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.

Timeo Clipeos et Plagas Ferentes, or the Accidental Death of a Fencing Master in 1331

By Olivier Dupuis and François Siedel (transcription and translation)

Source: / BnF Français 25527 fol. 38v


Civil fencing with the use of the buckler is attested by documents written as early as the thirteenth century, in England, as well as by literary works in the German language. It is different to fencing with the large shield, worn and used by knights and their servants, and above all the buckler is usually handled at that time with little other protection. Traces of such a practice remained rare before the middle of the fourteenth century outside of England, where archives are both well preserved and well-studied.[1] For the Kingdom of France, we can observe large amounts of small illustrations in the margins of manuscripts from the beginning of the fourteenth century where men, hybrids or monkeys are fighting using a buckler in one hand. The illustration above is one of the many remaining examples that deserve a general study. Such buckler could be compact and light enough to be worn in the belt with the sword, as illustrated in a comic way in the second illustration taken from a bas-de-page of the Smithfield Decretals, painted in England around 1340. The following extract from the French novel, Restor de Paon, written before 1338, confirms this possibility: “He took a buckler of strong steel which hanged at his sword, and drew the sword.”[2]

One must also mention that the oldest known fencing treatise produced in Europe, focuses uniquely on the combination of sword and buckler and dated from the first half of the fourteenth century. It is written in Latin combined with vernacular German words.[3] This type of sword fencing with no other protection than this little shield was still in its infancy and was one of the most important forms in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in Europe, and in particular in France.[4]

The case in question comes during a particular period in the history of the city of Laon, seat of the important bishopric of Picardy, located about 140km northeast of Paris. The municipal status of the city, granted in the twelfth century by the King of France, was abolished in 1322 following complaints from the cathedral chapter. However, it was not until nine years later, in March 1331, that an ordinance of the King of France established the office of Royal Provost of Laon, who had in charge everything in the city with the exception of possessions and personnel attached to the chapter and the bishopric.[5] Historiography accredits a certain Jean de Milon as the very first provost in 1331, but as our text indicates clearly Jean Crenes as provost in the eyes of the Parliament of Paris, it is therefore necessary to consider an ambiguity on the tenant of the office, at least the first months after the establishment of this institution.[6]

Source: The British Library, Royal MS 10 E IV, fol. 60r>

Text description

The original is preserved on paper in the French National Archives in Paris, in the archives of the Laon Cathedral Chapter. This letter was produced by the Royal Provost of Laon, Jean Crenes, for Colard Tribourdaine, whose precise function at that time is unknown. In 1336 a judgment of the Parliament of Paris seems to indicate that Colard Tribourdaine was some time earlier commissioner of the provost of Laon, perhaps he was already in 1331, but nothing is less certain, especially since the presence of this letter in the archives of the chapter could suggest that Colard Tribourdaine was in the service of the chapter and that he changed functions afterwards.[7] This text essentially reproduces a copy of the letter in Latin sent by the Paris Parliament to the said provost, accompanied with instructions of his own, in French, to diligently apply the instructions. This letter from the Parliament is certainly in response to an initial letter which unfortunately has not been found.

In summary, a certain Ponceletus of Miromonte, servant of a member of the chapter, was taking lessons in buckler play. The word used in the text, clipeo (l. 7), seems to indicate these small round shields as opposed to the large shields of knights and soldiers. These classes were given by an Englishman residing in Laon, Jaquermard, who was to have several students, from what can be understood from the text, and grant a particularly advantageous rate to Ponceletus in particular. It seems that he was badly paid for it because an injury occurred while Jaquermard was allegedly poorly protected, but the text is unclear regarding this fact. Jaquemard also allegedly neglected the advice or care of surgeons (sirrugicorum). Incidentally, we can note the use of several Latin terms related to fencing, also used in the aforementioned fencing treatise: ludum (l. 9), scolas/scolaris/scolaribus (l. 7-8), custodiam (l. 10). Finally, Jaquermard died a few days later from the wound caused by Ponceletus, his pupil. The latter was therefore put in the chapter prison. This accident, however, made Ponceletus fall under the jurisdiction of high justice, and therefore of the king’s justice. This motivated Nicolas Raoul the Younger, lieutenant of the provost to seize Ponceletus. However, the chapter most likely contested this before the Parliament of Paris, that the murderer was a servant of a member of the chapter, and that he fell within the exceptions provided for in the ordinance of 1331, leaving the right of high justice to the bishop of Laon. By the letter transmitted to the provost, who is the subject of the studied document, the Parliament of Paris confirms well the error and asks that Ponceletus be put back in the hands of the bishop’s justice.

