Back to Papers

Duelling in Malta

Dr. Giovanni Bonello

This article was originally published in "Histories of Malta. Volume III. Versions and Diversions" (Fondazjoni Patrimonju Malti, 2002). It has been transcribed by members of the Malta Historical Fencing Association and reproduced here with the kind permission of Dr. Bonello.

Patrick Brydone, one of the best-selling travel writers during the last years of the Order of St John in Malta, got it all wrong. His detailed account of duelling on these islands, published in 1773, is a hotchpotch of sentimental misinformation. It set the scene for many of those who wrote later.

He kicks off with his wildest shot at untruth: “Perhaps Malta is the only country in the world where duelling is permitted by law” [1]. The Order of St John, he adds, being based on old, romantic norms of chivalry, found it inconsistent with its principles to abolish duelling “but they have laid it under such restrictions as greatly to reduce its dangers”[2].

Le Duel a l'Épée et au Poignard, from Les Caprices Series A, The Florence Set MET (Callot, 1617)

Brydone describes what these limitations on duelling consisted in. Firstly, knights could only fight in one determined road (today’s Strait Street) and were obliged to stop the duel if so requested by any woman, priest, or knight. Bloodshed was this rare, though not at all excluded. A cross was always painted on the wall opposite the spot where a knight had been killed in a duel. Brydone said he counted some 20 of them” [3].

The Scotsman then recounts an incident he claims happened just before he arrived in Malta. Two knights quarrelled over a game of billiards. One reviled the other oppressively, and slapped him. “To the astonishment of all in Malta (in whose annals there is not a similar instance) after so great a provocation, he absolutely refused to fight this antagonist”.

The challenger had another go, but the victim kept disregarding him. Both, adds Brydone, ended badly. The challenger had to make honourable penance in St John’s for 45 consecutive days, to be followed by five years’ confinement in an underground dungeon and to spend the rest of his life a prisoner in the castle.

The victim is “likewise in disgrace” as he did not take up the opportunity “of wiping out the affront in the blood of his adversary”. All Malta was talking about it when Brydone landed.

His suggestion to all nations was to enact laws which punish those who fight duels with the rigour Malta visits on those who refuse. That, Brydone believes, would put an end to all duelling. [4]

Charles S. Sonnini who visited Malta shortly after Brydone’s book was published, could not hide his resentment towards the Scotsman, particularly for his errant account of the knights’ duelling ethos. “At the time of my arrival the minds of the knights were furiously exasperated against him (Brydone) and not altogether without reason. He describes their mode of life without having frequented the society of any one of them during the whole time he remained upon the island… when he speaks of their laws of duelling… his book is merely the vehicle of errors”[5].

Was Brydone right, or Sonnini?

Grand Master Fra Raymundo Zacosta (1461-1467) had already enacted that any knight assisting in a duel would lose his seniority and spend two months in the Tower[6]. After that provision, bans on duels rained.

The extremely rare Stabilimenta Militum printed in Salamanca in 1534, one of the earliest statutes of the Order of St John, criminalised duels in a very thorough and severe manner[7]. In any case, the Order of Malta, being a religious congregation, under the direct jurisdiction of the Popes, would already have been strictly bound by Canon 19, promulgated in the 25th session of the Council of Trent: “From the remotest parts of the Christian world must be abolished the detestable habit of duelling, created by the machinations of the devil, who through the bloody death of the body, earns the destruction of the soul”[8].

The Council of Trent (1545-1563) ordained instant excommunication and perpetual malediction on all those who participated in duels, and also decreed their inability from ever being buried in consecrated ground.

The stern Grand Master La Cassière (1572-1582) upped the penalties already existing in the Constitutions of Pope Gregory XIII against those participating in duels. “Wishing to stop the evil of those who, scorning the health of the soul, lock in duels with other Brothers”, the challenger was to be expelled from the Order without any chance of readmission; same for those who accepted a challenge.

Those who actually went to the venue of the armed contest earned expulsion from the Order, followed later by a dreaded trial by the lay criminal courts. Accomplices, voluntary spectators, and those who “stick the challenge poster” were all likewise to be defrocked.

“To distance as much as possible from this sacred Order the detestable practice of duels”, La Cassière decreed the same penalties for those who fought them outside Valletta and on the bastions. And, to avoid ambiguity, the Grand Master added that anyone who takes part in risse (brawls), and who battle each other with weapons in groups, shall likewise be deemed to have participated in a duel.[9]

La Cassière’s ban on duelling was printed in the 1676 Statuti[10]. And the Chapter General of the Order, held in 1631, confirmed a previous decree, dated October 31, 1629 “against the detestable practice of duelling”[11].

In 1609 Inquisitor Evangelista Carbonese ordered a grand public burning of books in the main square in Birgu. Anong those given to the flames was Mutii Justi Napolitani Duellum. This no doubt refers to one of the Italian classics on the subject, Il Duello, by Girolamo (Justinoplitan) Mutio, first published in Venice in 1550, and enjoying various reprints and translations. Though ostensibly it meant to denounce duelling, “written with such lyricism that can only be described as baroque, the work unfolds as a sumptuous apology for the duel”[12].

