The Duel of the Mignons was a famous combat of the rapier and dagger of the French 16th century, remembered for its sanguinary outcome and forming the climax of Dumas' novel La Dame de Monsoreau, the middle volume of the Valois Trilogy, which I believe is normally titled Chicot the Jester in English. (This node is, however, not really a spoiler for that novel, as it was written for an audience which would largely have known the event and its outcome from their history lessons.) Besides its dramatic and instructive moral qualities, it is also illustrative of certain principles of fencing and of stabbing injury, the participants forming, so to speak, a suitable trial group owing to their very similar persons, circumstances, and equipment.
The »mignons« were the royal favorites of Henri III of France and the corresponding favorites of his brother François, duc d'Anjou — or possibly of Henri, duc de Guise; this is not fully clear from the record. Either way these persons, particularly the favorites of the king, had made themselves despised both by the court and the people by their way of carrying on — largely the usual swiving, drinking, kicking plebs, and wearing suits made entirely out of Flemish velvet and gold embroidery — augmented by evil rumors fomented by the king's enemies which suggested that they were a band of sodomites retained by the king for that purpose and also that they had extremely fruity hats. The exact contours of their lives must be left for another, dedicated node, however; here we are concerned only with a single incident. Those involved in it were, from the royal party, Jacques de Lévis, comte de Quélus (or Caylus), Guy d'Arcès, baron de Livarot, and Louis de Maugiron; and on the other side, Charles Balzac d'Antragues (or Entragues), François d'Aydie de Ribérac (or Ribeirac), and Georges de Schomberg, a German originally named Schönberg and uncle of the future Marshal of France, Henri de Schomberg.
The motives for the fight are variously reported; some say the intention was to reënact the famous Classical duel known as the Combat of the Horatii and the Curiatii (subsequently a popular motif for the Neoclassical historical painters); others report it as a quarrel of love between Balzac d'Antragues and Quélus; Dumas gives another reason which it would be a spoiler to report and which will thus be left out. The fact is that this point is very murky, and it is sometimes even asserted that all those involved were the particular favorites of the king and not at all parties nurturing a mutual hatred, which makes the whole business that much harder to make sense of.
Whatever the reason, on April 27th, 1578, the opponents met at dawn on the field set aside for use as a horse-market hard by the Bastille to try their luck. Balzac d'Antragues and Quélus, being in various versions the principals, squared off against one another, Maugiron faced Ribérac, and Livarot and Schomberg dealt with each other. They were each armed with a long rapier and an off-hand dagger, excepting Quélus, who had forgotten his dagger at home — putting him at a terrible disadvantage, as anyone who has tried will know.
The combat itself was extremely brief, as they always are. Ribérac lunged toward Maugiron and struck him to death where he stood, but, both of them having foolishly disregarded their defense in order to strike the other, was himself impaled. He died of this wound the next day, bled out or drowned in his own blood.
Schomberg gave Livarot a savage stroke to the head; but, as everyone knows, cuts with the rapier have little stopping power, even when very grave and carried by a strong wrist. Livarot was consequently able to respond to this blow with a lunge that transfixed Schomberg's heart, and had the satisfaction of seeing his enemy expire before collapsing himself; he then swam, insensible, for six weeks between life and death, and upon coming to his senses found himself permanently disfigured by a large scar.
The longest lasting were Balzac d'Antragues and Quélus themselves; in spite or perhaps because of his lack of a dagger, Quélus fought carefully and defended himself, despite his left hand being mangled in the first pass as he tried to parry with it. When he saw that the others were all fallen, d'Antragues is said to have called off and asked if Quélus were not satisfied, wounded and disadvantaged as he was; Quélus answered by asking if he looked as though he were lying down, and that he was by no means satisfied. They then threw themselves at each other again, but d'Antragues managed to disarm Quélus of his sword; at this, the latter threw himself bodily at d'Antragues to try to grapple him down, at close distance where his rapier could not reach.
The dagger could, however; d'Antragues struck Quélus over and over again until he let go and fell, weakened, to the ground. This done, d'Antragues is supposed to have bitterly asked whether he was now satisfied at last. Quélus received not less than eighteen severe blows of the dagger to the belly and chest, besides the one rapier stroke to the left hand; he had the incredible misfortune not to die immediately from this almost preposterous excess of wounds, but expired only after thirty-three days of increasing septic agony: doubtless one of the worst possible ways to make one's exit.
Charles Balzac d'Antragues alone left the field on his own feet, not wounded worse than a light scratch in the sword arm from the same initial exchange in which he mutilated Quélus' hand. Wise in his folly, he fled Paris at once; by noon, the report was everywhere abroad in the city, his name even more infamous than before. His contemporaries were horrified by this miniature battle, which seemed a useless and savage violence to bourgeois hearts, and the fight was broadly condemned.
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Along with the obvious cheer which all healthy persons derive from stories of useless and savage violence, the student of historical fencing will, as previously noted, also be able to glean some valuable lessons from the fight. First, of course, is the undying and primary importance of for God's sake seeing to your defense first before you try to land a blow. This cannot be too often repeated — quite apparently from the story itself. To imagine that you're in a fight primarily to strike your enemy is hilariously dangerous, and isn't even a good way to die — which brings us handily to the other and more subtle point, which is the very variable lethality of stab wounds, even to the torso.
In this case, out of four men thus wounded, two died at once or nearly so; one survived an almost identical stroke for a day; and the last, although much more profusely and apparently more grievously wounded than the others, lived a month before succumbing not to the injuries themselves but to the resulting infection. There are, in fact, many similar stories, not a few from duels, which demonstrate that it is far from certain that a given wound, even a horrific-looking one such as a complete transfixion, will be fatal; that even a killing blow will sometimes leave a man on his feet for a considerable length of time; and yet at the same time an almost identical stroke which passes through the body an inch to the right may kill instantly. (This too, of course, serves to remind us of the paramount importance of maintaining one's guard both in the attack, and as one recovers from it.) In contrast, a stout blow from a cutting weapon, whether a sword, axe, polearm, or anything else, is likely to stop a man from fighting at once, but not kill him if he survives the immediate loss of blood — a blow to the head like that sustained by Livarot, however, would with a dedicated cutting sword such as a sabre almost certainly have proved lethal. Besides their inherent interest, these facts are vital for a proper understanding of the development of the various styles of fencing, since they inform the methods employed: the attitude to attack and defense, and so on.