This text is certainly not of great historical significance, but mentions of the practice of fencing at the beginning of the fourteenth century are so rare that it deserves to be brought to the attention of an informed public. It is also noteworthy that the teaching concerned not only the entourage of a member of the chapter, but also other pupils, making this secular practice, dissociated from military training, part of everyday life in the North of France. The presence of an English teacher, finally, was not insignificant. It echoes the numerous mentions of fencing with the buckler found in the archives of this country, and could be the witness of a cultural influence in the field of this practice in the North of France and Normandy, but this possibility needs further research.

Edition and Translation

The text proved to be difficult to transcribe, and no less difficult to translate. It is offered here slightly rough, particularly the translation, because of the lack of sufficient expertise in the legal formulas of the time.

The contractions, which are numerous, have all been developed and marked in italics, the line numbers are indicated in the transcription between two vertical bars. The reverse side of the letter indicating the addressee’s address is heavily stained and extremely difficult to exploit without being able to really bring anything to the substance of the case, therefore it is necessary to mention its existence even without giving an overview of it.

Jehans Crenes preuos de Laon a nostre amé Colart Tribourdaine, salut. Nous auons veuez les lettres dou roy nostre sire contenant ceste |2| fourme. Philippus dei gratia Francie rex baillio Viromanduensi ceterisque justiciariis nostris aut eorum loca tenentibus salutem. Sua nobis. Decanus et capitulum ecclesie |3| Laudunensis graui conquestione monstrarunt quod licet ipsi per priuilegium regium omnimodam juridictionem habeant in omnes familiares suos |4| et seruitores quoscumque in villa et terminis quondam communie Laudunensis, Oriundum in dicta villa Laudunensi dumtaxat exceptis. Indeque sint |5| et fuerint in possessione pacifica quocienscumque se casus obtulit, a tanto tempore quod competit ad bonam saizinam acquirendam |6| ipsique dictam continuando possessionem ; tenerent in sua possessione Ponceletum de Miromonte famulum cuiusdem canonici dicte ecclesie. |7| Pro eo qui ipse scolaris Jaquemardi anglici Laudunensem residenciam facientis ac scolas de clipeo conitis exercentis et tenentis medietatem |8| salario quod a suis scolaribus accipere consueuit ipsum Jaquemardum vulnerauerat plagam modicam faciendo eidem ut dicitur |9| non motus ira vel odio, sed solummodo dictum ludum prout consueuerat exercendo ; quiquidem Jaquemardus, non solum dicto vulnere medi-|10|-ante, sed per custodiam minus ydoneam nolens consilio sirrugicorum uti ut dicitur post paucos dies a tempore dicte vulnerate |11| dicitur decessisse ; de quo Ponceleto dicti canonici sunt et erant parati exhibere iusticiam cuilibet conquerenti de ipso. Nicholaus |12| Radulphus iuuenis locum tenens prepositi Laudunensis ad carcerem dictorum conquerentium accedens dictum Ponceletum a dicto carcere extraxit |13| et ipsum penes se detinet  eumdem ipsis deliberare renuntiationes minus iuste  in dictorum conquerentium graue dispendium, ac contra tenorem |14| dictorum suorum priuilegium et possessionem superius allegatam temere veniendo. Idcirco tibi committimus et mandamus quatenus si visis |15| dictis priuilegiis et auditis partibus si premissa veritate nitantur dictum Radulphum aut prepositum dicti loci ad reddendum et restituendum   |16| eisdem decano et capitulo dictum Ponceletum compellas vt de ipso exhibere valeant iusticie complementum. Si vero inter partes super |17| hec oriatur oppositio seu debatum, dicta oppositione ad manum nostram posita, tamquam superiores et exequtione  dicti Ponceleti quacunque |18| fuerit, aut existere debuerit in suspenso posita dicta oppositione pendente adiornes partes ad instantem   vicesimam diem nativitatis |19| domini coram dilectis et fidelibus gentibus nostris  presens parlamentum nostrum tenente non obstante quod dictum nostrum sedeat parlamentum |20| super dicta oppositione processurum ut fuerit rationis curiam nostram certificans competentem ad diem de adiornamento predicto et alijs |21| que feceris in premissis. In quibus tibi ab omnibus nostris subditis pereri volumus et mandamus. Datum parisius in parlamento nostro. XXIII |22| die decembris anno domini millo CCC trecesimoprimo. Si vouz