Together with Mutio’s book on duelling, Birgu, on that occasion witnessed the burning of works by Nostradamus, the monk Rabelais, Ptolemy, and a history of the Order of St John by Henri Pantaleon, published in Basle in 1581. Pantaleon’s crime? He was Protestant[13].

This is not the only recorded torching of books in Malta. In 1577, Rome congratulated Inquisitor Rainaldo Corsi for a good bonfire which included Boccacio’s Decameron and writings by Erasmus[14].

Grand Master Manoel de Vilhena (1722-1736) further refined the laws related to duelling. So far they were mainly concerned with penalties to be inflicted. Now he established the procedure as to how the culprits should be brought to justice.

Those who issued challenges, those who accepted them, together with all their accomplices, were to be tried under martial law (alla militare ex abrupto) without any formalities - if the judge was convinced, even if solely on the strength of circumstantial evidence and legal presumptions, that death had followed a challenge to a duel. The place where death occurred, he added, and the people involved, constituted strong circumstantial evidence.

The survivor was to be subjected to “sufficient torture” i.e., sufficient to obtain a ‘voluntary’ confession. If found guilty, his penalty would be death naturale e ignominosa, even if the delinquent was of noble birth, and confiscation of all his estate, although the duel had not actually taken place, if the adversaries had proceeded to the chosen venue, and notwithstanding that ‘sufficient torture’ had not sufficed for the truth to out.

The bodies of the executed duellists had to remain hanging from the public gallows, and anyone who tried to bring them down would be guilty of lèse majesté. Those wounded in a duel but who did not die were liable to corporal punishments ad arbitrio of the judge, even if they failed to admit their guilt under torture[15].

After Brydone left Malta, the Council again toughened the laws against duels. Those knights who fought in Sicily while on ‘caravan’ duties incurred the same punishments as those who duelled in Malta[16].

As late as 1787 the Council of State of the Order decreed the publication throughout all the Langues, of the Ordinazioni which prohibited duels, and the penalties attached to these offences[17].

All this anti-duel resourcefulness did not go unnoticed (except by Brydone). Pope Benedict XIV (1740-1758) in his Apostolic Constitution Detestabilis went out of his way to praise sommamente the enactments of the Order against duelling[18].

This was the legal framework, the good intention, the theory. In practice? The frenzy and reiteration of legislation already gives an indication that duelling constituted a major problem that had to be repeatedly addressed.

And it could hardly be otherwise. All the social and cultural imperatives of the era militated in its favour. The knights - elite warriors - carried two major imprints in their genes: the inviolability of ‘honour’ and the fear of being deemed cowards. Fearlessness in the face of death had to be underscored at all costs, and only blood wiped away dishonour. Both the challenger and the challenged had these oppressive public pressures to contend with.

It is easy for us, whose psyche has now more or less exited the old chivalric mode, to misunderstand and commiserate. The era of the the knights in Malta coincided with the apogee of duelling throughout Europe.

The Duel of Ascanio delle Corgna, by Niccolò Circignani, Palazzo della Corgna, Castiglione del Lago

A warrior with an intimate connection to the Order of Malta fought one of the most famous duels in history. Ascanio delle Corgna, the renowned military strategist and nephew of Grand Master Pietro di Monte who planned and led from Sicily the Gran Soccorso in the 1565 Great Siege of Malta, in 1545 challenged Giannetto Taddei who had pointedly defied his orders as ruler of Casal Monferrato. The duel, fought near Pitigliano, attracted some 3,000 spectators, including the top nobility from central Italy. Ascanio killed Taddei; his reputation and authority soared.

Grand Master La Cassière, who enacted one of the most ferocious anti-duelling laws, seems, however, to have mixed views about the matter. In 1574 he ordered all knights to take fencing lessons[19] and a site for a fencing school for the knights - la casa della scherma - had been earmarked for the area now occupied by the old University in Merchants Street, Valletta[20].

I went through some of the manuscript records of the Order in an attempt to grasp the realities of duelling in Malta. In the period 1535 - 1600 I came across some thirty references to knights involved in duels, but this is, inevitably, only the tip of the iceberg.

The records show innumerable lists of deaths and woundings following ‘brawls’ with weapons, many of which were, no doubt, camouflaged duels. All concerned would go out of their way to avoid the extreme penalties reserved for duels, under the guise of an accidental scuffle in which weapons happened to be used. This piteous ruse must have got many knights off the hook.

Thus, one of our earlier historians rightly has doubts that the wounds suffered in the head and in the hand by Sir John James Sandilands in 1558 through a sharp blade were the result of a duel with Fra Elias the Cugnac, after a gambling bout (game of tre sette) at two in the morning. Sandilands, and irrepressible trouble-maker, and Cugnac avoided instant expulsion by making the wounds appear accidental[21].

The order had been settled in Malta for less than three years when one of the most preposterous - and least known - episodes in its long history, happened. In March 1533, civil war, triggered by exasperated rival nationalities, broke out in the island. A french knight, nephew of Commendatore Servier from Provence, and a Florentine gentleman fought a duel in the countryside.

The Italian formed part of the retinue of Fra Bernardo Salviati, nephew of Pope Clement VII (the one who refused to annul Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon and who commissioned Michelangelo to paint The Last Judgement). Salviati was Cardinal, Prior of Rome and General of the Order’s galleys. He kept sixty Italian gentlemen (not knights) in his household in Malta.

