Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Duel in Early Modern England: Civility, Politeness, and Honour, by Markku Peltonen

As someone who works on deeds of arms in the Middle Ages – deeds of arms including things like individual challenges, trials by combat, jousts, and tournaments – this is a very useful book. I have always thought there was a big difference between the duels of the early modern era and the the medieval deeds of arms we see in things like Froissart's Chronicles. Peltonen thoroughly documents that this was indeed the case. Early modern duels were part of a great debate about civility and politeness, as well as debates about Royal power and liberty. This was not what medieval deeds of arms were usually about.

 There are a few things I didn't like about this book, and one of them is a common feeling I have these days about academic work in general. This author, like others, is so intent on citing as much evidence as possible that the reader can get overwhelmed. Critics of dueling in England made such and such an argument against the practice – and then we see every single time the point was made by every single author made it. This may not be literally true but it sure feels that way. I think that this book was far too encyclopedic for its own good. But then this may just be me; I used to be, and probably still am, the kind of person who reads big serious books word by word. Even though I can after many years in academe follow many arguments without doing that, I still feel a bit guilty about skipping over material. On the other hand, might it not be worth considering a change in academic practice? This book, which focuses on the written debate about dueling, could have been a lot zippier and still met the intellectual needs of most of its audience.

 A final small gripe is that Peltonen doesn't seem to be very interested in what came before and what came after his period. Where early modern attitudes came from and why they dispersed are things I would like to know more about. Perhaps the author was smart to leave these aside; the book might have been truly vast if he had tried to master all the relevant sources and modern debates about them. Anyway, if you have a serious interest in dueling, this is well worth looking at. I'm glad it showed up in our library, where it sits next to my recent Royal Jousts.

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