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9/9/09

The Duel Over von Trautmansdorf's Moustache


“In Hamburg in 1834, a handsome young army officer named Baron von Trautmansdorf challenged a fellow officer, Baron von Ropp, to a duel. The precipitating offense was a poem that von Ropp had written and circulated among his friends about von Trautmansdorf's moustache, stating that it was thin and floppy and hinting that it might no be the only part of his physique to which those adjectives could be applied. The feud between the barons had originated in their shared passion for the same woman, Countess Lodoiska, the grey-green-eyed widow of a Polish general. Unable to resolve their differences amicably, the two men met in a field in a Hamburg suburb early on a March morning. Both were carrying swords; both were still short of their thirtieth birthdays; both would die in the ensuing fight.

In this last aspect, the event was no exception. From its beginnings in Renaissance Italy until its end in the First World War, the practice of duelling claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Europeans. In the seventeenth century, duels were responsible for some five thousand deaths in Spain alone. Visitors to that country were advised to take extra care when addressing locals, lest they accidentally offend their honour and end up in the grave. “Duels happen every day in Spain,” declares a character in a play by Calderon. In France, meanwhile, Lord Herbert of Cherbury reported in 1608 that there was “scarce any man thought worth the looking on, that had not killed some other in a duel,” and in England, it was widely held that no man could be termed a gentleman unless and until he had “taken up his sword.”

Although occasional duels were sparked by matters of objective importance, the majority had their origin in small, even petty, questions of honour. In Paris in 1678, for example, one man killed another who said that his apartment was tasteless. In Florence in 1702, a literary man took the life of a cousin who had accused him of not understanding Dante. And in France under the regency of Phillipe d'Orleans, two officers of the guard fought on the Quai des Tuileries over the ownership of an Angora cat.

For as long as it lasted, duelling symbolised a radical incapacity to believe that one's status might be one's own business, a value one decided on and did not revise to accord with the shifting judgments of others. In the dueller's psyche, other people's opinions were the only factor in forming a sense of self. The dueller could not remain acceptable in his own eyes if those around him judged him to be evil or dishonourable, a coward or a failure, foolish or effeminate. So dependent was his self-image on the views of others that he would sooner die of a bullet or stab wound than allow unfavourable assessments of him to go unanswered.” In Alain de Botton, Status Anxiety

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