In this ill-fated duel, the Italian killed the Frenchman. On hearing this, the family and friends of the dead knight went for the Florentine, who had meanwhile repaired to the home of Salviati. There they assailed him, together with the other Italians present. The Italians, outnumbered and mauled, all ended badly wounded. Word went around. The Italians in Birgu rallied and in turn attacked the French, spreading more French blood than had been spilt of their own. The French, having remustered forces, then loudly requested what they termed justice from the (French) Grand Master l’Isle Adam.

Salviati, to appease them, ordered ten of the fiercest Italians to be chained in his Galera Capitana, undertaking to punish them severely. The French met in the house of the Commander d’Orleans, Fra Antoine de Varigues, called Bleuville (later expelled from the Order) to deliberate on their next move.

When Prior Salviati was about to leave Malta with the fleet, the French stealthily boarded the Capitana. In cold blood they murdered four of the chained and defenceless Italians and wounded all the others; they would certainly have killed them all, had they not been attacked, with huge bloodshed, by the Italians led by Salviati, indignant that his galley had been violated and his undertaking disregarded.

The French withdrew, regrouped in their three Auberges, grabbed their banners with the fleur-de-lys and rushed through the streets shouting “France, France! To arms, to arms!” They wore their suits of armour and got hold of arquebuses, halberds, spears. Responding to this, all the Italians rushed around the Pope’s nephew. To avoid a deadly confrontation at night, he withdrew to his home, which he fortified with guns from the galleys.

The French, flags flying, carrying ladders and burning torches, surrounded Salviati’s home and fired at it all night, pointing a cannon removed from the post of Provence, to demolish the building.

At this stage the Spaniards joined the fracas, coming to the rescue of Salviati, whose forces now outnumbered the French. The diplomatic efforts of the Bali Manosque, Fra Jean de Boniface, sent by the Grand Master, held him back. L’Isle Adam wanted to intervene personally, but the members of the Council restrained him, fearing for his life with so much crossfire in the air.

The French withdrew, many badly wounded, and it was a miracle that only one knight, Fra Francesco di Ventimiglia, was killed on the roof of Salviati’s house by an arquebus shot.

L’Isle Adam allowed time for spirits to cool down. Then he pounced. He expelled a dozen knights from the Order and the ringleaders be drowned alive, sewn into sacks, outside the harbour. Not bad for a duel quite likely fought over some pox-infected harlot. Makes quite a fabulous script for a Hollywood movie[22].

Two years later, in 1535, Fra François de Frenay challenged other brothers to a duel. As a penalty he lost three years’ seniority[23]. The following year Fra de Malet defied Fra de Savignac (both Christian names, exceptionally, missing from the records, but Savignac is probably Fra Ponce Balaguer, called Savignac, who perished in the luckless assault on Algiers in 1541), to a duel - daringly, in the Grand Master’s Palace in Birgu, and in the Castle (St Angelo). He spent three months imprisoned in Gozo to atone for his insolence[24].

A few months later, Fra Sancio Logon provoked another (unnamed) knight to a duel. The Council ordered Logon to be detained “in the major underground cubicle (cavea) in Gozo” during the Grand Master’s pleasure. Not long after, that prodigious lout, Sir Clement West, was sentenced to remain in his room for the length of an investigation into the allegation that he had sprinkled invitations to duel on sundry other knights[25].

The records of the Order use the Latin word duellum and the paraphrase singularis certamen (single combat) for a duel. But the word duellum seems to be a modern addition, not included in the dictionaries of classical Latin. The concept of duel is of late Renaissance origin, and had its flowering and philosophers in Italy.

The year 1538 witnessed two entries relating to duels. Fra Philip Dalbion challenged Fra Pedro de Felizes, later killed in the Great Siege. Rather incongruously, Felizes spends 40 days in turris, and Dalbion only 19[26]. An averted blood fight between Fra Francisco Marzilla and Fra Alonso Cerdan ended with Marzilla tenanting the Gozo cavea for one year[27].

Another death in a duel recorded in Malta happened in 1542, when Fra Claude de la Chatiere killed Fra de Bloquieu. The victim was hit by the weapon in the head; the Council expelled La Chatiere from the Order[28].

Fra Nicholas Bonissen had a luckier escape. He was badly wounded; the sword of Fra Emardium de Ardillon went right through his eye. Ardillon confessed (under torture?) to having taken part in the duel losing one eye and two years’ seniority[29]. Only a few months later Fra Ludovic Puget and Fra Pierre de Spernier both ended wounded in duel cum sanguinis effusionis. The Council expelled them both from the Order[30], but must have readmitted Fra Pierre, as, shortly after the Great Siege he is appointed Captain of the Grand Master’s galley.

Fra Gundisalv Pereira, Fra Jo Ramirez Pereira Mendez and Fra Johan Pereira in 1573 got embroiled in a challenge to duel. All forfeited three years’ seniority. Fra Ludvic Mendez (almost certainly the future Grand Master Louis Mendez de Vasconcellos) had played the part of nuncius - the go-between to organise the death pageant[31].

This must have been the Pereira era. Only four months later Fra Juan Pereira (the same Fra Johan?) dared and wounded Fra Giorgio Correa in a duel “with bloodshed”[32]. Pereira lost two years’ seniority and had to spend them in the Tower[33].

