7 Duels Between Women

iStock.com/ultramarinfoto
iStock.com/ultramarinfoto

Women and duels are often linked in the public imagination, but not because the ladies participated. The woman is usually relegated to the reason two gentlemen felt the need to wield their pistols at dawn in defense of her putative honor. In fact, most duels were fought over real or imagined slights to the parties themselves, not their lady friends, and gentlewomen were more than capable of demanding satisfaction for their own beefs. Some of those clashes were nothing short of epic.

1. ISABELLA DE CARAZZI VS. DIAMBRA DE POTTINELLA // MAY 25, 1552

Weapon(s) of Choice: Lances, maces, and swords

Isabella de Carazzi and Diambra de Pottinella were Neapolitan noblewomen and good friends until a man came between them. He was a handsome gentleman named Fabio de Zeresola who was very popular among the ladies of 16th century Naples. Isabella and Diambra had no idea he was seeing both of them until all three of them attended the same society wedding. Fabio cast a single glance at Isabella, a glance so ardent and penetrating that Diambra, who was next to Isabella at the time, immediately realized something was going on between them.

A short conversation later all was out in the open, and Isabella had cast the die when she insisted that Fabio loved her more and therefore, by the law of love, he belonged to her. Diambra claimed he loved her more and that Isabella was a liar. She was willing to die on that point, Diambra said, and so challenged her now-former friend to meet her six days hence in a field and to pick the weapons. Isabella chose full war gear: swords, lances, maces, shields, and armor-clad horses.

On the day of the duel, everyone who was anyone at the Naples court, including the Spanish viceroy, was present to witness this extraordinary event. Isabella arrived clad in blue wearing a helmet with a diamond in the crest, her horse's velvet mantle matching her clothes. Diambra wore green, the crest on her helmet a serpent of gold. Each lady took up her lance, and when the war trumpet blew, they charged each other with such ferocity that spectators could only marvel at their courage.

After the initial lance clash the women took up the maces, raining blows upon each other's shields. Isabella lost half her shield from a mace hit so powerful her horse stumbled and fell. Diambra dismounted her destrier and loudly demanded that Isabella surrender and admit Fabio de Zeresola was hers by right. Isabella took up her sword and charged Diambra, knocking her to the ground and cutting the straps of her helmet. Then she conceded that Diambra was the victor and to her belonged the spoils.

The news of this remarkable encounter spread like wildfire through the courts of Europe and the story was told for generations. Around a century later, Spanish artist Jusepe de Ribera painted it like a scene from ancient history or mythology.

2. THE COMTESSE DE POLIGNAC VS. THE MARQUISE DE NESLE // CA. 1719

Portrait of the Duke of Richelieu by Jean-Marc Nattier, 1732. // The History Blog 

Weapon(s) of Choice: Pistols

The Comtesse de Polignac had many lovers over the years, but for one of them she conceived such a mad passion that she challenged her replacement to one of the first duels fought with pistols. The casus belli was Armand de Vignerot du Plessis, 3rd Duke of Richelieu, great-grand-nephew of the dominant 17th century statesman and fictional foil of the Three Musketeers, Cardinal Richelieu. The duke's reputation as a ladies' man and manipulator of women was so well-established that Choderlos de Laclos was said to have based the character of Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses on him. When he left Madame de Polignac for the Marquise de Nesle, he completely cut her off, refusing to even speak to her and driving her to ever-increasing heights of jealous frenzy.

When she could take it no more, Madame de Polignac challenged Madame de Nesle to a duel by letter. The chosen weapon was the pistol. The belligerents met in the Bois de Boulogne, saluted each other and fired their weapons. Madame de Nesle fell, her chest red with blood. Polignac, believing it a fatal blow, headed back toward her carriage, but not before hitting her enemy with a so-there line: "I will teach you the consequences of robbing a woman like me of her lover. If I had the perfidious creature in my power I would tear out her heart as I have blown out her brains."

Madame de Nesle's brains were fine. The shot had missed her chest and only grazed her shoulder. When she came to, she exulted that it had all been worth it because now that she had proved her love, the duke would be all hers. Naturally, the Duke of Richelieu immediately dumped the Marquise as a stage-five clinger and moved on to Charlotte Aglaé d'Orléans, daughter of the Regent of France.

