Freethought Archives > G.W. Foote > Flowers of Freethought Vol. II (1894)


(July 22, 1888.)

One result of the recent duel between M. Floquet and the melodramatic General Boulanger is that Bishop Freppel has moved in the Chamber of Deputies for the legal abolition of private combats. That a bishop should do this is remarkable. If Bishop Freppel possessed any sense of humor, he would leave the task to laymen. His Church did not establish duelling; on the contrary, she censured it; but it was countenanced by her principles, and her protest was unavailing. The judicial combat was an appeal to God, like the ordeal by fire or water, or the purgation by oath. The Church patronised those forms of superstition which brought men to her altars, and ministered to her profit and power, and she opposed those superstitions which were inimical to her interest. When legal proofs failed and suits were undecided; when persons were accused of crimes, of which they could neither be proved guilty nor held guiltless; or when they lay under gross suspicion of wrong, the Church proffered the ordeal. She invited the litigants, or the suspected parties, to handle hot iron, plunge their arms into boiling liquid, or be thrown into water deep enough to drown them; and if they underwent such treatment without injury, she held them innocent. Another device was the oath. The parties went to the Church altar and swore their innocence or the justice of their cause. But all these methods gave room for chicane. Kings and knights protested that the oath led to indiscriminate perjury, that if the priests' hands were tickled with money the hot iron was only painted, and that a suitable fee could render the boiling liquid innocuous to the skin of a baby. They therefore drew their swords, exclaiming, "Away with this priestly jugglery! These weapons are better than fire or water or oil, and God can decide the right in single combat as in the Churchman's ordeal."

"Is it not true," asked King Gundobald of Bishop Avitus, "that the event of national wars and private combats is directed by the judgment of God; and that his providence awards the victory to the juster cause?" The Bishop could not answer "No," for if he did he would have demolished the whole Church system of ordeals, so he yielded to the arguments of his sovereign.

Single combats, under the Gothic code, were fought according to judicial forms. They were held, Robertson says, "as solemn appeals to the omniscience and justice of the Supreme Being." Shakespeare is careful to to notice this feature. When Bolingbroke and Norfolk, in Richard II., challenge each other as traitors, the king consents to their duel in the following terms:

At Coventry, upon Saint Lambert's day: There shall your swords and lances arbitrate The swelling difference of your settled hate. Since we cannot atone you, we shall see Justice design the victor's chivalry.

Modern duelling is thus a survival of the old judicial combat. The "point of honor" is the excuse for a practice which has lost its original sanction. The appeal to God is forgotten, and the duellists talk of "satisfaction." Illogical no doubt, but this is only one of many customs that survive their original meaning.

Now the Church cannot hold itself guiltless in regard to this folly. She cherished the superstition on which it rested. She taught the policy of appealing to God, and only frowned on the particular method which brought no grist to her mill. Her own methods were still more senseless. Unless the laws of nature were constantly subverted, her ordeals must have operated at random when they were not regulated by fraud. The hand of guilt might be harder than that of innocence, and more likely to bear a moment's contact with hot iron or boiling oil. Besides, as Montesquieu observes, the poltroon stood the poorest chance in the judicial combat, and the poltroon was more likely to be guilty than the man of courage. The weak, of course, were at the mercy of the strong; but in one point, at least, the combat had an obvious advantage over the other ordeals.

How amusing it must have been to a sceptic, if such then existed, to see the opposition between the nobles and the clergy. The nobles said "Fight!" and the clergy cried "That is impious." The clergy said "Swear!" and the nobles cried "That is sacrilege and leads to perjury."

No less amusing was the turn which combat took in Spain in the eleventh century. There was a struggle between the Latin and the Gothic liturgy. Aragon yielded to the papal pressure, but Castile thought the contest should be decided by the sword. Accordingly, Mosheim tells us, two champions were chosen; they fought, and the Latin liturgy was defeated. But the Romish party was not satisfied. The two liturgies were thrown into a fire, and the result of the ordeal was another triumph for the Goths. Still the divine decisions are frail when opposed to the interests of the Church. Queen Constantia, who controlled King Alphonso, sided with the pontiff of Rome, and the priest and the lady carried the day.

Though incorporated in the judicial system of Christendom, the duel is scorned by the Turks, and was unknown to the Greeks and Romans. Lord Bacon remarks this in one of his admirable law tracts:

"All memory doth consent that Greece and Rome were the most valiant and generous nations of the world; and, that which is more to be noted, they were free estates, and not under a monarchy; whereby a man would think it a great deal the more reason that particular persons should have righted themselves; and yet they had not this practice of duels, nor anything that bare show thereof." (Charge against Duels.)

Bacon observes that the most valorous and generous nations scorn this practice. Why then did it obtain so long in Christendom? Was it because the Northern and Western nations were cowardly and selfish? Nothing of the kind; it was because they were superstitious, and their superstition was cherished by the Church. Even at the present day the Church calls international combat an appeal to God; regimental banners are consecrated by priests, and laid up in temples when dilapidated; and Catholic and Protestant priests alike implore victory for their respective sides in time of war. And why not? Is not the Bible God "the Lord of Hosts" and "a man of war"? Did he not teach David's fingers to fight? Were not Joshua and Jehu, the two greatest tigers in history, his chosen generals? Why then should he be averse to international butchery in Europe? Should he not rejoice in the next bloody cockpit of featherless bipeds? And is it not hard to see his infinite appetite for blood reduced to content itself with an occasional duel, in which not enough of the sanguine fluid is shed to make a small black-pudding? Bishop Freppel is ill-advised. He should not rob his Deity of his last consolation.

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