A double duel was fought the following year between Fra Francesco di Napoli and Fra Francesco Sierri, on one side, against Fra Isodoro di Napoli and Fra Gaspare Ferrer - with a fatal outcome. Isodoro was killed and Ferrer wounded[34].

The Council expelled Sierri from the Order, but later commuted his penalty to three years’ imprisonment in the Tower, and the loss of all his seniority[35]. Francesco di Napoli, from Messina, had been admitted to the Order in 1571, while the other di Napoli, Isodoro, who was killed, had joined the Order in 1554[36]. Was this a fratricidal duel between brothers?

Fra Francesco di Napoli was one of the many intrinsically disorderly members of the Order who continually landed themselves on the wrong side of the law. After his narrow escape he faced a charge of murdering Giacobo Potenzano, but was acquitted[37]. Only six months pass, and he stands accused of insulting behaviour[38]. He immediately absconds from Malta, and the Council deprives him of the habit[39], but the Grand Master commutes the penalty to a loss of seniority[40]. Later that year he flees from the island[41] and remains in Palermo in defiance of peremptory orders to return to Malta[42].

Almost never do the records reveal the motive behind the duel - women, offences to honour, disregard of precedence? They could be infinite. The official archives rarely exceed on the side of generosity with details of a personal nature. A benign sanitary cordon protects the privacy of those investigated.

In 1791, Inquisitor Gian Filippo Gallarati Scotti reported the large number of duels fought between the French and Italian knights “on mere trifles connected with theatrical performances”[43].

We know all about the reasons for one duel, involving the eldest son of the Count d’Auvergne. He and Claude Abraham de Caylus in 1697 fell out in a tavern about the sensitive matter of sharing prostitutes, and started a duel. Half-way through, Caylus lost his nerve and ran away in a fit of terror. Feeling thoroughly dishonoured, his father disinherited him and he then entered the Order[44].

One memorable duel fought in Malta related to Fra Francesco dell’Antella, Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt’s personal secretary for Italian affairs. He was challenged to a duel by Wignacourt’s nephew, Fra Henri de Lancy de Bains, who insisted that dell’Antella had been poisoning his uncle against him. Lancy de Bains had been in command of his uncle’s personal galleon and distinguished himself in action in 1609.

Dell’Antella tried in every way to avoid the armed confrontation, appeasing the French knight by humble reasonings and apologies, but de Bains only multiplied his insults. The inevitable contest ended by dell’Antella killing Wignacourt’s nephew with a thrust through the heart.

Dell’Antella offered the grieving Grand Master to go into voluntary exile, but Wignacourt, renowned for his sense of fairness, ordered him to stay on as his secretary and awarded him the rich commenda of S. Giacomo as a token of his confidence[45].

Duel en Angleterre au début du XVIIIe siècle.

An intelligent Polish traveller who visited Malta in 1595 left a detailed account of his stay. These anonymous memoirs written by a person with a good humanist culture, who spoke Latin and Italian, have been variously attributed, among others, to the poet Stanislaw Niegoszewski. Whoever it was, his visit to Malta proved quite adventurous.

Arriving in April, he was provoked by an army officer, fought a duel with him, wounded him, and ended in jail for four weeks, with all his money forfeited. To avoid this incident bringing discredit on the Polish nation, he invented an Italian identity: Giovanni Battista da Benevento[46].

A Maltese author, writing before 1665, left an extensive account of duelling in Malta, part of which, I believe, is worth translating:

“Many times in Malta and the Levant did I witness these duels, and it truth, it is luck that counts most, having seen youngsters with no knowledge of wielding swords, wound or kill those who were experts. The knight dei Gialli, who had no rival in fencing, was slain by one who had never handled a sword. And the knight La Lumiere, after having wounded five times the servant-at-arms Fra Boisson, was, by the latter, already half dead, finished off by a single, desperate thrust.

“A servant-at-arms, Fra Dumec, who had disarmed a knight was, by the latter, on another occasion, killed. And a servant-at-arms, Fra Chiovia who would not let a day pass by without duelling, was disemboweled by another with a shorter sword. And poor Bumenil, a youngster who had amiably accepted to act as a second, lost his life through a lunge at his chest.

“And, duelling apart, was not one of the Paladini knights (Fra Gio Bernardino?) who, as suited his name, was mighty in body and in strength, laid flat in the square by the knight Mariorana (Fra Domenico? Fra Andrea?) with a dagger through his mouth, their swords having splintered during the first exchanges? And did not the knight Solari (Fra Vittorio Amedeo? Fra Roberto?) do exactly the same to the knight Colombini (Fra Ascanio Ettore) who assaulted him close to the Auberge d’Auvergne?

“What can one say, added Giamberto, if the one who does not accept the challenge is considered cowardly and spineless, and becomes the laughing stock of the world?

“Not so Fra Clemente Malaburla[47] captain of a galley, old and gouty, who was, by a wisp of a young knight, thrown to the ground. Grasping his sword with both hands, he made him (the youngster) dance on the beach, having no equal in knowing how to wound artfully, so much fire astonishing everyone in an old man so crippled. It was then that the knights Castellet and … (name missing in the manuscript), young and incomparably handsome, challenged each other at the torre mozza and fought for over an hour, until, exhausted through swinging their arms, Castellet, already wounded in the arms, pounced on the other with such fury that, unable to resist, he let himself be passed through his chest and killed. (Fra Auguste Castellet, who survived the duel, met his death during the siege of Negroponte in 1688.)

