The best history books about dueling that actually explain why people fought duels

Why am I passionate about this?

I am a social and legal historian of late 19th and early 20th Century Latin America, and the majority of my work is about the emergence of the middle class. I first got interested in researching dueling because I had the idea that the duel probably played a role in creating and enforcing a social dividing line between the upper elite and the middle class. But once I got immersed in the historical documents I realized how wrong my initial hypothesis had been, how little dueling had to do with social class, and how much it was about maintaining—or sometimes gaming for advantage—the norms of decorum in politics and the press.


I wrote...

The Pen, the Sword, and the Law: Dueling and Democracy in Uruguay

By David S. Parker,

Book cover of The Pen, the Sword, and the Law: Dueling and Democracy in Uruguay

What is my book about?

Uruguay was the only country in the world to legalize dueling, from 1920 to 1992. But why? This book demonstrates that the duel was not some archaic throwback to bygone days of chivalry; the codes that governed dueling functioned as a parallel legal system that policed the guardrails of press freedom, regulating what politicians could say and journalists could write. But if lawmakers felt they needed the duel to enforce civility and curb verbal violence in the press, it troubled them that dueling Congressmen, Presidents, and Police Chiefs violated the law with impunity. Legalization offered one practical solution. The book combines jaw-dropping storytelling with smart analysis of how the duel worked, both in theory and practice, in a modern liberal democracy.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Politics of the Sword: Dueling, Honor, and Masculinity in Modern Italy

David S. Parker Why did I love this book?

This study of Italian dueling from 1860s unification to 1930s Fascism makes a convincing case that the duel was not some holdover from an aristocratic past, but a modern phenomenon that arose out of liberal politics and a free press. The book covers Italy’s long and active debate about how to curb a practice that clearly violated the law but was rarely ever punished in practice. When I first read this book I was in the middle of my own research, and Hughes was the first writer who seemed to get everything right, or at least to have discovered for Italy the same things that I was finding for South America. A great window into dueling and an even better window into liberal Italy and its politics.

By Steven C. Hughes,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Politics of the Sword as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Following its creation as a country in 1861, Italy experienced a wave of dueling that led commentators to bemoan a national “duellomania” evidenced by the sad spectacle of a duel a day. Pamphlets with titles like “Down with the Duel” and “The Shame of the Duel” all communicated the passion of those who could not believe that a people supposedly just returned to the path of progress and civilization had wholeheartedly embraced such a “barbaric” custom. Yet these critics were consistently countered by sober-minded men of rank and influence who felt that the duel was necessary for the very health…


Book cover of Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic

David S. Parker Why did I love this book?

This is one of the books that inspired and provided source material for the musical Hamilton. Freeman is a Pulitzer prize-winning historian of post-1776 United States. This masterful history of the early American republic shows how dueling needs to be understood as politics by other means, as part of the mad scramble for power and prestige in the context of never-ending “paper wars” in the partisan press. They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but I’ll never forget how much the cover art captured my imagination, and how brilliantly it reflects what you will find inside.

This book is not just about duels; it also covers political alliances, gossip, insults, and elections.  But that is Freeman’s whole point, that they are all interconnected, and dueling is just one piece of a larger picture.

By Joanne B. Freeman,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Affairs of Honor as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A major reassessment of American political culture in the days of Jefferson, Hamilton, and Burr

"[A] landmark study of Hamilton and the founders."-Jeff Sharlet, Chronicle of Higher Education

"Demands the attention of everyone with a serious interest in the history of American politics."-Pauline Maier, Washington Post

In this extraordinary book, Joanne Freeman offers a major reassessment of political culture in the early years of the American republic. By exploring both the public actions and private papers of key figures such as Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr, and Alexander Hamilton, Freeman reveals an alien and profoundly unstable political world grounded on the…


Book cover of Masculinity and Male Codes of Honor in Modern France

David S. Parker Why did I love this book?

A recognized classic, and one of the first books to bring gender theory, masculinity studies, and the new cultural history to the academic study of dueling. Nye looks at French dueling in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a manifestation of evolving ideals and norms of masculine honor, at a time when France was becoming less aristocratic and more bourgeois. This is the book that first convinced me that dueling could be a legitimate topic for serious historical research, and not just some quirky random sideshow.

