By George Dobbs

Given the relatively small number of recorded duels, there seems to be a remarkably high occurrence of well-read participants. In 19th century Russia especially it seems as if famous wordsmiths barely put down their pens without picking up a sword or a pistol (which makes you wonder what grudges today’s bestsellers are bottling up). Here are some examples of the strange propensity authors have for drastic measures:

1. Miguel de Cervantes vs. Antonio de Sigura (December 1568)

Cervantes is known today as the towering figure behind Don Quixote and thus the father of the modern novel. But at one time, he was just a struggling scholar looking forward to the prospect of becoming a respected gentleman. It was while trying to further his reputation at the Royal Palace in Madrid that Cervantes fell into a violent argument with Sigura, an architect. A rapid duel was fought, and when guards rushed to the scene, they found Antonio disarmed and wounded.

Although gentlemen were practically required to carry swords at the time, it was a major offence to take part in a duel — and even more so when the duel was fought on grounds belonging to the royal family. Had he not fled to Italy, Cervantes would have, at the very least, had his hand chopped off. Ironically, after several years hiding from punishment, Cervantes returned to fight for Spain in the Battle of Lepanto, where he lost a hand to a debilitating sword injury.

2. Ben Jonson vs. Gabriel Spencer (December 22, 1598)

Jonson was a contemporary and friend of Shakespeare, and a brilliant satirical wordsmith in his own right, famous today for writing comic plays such as Bartholomew Fayre. Having served in the army and worked as a bricklayer, he wasn’t your typical flower of English poetry. His eventual foe Spencer was an actor who had roles in various Jonson and Shakespeare productions, but was also famous for bouts of violence. In 1596, for example, he used his still-sheathed sword to kill a man who had thrown a candelabrum at him.

Jonson and Spencer had an unknown disagreement which they took to an archery range in the East End of London and set about one another with swords. Jonson was injured in the arm in the ensuing combat, but managed to strike a fatal blow through the right side of Spencer’s chest. Perhaps even more remarkable than the fight was Jonson’s ability to escape the death penalty at a time when duelling was a capital offence. He pleaded right of clergy — which required him to recite the 51st Psalm and ask for forgiveness — and was tried in an ecclesiastical court. As a result, he was branded on the thumb with an “M” for murderer. The ominous blemish didn’t impede his writing though, as most of his plays follow this deadly duel.

3. Sir Walter Scott vs. Henry Weber (January 1814)

England and Scotland had their fair share of duels through the 19th century. With his fascination with chivalry and catalogue of swashbuckling historical novels, Scott would seem like the perfect candidate to participate in one. He was offered the chance by Weber, a poor German scholar whom Scott took under his wing after he was forced to flee Germany. Unfortunately, Weber suffered periods of instability and seemed to harbour delusions about the people around him.

While staying with Scott after Christmas in 1813, Weber approached the writer at work in his library and placed a pistol on his desk. Weber then explained that he had been insulted too long and demanded satisfaction. Scott calmly asked if they might duel after dinner, took the pistol and continued writing his biography of Graham Swift. Before dinner, Scott sent a messenger to one of Weber’s friends who was aware of his condition and then proceeded to ply his guest with whiskey. When the friend finally arrived, Weber simply ran out of the house, never to challenge Scott again.

4. Alexander Pushkin vs. Georges d’Anthes (January 27 1837)

Pushkin is still regard as Russia’s greatest poet, but by the time he died, he was already in turmoil about his reputation. He felt his earlier success was overshadowing his new endeavours, and he began to suspect that his personal reputation was suffering too. After the publication of a pamphlet that insinuated Pushkin’s wife was sleeping with his sister’s husband, Frenchman d’Anthes, the poet wrote slanderous letters to d’Anthes father and other nobles, and a duel of honor quickly became inevitable.

Pushkin had fought in several duels previously, but it turned out that d’Anthes was the faster of the two marksmen. He fatally wounded the writer in the spleen, then stood to await Pushkin’s retaliating shot. The poet managed to raise his pistol and shoot, but it was only enough to graze d’Anthes’s arm. Pushkin died two days later, having written an apology to d’Anthes, while the Frenchman went on to enjoy a long diplomatic career.

5. Mikhail Lermontov vs. Nikolai Martynov (July 25th 1841)

Lermontov is another great Russian author who died before his time. In fact, he was only 26 and was just planning work on an epic which was rumoured to be on the scale of War and Peace. As it turned out, he died in circumstances tragically similar to the main protagonist in his groundbreaking novel A Hero of Our Time. In a further strange twist, the fight was initiated by Lermontov’s persistent teasing of Martynov for his similarity to the fictional character Grushnitsky, a pompous military officer who tragically fights the hero of Lermontov’s novel in a duel.

They met below the Mashuk Mountain and fought with pistols. Martynov fired the first shot, hitting Lermontov in the heart and killing him instantly. Thus, his talent was extinguished before he could complete any of his planned epic, leaving his one short but great work an eerie parallel of his own life and death.

George Dobbs is an MA graduate in creative writing who lives and works in the grim North of England. When he’s not at work on various writing projects, he enjoys cooking, long-distance running and avoiding the weather with his cat.

(Image credits, from top: Flickr; Wikipedia; Wikipedia; Wikipedia; Wikipedia; Wikipedia)

KEEP READING: More on History

The Airship
1986: The Year Comic Books Became Literature

Released the same year, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen transformed comic books into graphic novels.

Behind the Lit: Edgar Allan Poe Marries His 13-Year-Old Cousin

179 years ago today, it was OK to marry your underage first cousin — and Poe did exactly that with Virginia Eliza Clemm.

H. G. Wells’s Predictions: The Right, the Wrong and the Ugly

As a founder of science fiction, Wells got a surprising share the future right. He also got some things very, very wrong.