“More terrible is the case of the knights Guillon and Monvan. The first had a lunge so clean, that no one could stop or repel it. Boasting of this to the other knight, he was told that every coin has its obverse. In the heat of the argument they challenged each other to a duel next morning at Żurrieq. Guillon was soon beating Monvan, piercing his chest with the thrust which he called clean and, having grabbed his sword to disarm him, the latter, pulling it back, pointed it straight at his throat, slitting it, killing him instantly. The other survived three days by the grace of heaven, to die after receiving the sacraments.

“About flawless swordsmen, said Giamberto, I saw a knight who was such an expert that, in fighting three others, he wounded them all in their arms, in the same spot. And as one, through boredom went around challenging everyone who caught his fancy, twelve young men got together, firmly determined to fight him, hoping that one of them would be lucky enough to be victorious, so that the others would be left in peace. The first one was killed; he (the killer) was advised to repair to Malta. Here, unable to live without provoking duels, upsetting all the Convent (the Order) he was by his superiors sent back to Marseilles, where, as soon as he landed, he was challenged by one of the abovementioned companions, who, with a jab in the middle of his chest, dispatched and finished him off. For the jar that often goes to the spring, will inevitably crack and fall to pieces.

“A knight, called de Suse (Sousa?), who in deftness had no rivals, seeing that a gentleman, a grand-nephew of Grand Master de Paule, boasted about his ability to wield a sword, found ways of challenging him to a duel, together with another second. De Suse, coming to the contest, having flung his sword high, got hold of it by the point, and drove it repeatedly in the side of the other. Then in Flanders he was killed by a musket shot”[48].

Inquisitor Fabio Chigi, later Pope Alexander VII, also gives a full account of an aborted duel on Palace Square, Valletta, in 1636. The reason: honour. Fra Prospero Colonna, one of the princely Roman family, was passing through and all the knights gathered there saluted him courteously.

All, that is, except Fra Pietro Cesarini, who not only kept his hat on, but ostentatiously looked the other way. Colonna flew into a rage and grabbed his sword from his page. “Signor Don Pietro”, he bawled, “take your sword and let’s end it here”. Fortunately the other knights intervened to avoid bloodshed. The Grand Master confined them both to house arrest.

A reconciliation was later, very laboriously, attempted, though Cesarini was quite determined to remain in the Tower before clearing the terms of the reconciliation with, and obtaining the go-ahead from, his family in Rome[49].

Reasons also survive for the duel fought in 1764 by the knight La Bruttoniere. The other french knights were so put off by his behaviour that they resolved to exclude him from table during meals in the Auberge.

They knew this was a delicate predicament so they drew lots to determine who would convey their decision to Bruttoniere - who instantly challenged the unlucky messenger to a duel. At dawn the contest ended with the messenger permanently disabled. The Council expelled and exiled Bruttoniere[50].

Of course not all knights were uncontrollably duel-happy. The silent well-behaved majority left little trace in the annals. An exception was Fra Jacques de Cordon d’Evieu (born 1586) who in 1640 became Marshal of the Order, but resigned almost immediately. He retired to his commandery near Geneva, where he led a hermit’s life of contemplation. The fruits of his cogitations were published in 1663; among them the determination never to use the sword he carried to avenge any affront he had been victim of[51].

According to Fra Camillo Spreti, who around 1760 wrote a manual for young knights of Malta and a critique of their behaviour, “scandal-mongering, gambling, and duelling” were the chief diversions of the cadet knights in Malta[52].

Another writer of those times, Alexander Bisani, agrees. He comments negatively on the lethargic spirit that prevailed in the last years of the Order’s rule; the knights had nothing better to do than squabble over questions of precedence - national or individual. The antagonism which prevailed between the French and the Italians was the source of infinite incidents, which more often than not ended in duels, notwithstanding the penalties provided by the Order’s statutes. The other diversion, adds Bisani, was gambling, which ruined most of those who had anything they could be ruined by[53].

The Order’s massive Libres Conciliorum purport to register all criminal proceedings and punishments; that is hardly the case - many left no trail. The index of criminal prosecutions, held in parallel by the Inquisition, mentions various cases of duels which the Order’s registers do not record.

Thus for example in 1587, the Inquisition charged five knights with duelling - Fra Simone Clavesana[54], Fra Onorato Tortora, Fra Ferdinando Coiro[55], Fra Giulio Cesare Santinelli[56] and Fra Otavio Ceuli (sic, but Cevoli)[57].

Similarly, there is no mention to be found in the Order’s archives of the duel fought by Fra Carlo Valdina in 1599, as a consequence of which the Inquisitor, Antonio Ortensio, ordered his banishment from Malta for one year[58]. Fra Carlo later rose to a very distinguished career in the Order - Ambassador to Sicily, appaltatore of the Galleys and Bali of S. Stefano.

