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.

Fencing with the blessing of the authorities: Patent for a fencing master in Neuchâtel in 1546

Fencing lessons and competitions are an urban phenomenon, documented as early as from the fifteenth century in Switzerland. Since these activities carried out potential risks for urban peace, early traces of attempts to regulate these activities by town authorities can be (sometimes) found in archives.

Henry de Sainct Didier, Les secrets du premier livre sur l’espée seule, Paris: Jean Mettayer et Matthurin Challenge, 1573, plate 33-34. Taken from the Facsimile of the Société des Livres Anciens et Modernes, Paris 1907.

Fencing was a needed skill for citizens who had to carry out (potential) military duties for their town, but also to prove to their peers that they were trustworthy and able to fight and defend their community. Therefore, displays of martial skills, such as fencing competitions, were needed for the town inhabitants that were willing to show that they adhered to what Ann Tlusty coined as “martial ethic”.[1] Different forms of regulation exist because such practices were usually not institutionalised before the second half of the sixteenth century or even later. However, town authorities developed different policies regarding fencing activities happening within their walls. For example, petitions of fencing masters willing to hold fencing schools can be found in town council minutes, as can expenses due to fencing activities sanctioned by the town council. But, for most of the cases, fencing activities were organised by local or pan-urban networks of fencing experts gathered in associations (corporations such as guilds or brotherhoods). For France, Flanders and the Holy Roman Empire, several of these corporations are known, and they received privileges from town authorities or even the highest princes such as the King or the Emperor. On a more local level, several cities edicted fencing ordinances, or delivered patents and certificates to fencing masters.[2] Such is the case for the document presented here from the mid-sixteenth century in the county of Neuchâtel.

Patente de maître du jeu de la Grande Épée à deux mains, en faveur de Nicolas Lambelet des Verrières, 1546. Copie tirée d’un receuil de minutes de notaire, 1558 (Archives d’État de Neuchâtel, AS-24.31). © Archives d’État de Neuchâtel, reproduced with permission.

This document is actually a draft for the preparation of letters of a notary, full of erased words and lines, revisions on margins or in between lines, and with spaces left blank. Most of the original patents have not survived, since they were handed over to the individuals. This collection of drafts and copies of documents delivered by several notaries is dated to 1558, but the date of the fencing patent is 1546. It would have been signed by the notary, under the authority of the mayor of the small town of Les Verrières, located near the border of modern-day Switzerland and France.

The county of Neuchâtel was under the suzerainty of the Valois, and after that of the Habsburgs. Close to the Duchy of Burgundy through the Châlons with the Franche-Comté (Free-County) as a border, the county formed a network of ties through treaties of combourgeoisie with Swiss towns such as Fribourg (1209), Bern (1308) and Solothurn (1369). It only became part of the Swiss Confederation in 1814. The particular place where the fencing patent originated is les Verrières, a small town in the north eastern valley leading to the castle of Joux. The city was under the rule of the Counts of Neuchâtel. The mayor of the town was at the time Claude Lambelet (mentioned in the document). It must be noted that he was part of the same family as the certified master Nicolas Lambelet.

Nous […] establÿssons [Nÿcolas Lambelet le Jeusne des dites Verrieres de Neufchastel] maistre dudict jeulx de ladicte grande / espee; pour en jouer a pris et dehors pris / en tous lieux et par devant toutes gens de / quelque estatz ou quallitez qu’ilz soyent; et encontre / tous ceulx quilz luÿ plaira […]

Nicolas Lambelet is certified “master of the play of the great sword” (maistre dudict jeulx de la dicte grande espee). Fencing activities include several disciplines. The mastery of the different disciplines is carefully noted in such documents, here only with the two-handed sword. He can therefore “play with or without prize” (this specifies participating is fencing competitions) wherever he wants and in front of audiences of any status, against whoever he wants.

aÿanz le / serement aux dict jeulx de ladicte grande espee [added in margins: et aux ordonnances d’icelluÿ], et qu’ilz / ha desja [added in margins: par cÿ devant] estez passez en ses deffences par les maistres / du dict jeulx

It is mentioned that he pledged an oath and that he passed the final test against other masters, which is called “passing in defence” (passez en ses deffences). It consists of standardised fencing bouts where the applicant is evaluated. More interestingly, there is a mention added in margins about the “ordinances” in relation to the oath he pledged. Several fencing ordinances are known in France, the earliest in Mazan (1501). We do not know to which ordinances the document is referring to, but the closest known was the one of Dijon in 1520.[3] If Neuchâtel edicted a fencing ordinance, there is not a single mention to it in documents surviving in archives. No fencing ordinances are known from this period in Swiss towns, but several documents and petitions of fencing masters offer sporadic details about legal and illegal fencing activities.[4]

En luÿ baillant et concedissant par ces dictes presentes / toute puissance, auctorité et faculté de tenir escolle / et escolliers par dessoubz luÿ en tous lieux ou / il luÿ plaira, et de havoir et recepvoir tous escolliers / qui ledict jeulx vouldront apprendre et recorder, et / de faire et constituyr ung lieuteuant ou plusieurs / soit en escolle, pris ou jeulx, pour par le dict / ou lesdictz lieutenantz leurs aprendre ledict jeulx, comme / sÿ luÿ mesure le dict maistre ÿ estoit present, le tout / en la forme, mode et maniere quil se doit jouer / et que par cÿ devant du temps passez en ha estez jouez / et user [rajout en marge : et de passer escolliers en leurs deffences]

Lambelet received the right and authority to organise fencing competitions and deliver fencing lessons (faculté de tenir escolle et escollier par dessoubz luÿ). He can also name “lieutenants”, which is a rank like “provost”, also mentioned earlier in the document. This technical terminology is widespread and can also be found in fight books (such as the one on the cover image of the blog post, from the fight book of Henry de Sainct Didier published in 1573). It is also mentioned that he can do so (name a lieutenant) in different contexts, that is fencing school, prize fights, or competitions (escolle, pris ou jeulx).

Cite this article as: Daniel Jaquet, "Fencing with the blessing of the authorities: Patent for a fencing master in Neuchâtel in 1546," in Martial Culture in Medieval Town, 26/11/2019,

A previous (partially erroneous and incomplete) transcription of this document has been published by Nicolas Piaget in 1922 in the local journal Musée Neuchâtelois (vol. 9, pp. 207-8) with a brief introductory comment. We would like to thank Olivier Dupuis for sharing this reference; Anne-Caroline and Dominique LeCoultre who also have studied and reviewed the original document; and Jacob Deacon who participated in the new analysis of it.

[1] Ann B. Tlusty, B. Ann, The Martial Ethic in Early Modern Germany: Civic Duty and the Right of Arms (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2011).

[2] For France and for information about neighbouring spaces see Olivier Dupuis, “Organization and Regulation of Fencing in the Realm of France in the Renaissance”, Acta Periodica Duellatorum (3), 2015, pp. 233-54.

[3] Ibidem

[4] See Jaquet, Daniel, ‘Die Kunst des Fechtens in den Fechtschulen. Der Fall des Peter Schwizer von Bern’, in Agon und Distinktion. Soziale Räume des Zweikampfs zwischen Mittelalter und Neuzeit, ed. by Uwe Israel and Christian Jaser (Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2015), pp. 243–58