Obscure Historical Figure of the Day #9: the Emancipated Duelist

(This article features images borrowed from the collections of Drew Hammond and Nile Crocodile.)

I haven’t updated this series in a while. For parts 7 and 8, please click here.

Most of us have a romantic image of private duels conducted in the age of swordplay. We usually imagine snotty European noblemen, possibly a little drunk, and definitely a little pompous, squaring off in the woods to battle to the “first blood” or, less commonly, to the death.

What did they fight over? The usual stuff. Someone stepped on someone’s ruffled collar. Someone looked askew at someone else’s bit of fluff. Or maybe someone took offence to someone else not caring for a particular sports team. You know, rational stuff.

Most of us consider this ridiculous tradition to be the purview of men. But it may surprise you to learn that there existed the phenomenon of “emancipated dueling”, a movement of women fighting each other, that started in the 19th century. Till that point, feuding women had men fight on their behalf.

The most famous of these emancipated duels was fought between Austrian Princess Pauline Metternich and the Countess Kielmannsegg in 1892, which was presided over by Baroness Lubinska. In fact, all participants in this duel –its participants, the referee, and the seconds– were women, making this ironically puerile affair to be a truly feminist endeavour.

The two combatants were famous in their day, and their mutual dislike was well known. There are countless artistic depictions of their conflagration, such as this portrait by Degas of the Princess:

Perhaps the reason this duel is so celebrated in the, um, artistic realm is that Baroness Lubinska was also a medical doctor. Her training suggested to her that there was a real danger of infection if one of the combatants were to thrust a blade into her opponent while the latter were wearing clothing. In other words, the clothing was the dangerous thing here, not the, you know, sharp blades.

As a result, the combatants famously fought this duel topless. And, as you’d expect, the artistic imagination flowered…

For obvious reasons, this is my favourite depiction (plucked from the female single combat club):

There’s also a video. You know, because Millennials don’t read.

Oh, why did the duel occur? What were the Princess and the Countess fighting over? Something to do with a flower arrangement, apparently. Yep.