In 1574 the Council defrocked three knights in connection with an impending duel: Fra Juan de Hisasa (Jsasa), Fra Antonio de Mello and Fra Lupo Trevigno. Later, Grand Master La Cassière pardoned them. Fra Antonio de Mello, who had been wounded in the head and face, was reinstated, while Hisasa’s penalty was commuted to two years in the Tower and the loss of two years’ seniority[59].

Six months later Fra Guillame de Magnac and Fra Antoine de Plantadis, called Lery, engaged in mortal combat for reasons undisclosed. They both drew blood and were expelled from the Order[60].

Common to all duels reviewed so far was the fact that knights only fought each other. This trend was dented in 1577 when the first Maltese enters the scene. Fra Cesare Leria challenged a native to a duel: Notary Matteo Briffa. This earned Leria six months’ confinement in the Tower[61].

Poor Notary Briffa! He really was on the hot seat - that of the Registrar of the criminal court (the Castellania). Fuming knights found him the ideal target to vent their spleen on. In 1578 Fra Michael Olivier stood charged with reviling him[62]; not long after, Fra Gregorio Scalione also faced criminal prosecution for having outraged Briffa’s assistant (subdatario) Jacobo Sillato[63]. This earned him the punishment of the quarantena.

Just after the Briffa challenge, Fra Antonio Maria Caia and Fra Marcantonio Angarano crossed weapons in anger. They spent a year in the Tower to atone[64].

Fra Vespasiano Longo and Fra Annibale Rocco (or Roco) both from Naples (ordained knights in 1578 and 1580 respectively)[65] put their courage to the test on Rinella beach (l’Arenella) in 1584. Longo ended sustaining some wounds. At first the Council expelled them both from the ranks of the knights, but then the good heart, or the weakness, of Grand Master Verdalle prevailed. He pardoned them, and committed them to spend two years in turris. Vespasiano, deemed guiltier, lost two years’ seniority, and Rocco one year[66].

Two other Italian knights courted trouble in 1595. The council investigated Fra Carlo Mazzinghi and Fra Ludovico Cassano for duelling[67].

From Domenico Angelo's "The School of Fencing", 1765.

And then, a rather memorable contest in 1596 between two brothers, Fra Nicola, and Fra Jacomo Zumbo, from Syracuse. This duel proves noteworthy in many ways. While all previous contestants seem to have used swords, these brothers introduced firearms in the duellists’ menu: scopettone or alsocopeta (cf. Maltese xkubetta)[68].

The two Zumbos entered the Order as thorough rascals - and left as virtual saints. In 1594 Fra Nicola opened the score in his efforts to inflate his criminal record by attacking Fra Ludovico de Settimio[69]. One year later the Council charged them both with lèse majesté[70].

Equally seriously, in 1604 Fra Nicola was tried for forging coins in a house in Boschetto, detained in guva, found guilty and expelled from the Order[71]. The Council petitioned the Pope not to review Zumbo’s expulsion, but his family or friends must have carried some weight with the Pope. Clement VIII required the order to reinstate Zumbo[72].

These downright disreputable baddies died “in odour of sanctity”. Listen to the historian about the two brothers who had tried so hard an honestly to kill each other in a duel: “An important place in the memoirs of this year (1642) is occupied by the two Zumbo brothers… who, after leading a most religious life, with outstanding works of Christian virtue, confirmed with their death that they had been good servants of the Lord”.

“The first flew straight to heaven (so pious persons believe) on November 24 of this year, and the other one joined him the following April 24, both in Palermo, which resounded with their sanctity.

“And, if in life they were an example of love and admirable affection towards each other, in death they were buried together under the main altar of the Church of St Vitus, the nuns’ monastery founded by them”[73].

And then came the turn of Fra Aloisius Bovim de la Rognosa to challenge Fra Simon de Chiminee. His punishment: to be confined for six months ad carcere turris. Well locked, the record adds, no doubt mindful of the innumerable knights who escaped, or were ‘escaped’, from prison[74].

Fra Giulio Accarigi, who pursued a flourishing career in the order and ended as Prior of Venice and admiral, started that career precariously enough. In 1605, the Council condemned him to two years imprisonment for having the gall to duel Fra Bernardo de Sehio on the doorstep of the Grand Master’s Palace[75]. Shortly afterwards, a young nobleman aspiring to be enrolled as a knight saw all his ambitions dashed. The Council expelled Nicholas de Forny, called La Rondera, from Malta “without hope of ever obtaining the habit” for duelling against Fra Jean de Meaulx, who got away with one year’s jail[76].

The extreme frequency of duelling in Malta is attested by the fact that Grand Master Verdalle, in the early 1590s, petitioned the Pope to delegate to his representatives on the island the power to absolve in confession those guilty of the “detestable offence”. Confessional pardon for duelling was a prerogative reserved exclusively to the Pope, and knights guilty in conscience of having engaged in duels had to go personally to Rome to confess.

Thoroughly alarmed, the Grand Master soon realised that knights found in this measure a good excuse to leave Malta for an extended holiday in Rome[77].

More evidence of the extreme frequency of duelling in Malta comes from the archives of the Inquisition. Between November 1631 and March 1634 the Inquisitor, in his capacity as delegate of the Pope, was given 19 licenses, in blank, to absolve in confession those who had taken part in duels.