3. PRINCESS SOPHIA AUGUSTA FREDERIKA OF ANHALT-ZERBST-DORNBURG VS. PRINCESS CHRISTIANE ANNA OF ANHALT-KÖTHEN // JUNE 1743

Grand Duchess Catherine two years after her first duel by L.Caravaque, 1745, Gatchina Museum. // The History Blog

Weapon(s) of Choice: Swords

Sophia and Christiane were German princesses, second cousins, and still teenagers when they developed a beef that could only be quashed by blood. The insult that drove them to lock swords in Sophia's bedroom when she was 14 and Christiane 17 has been lost to history, and the outcome of the challenge is unknown other than that both parties survived.

It must have been a formative experience for young Sophia. A year later, she converted to the Russian Orthodox religion and was betrothed to the future Peter III of Russia. Her new name was Catherine, and when she ascended the throne of all the Russians, she would be known as Catherine the Great. As ruler, her attitude toward dueling was markedly more tolerant than Peter the Great's had been. He made it a hanging offense, but she reformed the law, making the penalty for dueling a loss of social status. When it came to women's duels, she was even more tolerant: In 1765, she is said to have acted as second in eight different duels. Catherine insisted they only be fought until first blood, however; she disapproved of her court ladies killing each other.

4. OLGA ZAVAROVA VS. EKATERINA POLESOVA // JUNE 1829

Weapon(s) of Choice: Sabers

Olga Zavarova and Ekaterina Polesova were wealthy property owners and neighbors with a long history of neighborly disagreements. One of those disagreements escalated to the point where they decided to have it out once and for all and see who was left standing. Armed with their husbands' cavalry sabers, Olga and Ekaterina met in a birch grove. Their daughters, both 14, were present, and their daughters' governesses acted as seconds.

As per the protocol of the Code Duello, the seconds asked the combatants to reconcile. Not only did they refuse, but they were so riled up they threatened the governesses with violence for trying to stop them.

The duel was short and brutal. Olga took a blow to the head and died on the spot, but not before she stuck Ekaterina in the stomach. In the way of most gut wounds at the time, it too was fatal, but it took Ekaterina a long, painful day to die from it.

5. ALEXANDRA ZAVAROVA VS. ANNA POLESOVA // JUNE 1834

Weapon(s) of Choice: Sabers

Five years after the deaths of Olga and Ekaterina, those girls who had witnessed the violent deaths of their mothers picked up where their mothers had left off. Alexandra and Anna met in the same place, the birch grove, and had the same seconds, their own governesses. This time there was a clear victor: Alexandra Zavarova slew Anna Polesova and redeemed her dead mother's honor.

6. MADAME MARIE-ROSE ASTIÉ DE VALSAYRE VS. MISS SHELBY // MARCH 1886

Artist's rendition of Astié de Valsayre vs. Miss Shelby, Illustrated Police News, 10/04/1886. // The History Blog 

Weapon(s) of Choice: Swords

Madame Marie-Rose Astié de Valsayre was notorious in France for her vocal advocacy of feminist causes, which included women being allowed to wear trousers, get the vote, and have equal access to all professions as well as equal pay. She was also a doctor, inspired to learn the profession after serving as a nurse during the Franco-Prussian War (1870), an author—and an accomplished fencer. She founded a fencing club for women which dovetailed neatly into another favorite cause of hers: encouraging mothers to breast-feed their own children rather than employing wet nurses. The sport, she noted, is great for the pecs and thus great for nursing moms.

The American Miss Shelby was a doctor too, and it was a discussion over the comparative merits of French and American women doctors that sparked the animosity between them. Each considered their compatriots superior and things got heated. Miss Shelby may or may not have called Madame de Valsayre an idiot. Whatever the precise nature of the provocation, Astié gave Miss Shelby the classic glove slap to the face and a duel with swords ensued. They faced off in Belgium on the battlefield of Waterloo. In the second pass, Astié de Valsayre lightly wounded Miss Shelby on the arm, drawing first blood. Astié de Valsayre was declared the winner and the honor of France was restored.

