Sociology of duels in French-speaking Switzerland: 16th and 17th centuries

This article deals with the number of cases of duels and the social distribution of duellists in French-speaking Switzerland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Traité sur les duels d’Henri Basnage de Beauval, 1740  [Private collection]

The number of cases of duels noted in the sources is to be considered as an indication. This is a recurring factor in the history of crime, with many crimes escaping justice. Laws and admonitions, notably from the Geneva Consistory, or the comments sometimes-accompanying draft Fribourg laws effectively suggest that the duels were more than what the sources suggest. However, the information provided by the latter remains sufficient to represent the protagonists of these events, the reasons or the rituals in force.

Thirty-two duelling cases were recorded for the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in the cantonal archives of Geneva, Fribourg, Lausanne, Bern, Neuchâtel and Sion, as well as in the archives of the former Bishopric of Basel. As it is to be expected, it is the documents concerning legal proceedings, which mainly preserve the memory of these duels, although the Manuals of the Council of State of Neuchâtel, the Registers of the Council of Geneva or the Accounts of the Treasurer of Fribourg also testify to cases of armed confrontation.

The distribution of the number of registered cases is not homogeneous, testifying in this manner to fluctuating social violence but also to uneven population densities and controls whose effectiveness and rigor differed greatly from one region to another. It was in Geneva, subject to the Savoy Wars at the end of the sixteenth century, was inhabited or visited by many reformed foreign noblemen and whose urban context facilitated both tensions and a coercive organization more attentive than in the countryside than the number of duels was most important with eighteen cases.[1] In comparison, Fribourg has only seven[2], the Pays de Vaud five[3], Neuchâtel two[4] and Valais only one[5] case. The Jura, meanwhile, has no case of duel listed in its archives to our knowledge.

Fig. 1: Sociology of duels in Geneva. Segments respectively translate as: foreign nobles, patricians of Geneva, common people, soldiers, students.

Geneva seems to occupy a special place, since more than half of the duels listed in French-speaking Switzerland take place within its walls or generally in what can be considered as the grounds of the city. Of the eighteen cases of duels or challenges to a duel noted in Geneva, seven concern nobles including six foreigners, seven involved Geneva patricians, five common people, craftsmen or small traders, four involved soldiers, and one theology students.

Fig. 2: Sociology of duels in different French-speaking Swiss regions. Segments respectively translate as: nobles, foreigners, the bourgeois, soldiers, common people, students.

The thirty-three cases of duels or duel challenges recorded in the various regions of French-speaking Switzerland also give us ten examples involving nobles, seven foreigners, eleven the bourgeois, nine the soldiers, five common people, and one students .

The upper class, nobility or bourgeoisie, thus seems to be the main group involved in duels. However, these do not necessarily take place only between nobles or between bourgeois. Both meet indiscriminately from their social class, the latter being a just cause for battle.

Cite this article as: Christophe Vuilleumier, "Sociology of duels in French-speaking Switzerland: 16th and 17th centuries," in Martial Culture in Medieval Town, 17/08/2020,

[1] They take place in 1580, 1598, two duels (no dates, early seventeenth century), 1603, 1611, 1616, 1652, 1657, 1657, 1658, 1659, 1660, 1664, 1665, 1666, 1681 and 1684. AEG, R. C., 1580, vol. 75, f. 115 v ; 1598, vol. 93, f. 108 ; 1611, vol. 111, f. 113 ; 1652, vol. 151, f. 322 ; 1657, vol. 157, f. 131 ; 1658, vol. 158, f. 76 – 77 ; 1660, vol. 160, f. 102v ; 1664, vol. 161, f. 104 ; 1681, vol. 158, f. 28 ; 1684, vol 184, f. 162 – 163 ; 1684, vol. 184, f. 167 – 168 ; 1684, vol. 184, f. 167 – 168, 178 – 179 ; 1685, vol. 185, f. 12 – 13, 16, 25 – 26, 75, 82. AEG, P. C., 1ère série, No. 3600 et 2ème série, No 2097, 2693. AEG, Minutes des Registres du Conseil, 1659, vol. 58, f. 80v – 81v ; 1664, vol. 59, f. 68v ; 1665, vol. 59, f. 178v. AEG, R. Cons., 1684, vol. 65, f. 224. Voir également Louis Dufour-Vernes, Les Défenseurs de Genève à l’Escalade, dans M.D.G., tome VIII, 1902, p. 64, 109. Journal d’Esaie Colladon, mémoires sur Genève 1600-1605, Genève, 1883, p. 77. Lucien Faggion, Points d’honneur, poings d’honneur, violences quotidiennes à Genève au XVIIème siècle, 1656–1667, dans Revue du Vieux – Genève, 1989, pp. 15 – 25. Eugène-Louis Dumont, En 1684, un duel met en émoi la ville : le fils d’un premier ministre anglais et un Genevois tirent l’épée à la Taconnerie, dans Revue du Vieux – Genève, 1976, pp. 81 – 83.

[2] 1561, 1612, 1625, 1646, 1648, 1664, one duel (no date, end of the seventeenth century). AEF, Cmpte. Très., No. 317, 1561, f. 4 : Amende du secrétaire Yblet qui a défié (qqn.) en duel, 10 livres. AEF, Cmpte. Très., No. 420, 1625, f. 119. AEF, R. M., No. 197, 1646, f. 30 : Renvoi de femmes néerlandaises avec leurs enfants à cause des duels de leur mari. 6 livres ; No 197, 1646, f. 30 ; No 197, 1646, f. 30 ; No 199, 1648, f. 265 ; No 215, 1664, f. 293. Voir également Tobie De Raemy, Le chancelier Techtermann, dans Archives de la société d’Histoire du canton de Fribourg, No 10, Fribourg, 1915, p. 416. Philippe Cyrice Bridel mentions a duel at Charmey at the end of the seventeenth century in his travel account.

[3] 1624, one duel (no date, seventeenth century), 1651, 1662. ACV, Bh4. 4. Bb 25/8, f. 152. Ba 33/4, f. 57-58. AEB, A II, 419 (RM 108), 217.

[4] 1576, 1644. AEN, Manuel du Conseil d’Etat, 1576-1584, f. 31 v. Manuel du Conseil d’Etat, 1639-1645, f. 162 v.

[5] ABS, 245/2, liasse 2, No 29.

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