The Infamous Hungarian Imperial Rules Part 1

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A Dispatch from the Austrian Court

One of the questions I am often asked is for more details about the infamous Hungarian Imperial Parasol Duelling Rules.  They have taken on quite an aura of exotic mystery if only because they are considered barbarous and violent, in contrast to the stately and more elegant forms of the Brandenburg Variations.

Jayne Barnard has written this delightful post to shed some light on these other rules.  Couched in the congenial, yet precise, form of a letter from an English Diplomat in the Imperial Court of Austria to an old friend and compatriot in the Diplomatic Service back in England.

Keep your sightglass full your firebox trimmed and your water iced.

Ed: Holographic letter (undated) discovered among the private papers of Sir Aubrey Barrett-Burrows (deceased). The author of this letter, signed only ‘Charles’, is suggested to be the Honourable Charles Burrows, Aubrey’s cousin, who entered the Diplomatic Corps under Aubrey’s aegis and traveled extensively within the Austro-Hungarian Empire on both pleasure and official duties for the last decades of the 19th century. 

Warning to those of a sensitive nature that this document contains descriptions of possibly disturbing violence.

Dear Aubrey,

You were correct in warning me that this Court, so stifled with protocol on the outer shell, has within it arenas of private wildness. Not that the Crown Prince R’s wildness is at all private. The man’s a byword for excesses across the Continent.

The Empress of Austria Hungary
In your ear alone, I dare wonder if he inherited it from his mother. His father’s misbehaviour follows established lines involving the fairer sex, but his mother! The Empress travels extensively, is absent for months at a time from her husband and children, remains obsessed with her beauty, and herself exercises daily to exhaustion to maintain her legendary slimness. A stunner indeed, but cold with it, I believe, despite persistent rumours of her amorous entanglements. Whether there is fire behind the rumour I know not, but it is highly suggestive that a young woman within the Court died abruptly soon after daring to mention before the Archduke’s revered mother the Empress’s predilection for the company of a certain Hungarian count. You will know which count, for you were in Buda-Pest when the Hungarians were brought into the Austrian fold.

You may also remember the Empress spent that entire year on the newly designated royal estates in Hungary, with that nameless count in close attendance. As I have since been informed, the usual gymnasium facilities she required were lacking at that estate, and the weather being often too inclement for her to be out riding and walking sufficient to ease her restlessness, the Empress caused the formerly demure practice of parasol duelling to take on aspects of martial combat, to make it more challenging physically and mentally. This resulted in the Hungarian Imperial Code of Parasol Duel, through exhibitions of which we all in the Diplomatic Corps since your day have sat marvelling at the speed and acrobatic capability of the duellists, or at their indecently form-fitting duelling costumes, as our preference took us.

The real duels, those held over matters of honour and repute, of which you have doubtless heard, are conducted mostly in private, overseen by ‘seconds’ and the requisite Doctor, with a staff of assistants and nurses at hand, for injuries are all but inevitable. This form of parasol duel is indeed much wilder than the drawing-room pacing and posing permitted under HRM in British dominions. Young women make no effort to conceal scarred faces but show them proudly, just as the men do their duelling scars.

I venture to describe to you in some detail the recent, bloody and violent duel overseen by the Empress herself, in the gymnasium built for her in the Hofburg gardens. That a fatal duel between women could take place in the very heart of Vienna without a public outcry is testament to how thoroughly established the Hungarian Imperial Code is amongst the Austrians. Not a month hence, as the Empress exercised with her ladies, throwing heavy leather balls back and forth, leaping over padded hurdles and performing a variety of acrobatic routines that anyone who has seen a duelling exhibition would recognize as rehearsal of movements for those, a most spurious-sounding quarrel was forced on a Lady of the Bedchamber, one Fraulein F_, by a cousin of the Empress, a Madame S_H_, whom you may have encountered on some embassy posting or other. She moves much in court circles around the Continent, although a mere daughter to some minor Bavarian noble house and the widow of an obscure French professor of philosophical botany. She styles herself a professor of applied botany, whatever that may mean, and it has been speculated that she applied some unwholesome botanical decoction to her elderly husband to speed her bereavement.

She has the favour of the Empress, that much is certain, for her egregious insult to the talkative young Fraulein was both overheard and approved by that sovereign, leaving the younger woman no face-saving way to avoid a duel. I, with a few other men from various embassies who had been invited to converse with the Empress in the intervals of her exercise, was invited to stay or leave as I saw fit, but warned that I must on no account make a disruption to the proceedings if remaining.

You may well imagine I stayed, for this private glimpse under the skirts (as it were) of the stiff Austrian court was not to be lightly bypassed.

My fellows departed, having, they said (but quietly), no stomach for watching women pretend to defend their honour, that quality being, in their minds, reserved only for the male sex. Had they stayed to see the duellists replace their ankle-length divided skirts with leg-hugging leather trousers – well, not to say I saw them do so, either, but they each departed to a separate anteroom with their seconds and returned so garbed – had they stayed, the unabashed display of nether limbs might have entranced or horrified them, such never being seen in England or indeed most European courts. Their hair, tight-braided and pinned to their heads for their earlier exertions, was further confined in heavy hairnets, well secured, that did naught to advance the beauty of either the Fraulein’s brown tresses or Madame’s deep burgundy locks.