There were no hard feelings. Astié gave Miss Shelby a shoutout as her "loyal adversary" a month later when she wrote to Catherine Booth, co-founder of the Salvation Army, informing her that unless she took her "pernicious doctrines" back home to England, Astié would be forced to demand satisfaction at arms. Mrs. Booth, then 57 years old and a pacifist who was against shedding blood even in self-defense, refused to respond to the provocation.

7. PRINCESS PAULINE METTERNICH VS. THE COUNTESS KIELMANNSEGG // AUGUST 1892

Princess Pauline Metternich, portrait by Edgar Degas, ca. 1865. // The History Blog

Weapon(s) of Choice: Rapiers

This is arguably the epitome of duels between high society women of the Victorian period. Princess Pauline Metternich was the granddaughter of statesman and Napoleonic-era giant Prince Klemens Wenzel von Metternich and the wife of his son Prince Richard von Metternich. (Yup, she married her uncle, her mother's half-brother.) A trendsetter, patron of the arts, and fixture of society in Paris and Vienna in the second half of the 19th century, Princess Pauline was of course involved in many charitable organizations. It was in her capacity as Honorary President of the Vienna Musical and Theatrical Exhibition that she quarreled with the Countess Kilmannsegg, wife of the Statthalter of Lower Austria and President of the Ladies Committee of the Vienna Musical and Theatrical Exhibition, apparently over the flower arrangements for the exhibition.

Whatever was said about those flowers could not be unsaid, and the Princess, then 56 years old, challenged the Countess to settle their dispute by blood. The two adversaries and their seconds, Princess Schwarzenberg and Countess Kinsky, traveled to Vaduz, the capital of Liechtenstein, and took to the field of honor. Presiding over the encounter was Baroness Lubinska who, unusually for women of the time, was a medical doctor—and a Listerite one at that. Her modern understanding of infection proved pivotal. Having seen many superficial battle wounds turn septic and fatal because fragments of dirty clothes were driven into them, the Baroness insisted both parties remove all clothing above the waist.

So the Princess Metternich and Countess Kilmannsegg, both topless, took up their swords to fight until first blood. After a few exchanges, the Princess received a small cut to the nose and the Countess was cut on the arm practically at the same time. The seconds called the duel and Princess Metternich was declared the winner.

None of the contemporary news stories mention the topless thing, but the combination of ladies, swords, and bare breasts was already an established subject for risqué postcards in the late 19th century. The tale of the Vaduz duel—with its all-female, all-aristocratic participants—made them even more fashionable. Ladies fighting with their tops off featured in sticky postcards, stereoscopic views, and nickelodeons. Here are some ladies stabbing it out to the death in a filmed scene from the 1898 Drury Lane stage play Women and Wine.

13 Fascinating Word Origin Stories (That Are Completely Untrue)

karandaev/iStock via Getty Images
karandaev/iStock via Getty Images

Sometimes when the true origin of a word isn’t known (and sometimes even when it is), entirely fictitious theories and tall tales emerge to try to fill in the gap. These so-called folk etymologies often provide neater, cleverer, and wittier explanations than any genuine etymology ever could, all of which fuels their popularity and makes them all the more likely to be passed around—but sadly, there’s just no escaping the fact that they’re not true. Thirteen of these etymological tall-tales, taken from word origins guide Haggard Hawks and Paltry Poltroons, are explained and debunked here.

1. Bug

According to the story, back in the days when computers were vast room-filling machines containing hundreds of moving parts, one of the earliest recorded malfunctions was caused by an insect making its home on one of the delicate mechanisms inside—and hence, all computer malfunctions since have been known as bugs.

This well-known tale apparently has its roots in an incident recorded in London’s Pall Mall Gazette in 1889, which described how Thomas Edison spent two consecutive nights trying to identify "a bug in his phonograph"—"an expression," the article explained, "for solving a difficulty, and implying that some imaginary insect has secreted itself inside and is causing all the trouble." All in all, it appears the original computer bug was sadly a metaphorical one.

2. Cabal

A cabal is a group or sect of like-minded people, often with the implication that those involved are conspiring or working together for some clandestine purpose. In 17th century England, the Cabal Ministry was precisely that: An exclusive group of the five closest and most important members of King Charles II’s Parliament, who, in 1670, signed a treaty allying England and France in a potential war against the Netherlands. The five signatories were Sir Thomas Clifford, Lord Arlington, the Duke of Buckingham, Lord Ashley, and Lord Lauderdale, and it’s the first letters of their five names and titles that formed the cabal itself.

