that you put pressure on the two primaries who are disputing to, you know, maybe take mediation rather than do it on a coin-toss combat."

Guests in this episode:

  • Thomas V. Cohen is professor emeritus of history at York University. His books include (co-authored with E. S. Cohen) Daily Life in Renaissance Italy.
  • Aaron Miedema is a PhD student in history at York University. 
  • Laurie Nussdorfer is professor emerita at Wesleyan University. She's the author of Brokers of Public Trust: Notaries in Early Modern Rome.
  • Danièle Cybulskie is a podcast host and writer for Her latest book is Life in Medieval Europe: Fact and Fiction. Other work includes The Five-Minute Medievalist's Guide to Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse.


This episode is part of our series, Ideas from the Trenches, featuring outstanding PhD students. It's produced by Nicola Luksic and Tom Howell.  


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