The duel is defined as a prearranged combat between two persons, fought with deadly weapons according to an accepted code of procedure to settle a private quarrel.
Thus the duel is distinguished from a brawl (which is not prearranged or fought according to rules), a war (a prolonged affair with many combatants), and a tournament (which although it operated by the same rules, was a test of skill that decided no private dispute). The customary duelling weapon was the sword, superseded in the 19th century by the pistol.
The duel evolved from its origins as a legal method of resolving disputes into an extrajudicial avenue for settling private matters that could not be regulated by law: matters of honor and insult. Coincident with the formulation of code, which provided procedural guidance in conducting a duel, were attempts by church and state to curtail the practice.
The fascination of duelling may have its roots in the curious dichotomy of a prevalent and culturally accepted yet illegal pursuit, governed by a “code.” Its persistence as a fixture in so many cultures speaks of its universal appeal as the expression of a visceral human response that managed to survive, in assorted manifestations, for many centuries.
But the notion of duelling as an atavistic reaction alone falls short of the mark, since it looks past the reality that duels were fought chiefly by one segment of society, its aristocrats. It is this social ingredient that defines the duel as an institution and has fixed its status as a legal conundrum.
Although condemnation by governmental and ecclesiastical authorities progressively increased, duelling originally was a legal means of deciding disputes between two people. The “judicial duel” or combat was based on religious belief: that God would protect the party in the right by allowing him to win.
Although many combats were arranged to decide criminal matters, combat also could serve as a means for resolving civil disagreements such as disputes over property. Women, the infirm, very young, and very old men were not required to enter combat but could engage champions on their behalf. The judicial duel was a ceremonial affair presided over by royalty who proclaimed the victor.
The earliest known law that governed the judicial duel is found in the Burgundian Code, an early East Germanic barbarian code promulgated in the late 5th and early 6th centuries. The date of legal establishment of the trial by combat traditionally is stated as the year 501.
Eventually trial by combat was permitted only in cases of serious crimes, such as murder and treason. The right to choose trial by combat existed in England until the early 19th century, where the last claim for combat occurred in 1817. Although the court granted this claim, circumstances did not permit the encounter, and promptly in 1819 Parliament abolished the right to trial by combat.