The Pope’s delegated absolutions were given in bulk: 12 in one occasion, seven in the next, to be used sparingly, in deserving cases by the Inquisitor, on those who had genuinely repented their “grievous crime” and “excess”. The various persons who had participated in a duel used up only one of the Inquisitor’s absolutions. On both occasions the Holy Office in Rome ordered the Inquisitor in Malta to keep secret his delegated faculty, not to give the impression that sacramental absolution could be easily obtained[78].

Inquisitor Martino Alfieri in 1633 received precise instructions from Cardinal Francesco Barberini in Rome regarding the dannato e detestabile habit of duelling in Malta. Firstly, Pope Urban VIII authorised the Inquisitor to absolve all the culprits who had already incurred the censure and had not yet been pardoned. This shows conclusively that the 12 absolutions granted in 1631 had already all been used up.

Secondly, the Pope ordered Alfieri to contact the Grand Master to explore ways and means to tackle together this abuso si pernicioso et enorme. Grand Master de Paule was to put in place remedies so urgent and effective that in future no one would dare duel again[79]. Pious hallucinations.

Fr Alexander Bonnici, OFM Conv., has recorded other licenses given by Popes to Inquisitors to absolve repentant duellists in 1602 and later, in 1619. In the Holy Year of 1625 the Holy Office at first suspended this faculty of the Inquisitor, but then reinstated it.

In 1627 absolution became conditional to a solemn undertaking not to relapse. Later, in 1639, the Inquisitor was refused this faculty “lest the possibility of absolution be construed by the knights as a good reason to challenge each other more frequently”[80].

In 1667, however, the Holy Office gave Inquisitor Ranuzzi no such power. He was ordered to charge formally before his tribunal all those suspected of this offence[81].

When the knight Bueris was going through a twenty years’ jail sentence, another knight, Fra Fouges[82], challenged him in writing to a duel. To make sure he did not miss the fun, Bueris set fire to the door of his cell, injured the sentry and escaped to meet Fouges. The latter had earlier been ostracised by the other knights for having failed to challenge Bueris after some perceived offence. Later Fouges fought another duel with a knight, a certain Javarun, over the charms of a lady. “Which”, groaned the Inquisitor, “is usually the cause of much ferment among these religious”[83].

Occasionally the inquisitor furnished Rome with details about duels. One regarded a knight who, in 1752, had fought against the captain of a French vessel; both suffered wounds in their hands. Bystanders intervened to draw them apart and to calm them down[84].

Valletta Waterfront, 19th century.

One of the most renowned Knights of Malta, Fra Deodat de Dolomieu, who made an indelible name for himself as a scientist, almost wrecked his career in the Order with a duel fought when he was barely 18 years old during “caravan” duties in Gaeta. He killed his opponent, and that would have incurred automatic expulsion and jail. But both the French Prime Minister, the Duc de Choisseul, and the Pope intervened heavily on the young hothead’s behalf with Grand Master Pinto, and Dolomieu got off lightly[85].

Seeing that he later assumed a leading role in the defeat of the Order at the hands of Napoleon, this leniency now appears to have been grossly misplaced. Had Dolomieu been disgraced, as he deserved, the history of Malta might have been different. And the Dolomites would have had a different name.

The age of chivalry was truly drawing to a close. Nothing better illustrates this fading away than the duel fought in 1790 on the Valletta waterfront between Fra Luigi Mazzacarne and the captain of a French merchantman, Joseph Segond, both of whom pined for the graces of the same lady.

It was threatening rain on March 1, and Segond carried an umbrella, when Mazzacarne waylaid him and drew his sword. Segond had only his umbrella with which to thrust and parry for dear life. Desperately. Mazzacarne’s murderous blade, after 15 minutes’ uneven combat, had the better.

Segond was killed, uselessly waving his life, and the age of chivalry, goodbye with his pathetic umbrella[86].


Mgr John Azzopardi and Dr Thomas Freller have contributed a significant input to this feature. Many thanks.

