FEW SOCIAL PRACTICES now seem more antiquated than the formal duel by swords or pistols. The so-called “judicial duel” became widely practiced in Europe in the early Middle Ages, influenced by Homeric and other Classical accounts of single combat, and survived more or less intact for centuries. Over the same span, duels appeared endlessly in stories, paintings, poems, and novels. Duels seem “particularly hospitable to literature,” John Leigh proposes in his lucid and thorough new study, because they are “self-contained dramas”; “the most deliberate, self-conscious of acts,” the “ritualized combat” of a duel stipulates a consistent pattern of word and deed….
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