By Robert A. Nye,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Masculinity and Male Codes of Honor in Modern France as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

After a decade of works on women's history, historians are becoming aware of the dearth of literature on men's history. Professor Nye addresses this gap in a study of evolving definitions of masculinity in France since the eighteenth century. He examines specifically the aristocratic ethos of male honour, rooted in a society of landlords, hunters, and warriors, adapted to a society motivated by utilitarian values, urban life, and rational law. He focuses on the
cultural practices and mentality of middle and upper class men and the appeal of their codes to men throughout French society.


Book cover of Pistols, Politics and the Press: Dueling in 19th Century American Journalism

David S. Parker Why did I love this book?

Covers some of the same ground as Joanne Freeman, regarding dueling, reputation, politics, and the press in the antebellum U.S.A. But what I really like about this book is how it makes those historical issues relatable to our contemporary era by drawing parallels and connections between the politicized press of the 19th century and present-day debates about free speech in social media. If modern Twitter warriors had lived in the 1800s, they would have needed to know how to handle a sword. 

By Ryan Chamberlain,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Pistols, Politics and the Press as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book argues that dueling should be looked at as a fundamental part of the history of journalism. By examining the nineteenth century Code Duello, the accepted standards under which a duel could be conducted, the author examines the causes of combative responses between journalists. Each chapter examines an aspect of this relationship from the nineteenth century until the present, including the connections between the ritualized aggression of the nineteenth century and the feuding among blog journalists today. A comprehensive bibliography as well as an overview of accepted practices under the Code of Honor as faced by nineteenth century journalists…


Book cover of Dueling: The Cult of Honor in Fin-de-Siècle Germany

David S. Parker Why did I love this book?

I was hesitant to include this title because I’m not fully convinced by McAleer’s argument that the persistence into the 20th Century of violent pistol dueling in Germany signals a uniquely German mentality, an intensely caste-conscious and militaristic cult of violence “divergent from that of other Western nations” and “innately antithetical to classical liberalism,” or in other words, the exact opposite of what Steven Hughes describes for Italy. But the book is a brilliantly compelling read, and people have a right to make up their own minds.

By Kevin McAleer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Dueling as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The question of what it takes "to be a man" comes under scrutiny in this sharp, often playful, cultural critique of the German duel--the deadliest type of one-on-one combat in fin-de-siecle Europe. At a time when dueling was generally restricted to swords or had been abolished altogether in other nations, the custom of fighting to the death with pistols flourished among Germany's upper-class males, who took perverse comfort in defying their country's weakly enforced laws. From initial provocation to final death agony, Kevin McAleer describes with ironic humor the complex protocol of the German duel, inviting his reader into the…


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Api's Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather's Nazi Past

By Gabrielle Robinson,

Book cover of Api's Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather's Nazi Past

Gabrielle Robinson Author Of Api's Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather's Nazi Past

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Retired english professor

Gabrielle's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Gabrielle found her grandfather’s diaries after her mother’s death, only to discover that he had been a Nazi. Born in Berlin in 1942, she and her mother fled the city in 1945, but Api, the one surviving male member of her family, stayed behind to work as a doctor in a city 90% destroyed.

Gabrielle retraces Api’s steps in the Berlin of the 21st century, torn between her love for the man who gave her the happiest years of her childhood and trying to come to terms with his Nazi membership, German guilt, and political responsibility.

Api's Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather's Nazi Past

By Gabrielle Robinson,

What is this book about?

"This is not a book I will forget any time soon."
Story Circle Book Reviews

Moving and provocative, Api's Berlin Diaries offers a personal perspective on the fall of Berlin 1945 and the far-reaching aftershocks of the Third Reich.

After her mother's death, Robinson was thrilled to find her beloved grandfather's war diaries-only to discover that he had been a Nazi.

The award-winning memoir shows Api, a doctor in Berlin, desperately trying to help the wounded in cellars without water or light. He himself was reduced to anxiety and despair, the daily diary his main refuge. As Robinson retraces Api's…


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Interested in duels, masculinity, and journalism?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about duels, masculinity, and journalism.

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Masculinity Explore 34 books about masculinity
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