Notes and references

  1. 1. Patrick Brydone, A Tour through Sicily and Malta, Vol. II, London, 1773, p. 332.
  2. 2. Ibid.
  3. 3. Ibid.
  4. 4. Ibid., pp. 333-334.
  5. 5. Charles S. Sonnini, Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt, London, 1800, p. 40.
  6. 6. In Codice Gerosolimitano, Malta, 1782, p. 406.
  7. 7. Para. 83, p.55.
  8. 8. J.D. Mansi, Sacrorum Conciliorum Collectio, Vol. 33, col. 192.
  9. 9. In Code de Rohan, p. 408
  10. 10. Statuti della Sacra Religione, Borgo Novo, 1676, p. 266.
  11. 11. Ordinazioni del Capitolo Generale, Borgo Novo, 1674, p. 143.
  12. 12. François Billacois, Le Duel, Paris, 1986 p. 34.
  13. 13. AIM Proc. Crim., Vol. 34 B, Case 584, f. 688; Carmel Cassar, Witchcraft, sorcery and the Inquisition, Malta, 1996, p. 94.
  14. 14. Ibid., p. 61.
  15. 15. Leggi e Costituzioni Vilhena, Malta, 1724, p. 101.
  16. 16. Compendio del Codice Gerosolimitano, Malta, 1783, p. 65.
  17. 17. AOM 274, f. 110.
  18. 18. Privilegi della Sacra Religione, Malta, 1787, p. 87.
  19. 19. Bartolomeo dal Pozzo, Historia, Vol. II, Venice, 1715, p. 99.
  20. 20. Hannibal Scicluna, The Order of St John of Jerusalem, Malta, 1969, p. 188.
  21. 21. Alfredo Mifsud, Knights Hospitallers of the Venerable Tongue of England in Malta, Malta, 1916, p. 173.
  22. 22. AOM 85, f. 112v; Giacomo Bosio, Dell’Istoria…, Vol. III, Rome, 1602, p. 122.
  23. 23. AOM 85, f. 146v.
  24. 24. AOM 86, f. 44v.
  25. 25. Ibid., f. 62.
  26. 26. AOM 86, f. 66.
  27. 27. Ibid., f. 70v.
  28. 28. Ibid., f. 134v.
  29. 29. AOM 90, f. 134v.
  30. 30. AOM 91, ff. 21v, 25v.
  31. 31. AOM 93, f. 132.
  32. 32. Ibid., f. 154v.
  33. 33. Ibid., f. 155.
  34. 34. AOM 94, f. 22v
  35. 35. Ibid., f. 24.
  36. 36. Bartolomeo dal Pozzo, Ruolo Generale, Turin, 1738, pp. 94, 122.
  37. 37. AOM 95, ff. 18v, 84
  38. 38. Ibid., f. 122.
  39. 39. Ibid., f. 126.
  40. 40. Ibid., f. 129v
  41. 41. Ibid., f. 175.
  42. 42. Ibid., f. 209.
  43. 43. Alfredo Mifsud, Knights Hospitallers, Malta, 1916, p. 131.
  44. 44. Duc de Saint-Simon, Memoirs, Vol. III, London, 2000, p. 47.
  45. 45. Bartolomeo dal Pozzo, Historia, Vol. I, Verona, 1703, p. 567.
  46. 46. Krystyna Jaworska, “Appunti sui viaggiatori Pollacchi in Sicilia” in Viaggiatori stranieri in Sicilia nell’età moderna, Syracuse, 1992, p. 165.
  47. 47. So in the printed transcript, but Malabaila, who entered the Order in 1588 and was appointed Captain of the galley S. Carlo in 1635.
  48. 48. Fabrizio Cagliola, Disavventure marinaresche, Lib. Ms. 654, printed in Malta in 1929, p. 71 et seq.
  49. 49. Vincent Borg, Fabio Chigi, Vatican, 1967, p. 185.
  50. 50. Lib. Ms., 14, ff. 330, 340.
  51. 51. Histoire de la vie … de Jacques de Cordon d’Evieu, Lyons, 1663, p. 41. Kindly brought to my attention by Antonio Espinosa Rodriguez.
  52. 52. Libs. Ms. 1200/2, translated and printed by Averil MacKenzie-Grieve, Pamphlet No. 10 for the Order of St John of Jerusalem, 1949.
  53. 53. Alexander Bisani, Lettres sur divers endroits de l’Europe, London, 1791, p. 23.
  54. 54. Admiral of the Order in 1626.
  55. 55. Wounded in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.
  56. 56. Admiral of the Order in 1619.
  57. 57. Captain of the Galera Capitana in 1633.
  58. 58. Carmel Cassar, “The Inquisition Index of Knights” in Melita Historica. Vol. XI, No. 2 (1993) pp. 167-169.
  59. 59. AOM 94, ff.33, 36
  60. 60. Ibid., ff. 57, 64
  61. 61. AOM 95. f. 27.
  62. 62. AOM 95, f. 97v.
  63. 63. Ibid., f. 237.
  64. 64. Ibid., f. 249v.
  65. 65. Dal Pozzo, 1738, pp. 138, 142.
  66. 66. AOM 96, ff. 213, 218v
  67. 67. AOM 99, f. 50.
  68. 68. Ibid., f. 70v.
  69. 69. AOM 98, f. 189.
  70. 70. AOM 99, ff. 35v, 63v, 67.
  71. 71. AOM 101, ff. 88v, 91v, 92v, 93v, 94v.
  72. 72. Ibid., ff. 193, 251, 262v, 288; AOM 102, f. 262v.
  73. 73. Dal Pozzo, 1715, p. 71.
  74. 74. AOM 100, f. 193.
  75. 75. AOM 101, f. 155v.
  76. 76. AOM 102, f. 70r.
  77. 77. AOM 5425, f. 16. No date, but early 1590s.
  78. 78. AIM Corr. 5. P. 230; AIM Corr. 6. P. 230.
  79. 79. AIM Corr. 88 (Registro) f. 347v.
  80. 80. Alexander Bonnici, Storja tal-Inkisizzjoni, Vol. I, 1990, pp. 158, 200, 225, 235, 284.
  81. 81. Ibid., Vol. 2, 1992, p. 98.
  82. 82. A Fra Dionisio de Fouges Noilan became captain of the galley S. Giovanni in 1659.
  83. 83. Francis Ciappara, The Roman Inquisition in Enlightened Malta, Malta, 2001, p. 86.
  84. 84. Ibid., Vol. 3 (1994), 167.
  85. 85. A Lacroix, Deodat de Dolomieu, Paris, 1921.
  86. 86. AOM 6410
Back to Papers

Interested? Join us now!