mandons et commettons que vous les dictes lettres |23| ci dessus transcriptes pour nous, et en ce lieu de nouz enterinez, accomplissiez et mettés a   exeqution deue de point |24| en point selont leur teneur, en la fourme et maniere que li roys nous le mande. Et tant en faites que |25| pour vous ni ait deffaut, mandons et commendons a tous a cui il appartient, requerons autres que a vous |26| ce faisant obeissance et entendent diligences. Donné souz nostre scel, le samedi prochain apres icel. L’an mille CCC |27| trente et un. Jehans Crenes, provost of Laon to our loved Colart Tribourdaine, salute. We have seen the letters from the King our sire containing this form: “Philip by the Grace of God King of France to the Bailiff of Vermandois, and to all our other justice officials or their lieutenants, salute. The decanus and the chapter of the church of Laon have shown us by their great investigation that they are allowed to have -thanks to a royal privilege- global jurisdiction over all their familiars and their servants whoever they are within the domain and the limits of the former commune of Laon, insofar as they are considered as such those who originate from the said domain of Laon. Thereafter, they are and were in peaceful possession of the abovementioned jurisdiction at any such time from then on that a case presented itself that pertained to the acquisition of good seisin, and they continuously remained in said possession of said jurisdiction.[8] They hold in their possession Ponceletus of Miromonte the servant of a canon of the said church. Ponceletus, himself a pupil of the English Jaquemard, the latter taking up residence in Laon and taking care of collective buckler schools and receiving for salary the half he used to receive from his pupils. The said Ponceletus had inflicted on Jaquemard himself a slight wound while sparing, as it is said, not from a movement of anger or hatred but only the playing the said game, as he had been accustomed to do so; it is said that Jaquemard died a few days after having been wounded by Ponceletus, not only because of the said wound which opened up[9], but also due to an incorrect guard[10], the latter refusing to listen to the decision of the surgeons, as it is said; the said canons were ready to render justice to any plaintiff about Ponceletus himself. Nicolas Raoul the Young, lieutenant of the provost of Laon going to the prison of the said plaintiffs took the said Ponceletus out of the said prison, and in his hands, prevents him less equitably from deciding on the renunciations of the heavy burden of the said plaintiffs, and by opposing without reflection the content of their said privileges alleged above. For this reason we give you to execute and ask you that the said Raoul or the provost of the said place hand over and restore Ponceletus to the canons themselves, since you have seen, after the privileges have been declared and the parties heard, whether they are based on the truth above all. Bring the said Ponceletus to justice before the decanus and the chapter so that they may be able to show the fulfilment of justice about Ponceletus himself. If an opposition arises, or if there will have been a debate for the execution of the said Ponceletus whatever it may be between the parties concerning this affair, as the said opposition has been entrusted to our hand, so to speak, superior, or if there will have to be a pending debate, since the said opposition is uncertain, you will adjourn the parties at the moment of the 20th day of the nativity of the Lord, in the presence of our elected and faithful people. Our parliament, since the said opposition retained but did not prevent the said parliament from sitting above the said opposition, is about to go ahead furthermore if as a matter of reason will be by certifying the people of the said parliament. The latter will set the day for the aforementioned adjournment and for other matters that you will have done in missives sent in advance, missives in which we want and ask all our subordinates to obey you. Given in Paris in our Parliament on the 23rd day of December, the year of the Lord 1331.”   We entrust you with the task of endorsing the said letters transcribed above for us, and to carry out and carry out our decisions from point to point according to their content, form and manner as the King requires of us, and so that you are not lacking, we ask that you be obedient and diligent. Given under our seal on the Saturday following this one, in the year 1331.