While preparations for the duel were under way, I was seated next to one of the Empress’s ladies in waiting, who made sotto voce explanations to me of many small points of which I, although having watched many exhibitions, was unaware. I trusted her words, for she proudly bore duelling scars both on a cheek and on her exposed forearm, and it is well known here that the Empress expects her ladies to be proficient at all forms of exercise.

The duellists remained on opposite sides of the gymnasium with their seconds and supporters while the field was prepared for them. Suitably clad as described above, they proceeded to stretch, flex, and jump to loosen their muscles. The polished wooden floor was cleared of exercise equipment, and the largest painted circle at the very center of the floor swept of any grit or scrap that might cause a foot to slip and give undue advantage to one or the other combatant. Even the shutters were lowered on the high windows through which the sun streamed, to prevent it crossing the circle and being used a-purpose to throw off the opposer.

In either exhibition or duel, the equipment is the same: a slim-shafted parasol, reaching from waist height to floor, with a lead collar circling the spoke-ring for weight, and protruding from this collar a rapier blade exactly 3 centimeters long. This limit is strictly observed, the best medical experts in the Austro-Hungarian Empire having given their opinion that the blade cannot thus penetrate to any vital organs. While slight injury is nearly inevitable, serious injury is unlikely, or so said my sage informant. She did not mention death, yet at no time during the subsequent events did she appear at all surprised, not even when overseeing the removal of the body.

The rapier tip is covered in a slim lead sheath for novice bouts, adding significantly to the parasol’s tip-weight and slowing the motion of the parasol in the figures. It is reasoned that learning with a heavier weight trains the muscles to move faster when the weight is removed. The figures we know as the Brandenburg Variations are in Austria considered suitable for novices, save that the duelists are permitted, even encouraged, to move about in a close circle. Close enough that a Snub may prod the opponent’s middle regions, or a spoke snap open in their face and bloody their nose, or a Plant (with that heavy lead sheath) land upon a too-slow foot. During the Twirl, duelists may turn their bodies as well, catching an unwary opponent with the tip of a spoke, or tangling their hair, or merely causing them to flinch and be thrown off their purpose. Ankling, similar only in name to the form considered daring in Brandenburg-style competitions, involves a sharp smack to the opponent’s ankle with the weighty parasol tip. It is frowned upon but not forbidden, and requires fleet hopping to escape.

The timing of a novice bout is very different from what we are used to, not a slow count to a final pose but a series of one-minute bouts timed by the Doctor, and proceeding with a half-minute pause between them until one party yields or is judged by the Doctor as too injured to readily continue. I saw many novice bouts in training schools around Vienna, some of them ending in blood or the setting of a bone broken by a lucky strike with the weighted parasol tip. Impossible to envision ladies of HRM’s court or family being seen in public with a bloodied nose or blackening eye, or exposing a damaged ankle to the ministrations of a male doctor before the interested gaze of many onlookers.

You will see from the above that athletic movement to avoid immediate injury is essential. To stand posed as young ladies do in England is to invite serious injury and ignominious defeat.

No novice bout prepared me for the speed, grace, or fell intent of a duel between masters of the form, which I first viewed at the Empress’ birthday celebrations a dozen years hence. In a bout between master duelists, the tip-sheaths are removed, baring the sharp rapier tips and greatly increasing the danger of serious injury. The novice figures appear as mere early flourishing, to gauge the opponent’s skill before engaging strenuously. Following this mutual exploration, a master may attempt any of the following:

  • the Cut, which is a slash of the opponent’s clothing or hair net;
  • the Cut Direct, a slash of any exposed skin;
  • the Hobble, which is a sharp blow to either the knee or the ankle, made visible targets by the lack of skirts;
  • the Coup. This last is a stab that penetrates the opponent’s body, and is generally held to terminate an affair of honour. A duel may continue beyond that point if the pierced duelist declines to yield, up to the third Coup, which is named the Coup de Grace, and from which no return to combat is permitted.

My neighbour considerately informed me that the third Coup is considered final because loss of blood will have marred the injured duelist’s skill and made the floor slippery, thus rendering the match unequal. (Well, that is a fine example of fair play.) A Coup that penetrates the full length of the tip – as shown by the depth of blood on the blade – is considered a killing blow whether it incapacitates or not (although it is hard to imagine, is it not, that being stabbed to a depth of nearly two inches would not be incapacitating to a gentle lady?). The third Coup not only decides the duel in favour of the party administering it, but allows the loser to withdraw from further duels until fully recovered, according to their own determination, and until, one assumes, the loss of face is forgotten in the press of other gossip. A third-Coup defeat has ended the dueling career of many a young lady, more often from disinclination to return to the combat than from lasting impairment due to wounds.

Or so I am told.

Thus armed with a more complete knowledge of the rules pertaining to the Hungarian Imperial Code than I daresay any English diplomat has hitherto acquired, by this long byway I bring you to the duel being readied at the heart of the gymnasium, under the impassive eyes of the Empress.
Continued in Part 2


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