Archives Nationales de France, L//734, document 23.

Secondary sources and editions

Actes du Parlement de Paris, ed. Henri Furgeot, 2e série, vol 1 (1328-1342) (Paris: Plon, 1920).

Cinnato Franck, Suprenant André, Le Livre de l’art du combat, édition critique du Royal Armouries MS. I.33 (Paris: CNRS éditions, 2009).

Dupuis Olivier. ‘Organization and Regulation of Fencing in the Realm of France in the Renaissance’, in Acta Periodica Duellatorum, vol. 2 (2014), p. 233-54. DOI

Dupuis Olivier, ‘The roots of Fencing from the Twelfth to the Fourteenth Centuries in the French Language Area’, in Acta Periodica Duellatorum, vol. 3 (2015), p. 37–62. DOI

Jean le Court dit Brisebare, Le Restor du Paon, éd. Richard J. Carey (Genève: Droz, 1966).

Melleville Maximilien, Histoire de la ville de Laon et de ses institutions, 2 vols. (Laon, Paris: 1846).

Ordonnances des roys de France de la troisième race, vol. 2 (Paris : 1729).

Ordonnances des roys de France de la troisième race, vol. 12 (Paris : imprimerie royale, 1777)

[1] Olivier Dupuis, ‘The roots of Fencing from the Twelfth to the Fourteenth Centuries in the French Language Area’, in Acta Periodica Duellatorum, vol. 3 (2015), p. 37–62. DOI

[2] “.I. boucler d’acier fort qui pendoit a s’espee / Prist et l’espee traist […]”. Jean le Court dit Brisebare, Le Restor du Paon, éd. Richard J. Carey (Genève: Droz, 1966), p.66, v.550-51.

[3] Cinnato Franck, Suprenant André, Le Livre de l’art du combat, édition critique du Royal Armouries MS. I.33 (Paris: CNRS éditions, 2009).

[4] Olivier Dupuis, ‘Organization and Regulation of Fencing in the Realm of France in the Renaissance’, in Acta Periodica Duellatorum, vol. 2 (2014), p. 233-54. DOI

[5] Melleville Maximilien, Histoire de la ville de Laon et de ses institutions, 2 vols. (Laon, Paris: 1846),vol. 1, pp.273-74. The ordinance is published in-extenso in Ordonnances des roys de France de la troisième race, vol. 2 (Paris : 1729), pp.77-80.

[6] Melleville, Histoire de la ville de Laon, vol. 1, p. 283.

[7] Actes du Parlement de Paris, ed. Henri Furgeot, 2e série, vol 1 (1328-1342) (Paris: Plon, 1920), p. 174.

[8] This is a good example of an obscure Latin sentence that cannot be only roughly translated. The translation of this obscure Latin sentence has been improved by Ariella Elema.

[9] Free interpretation for mediare, which means to divide in two.

[10] The meaning is unclear here, does custodiam minus refer to a poor protection during the fight, or to the bad care Jaquemard took of himself after being injured?

Cite this article as: Olivier Dupuis, "Timeo Clipeos et Plagas Ferentes, or the Accidental Death of a Fencing Master in 1331," in Martial Culture in Medieval Town, 20/04/2020,