Except, of course, it wasn’t. Cabal is actually a derivative of caballa, the Latin spelling of kabbalah (a tradition of Jewish mysticism), and the fact that these five signatories’ names could be manipulated to spell out the word cabal is a complete coincidence.

3. Golf

Golf doesn’t stand for "gentlemen only ladies forbidden," nor for "gentlemen only, ladies fly-away-home," and nor, for that matter, for any other means of telling someone to go away that begins with the letter F. Instead, it’s thought to be a derivative of an old Scots word for a cudgel or a blow to the head, gouf, which in turn is probably derived from Dutch. The earliest known reference to golf in English? An Act of the Scottish Parliament, passed on March 6, 1457, that demanded that "football and golf should be utterly condemned and stopped," because they interfered with the military’s archery practice.

4. Kangaroo

A popular story claims that when the English explorer Captain Cook first arrived in Australia in the late 18th century, he spotted a peculiar-looking animal bounding about in the distance and asked a native Aborigine what it was called. The Aborigine, having no idea what Cook had just said, replied, "I don’t understand"—which, in his native language, apparently sounded something like kangaroo. Cook then returned to his ship and wrote in his journal on 4 August 1770 that, "the animals which I have before mentioned [are] called by the Natives kangooroo." The fact that Cook’s journals give us the earliest written reference to the word kangaroo is true, but sadly the story of the oblivious Aborigine is not.

5. Marmalade

When Mary I of Scotland fell ill while on a trip to France in the mid-1500s, she was served a sweet jelly-like concoction made from stewed fruit. At the same time, she overheard the French maids and nurses who were caring for her muttering that "Madame est malade" ("ma’am is unwell"), and in her confusion she muddled the two things up—and marmalade as we know it today gained its name. As neat a story as this is, it’s unsurprisingly completely untrue—not least because the earliest reference to marmalade in English dates from 60 years before Mary was even born.

6. Nasty

Thomas Nast was a 19th century artist and caricaturist probably best known today for creating the Republican Party’s elephant logo. In the mid-1800s, however, Nast was America’s foremost satirical cartoonist, known across the country for his cutting and derisive caricatures of political figures. Anything described as nasty was ultimately said to be as scathing or as cruel as his drawings. Nast eventually became known as the "Father of the American Cartoon," but he certainly wasn’t the father of the word nasty—although its true origins are unknown, its earliest record dates from as far back as the 14th century.

7. Posh

In the early 1900s, the wealthiest passengers on cruise ships and liners could afford to pay for a port-side cabin on the outward journey and a starboard cabin on the homeward journey, thereby ensuring that they either had the best uninterrupted views of the passing coastlines, or else had a cabin that avoided the most intense heat of the sun. These "port out starboard home" passengers are often claimed to have been the first posh people—but a far more likely explanation is that posh was originally simply a slang name for cash.

8. Pumpernickel

The bogus story behind pumpernickel is that it comes from the French phrase pain pour Nicol, a quote attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte that essentially means "bread only good enough for horses." In fact, the true origin of pumpernickel is even more peculiar: pumper is the German equivalent of "fart" and nickel is an old nickname for a devil or imp, literally making pumpernickel something along the lines of "fart-goblin." Why? Well, no one is really sure—but one theory states that the bread might have originally been, shall we say, hard to digest.

9. Sh*t

Back when horse manure (and everything else, for that matter) used to be transported by ship, the methane gas it gives off tended to collect in the lowest parts of the vessel—until a passing crewman carrying a lantern had the misfortune to walk by and blow the ship to pieces. Did this ever happen? Who knows. But one thing we do know is that sh*t is certainly not an acronym of "ship high in transit," a motto often mistakenly said to have been printed on crates of manure to ensure that they were stored high and dry while being moved from port to port. In fact, sh*t—like most of our best cursewords—is an ancient Anglo-Saxon word dating from at least 1000 years ago.

10. Sincere

Sincere is derived from the Latin sincerus, meaning "pure" or "genuine." Despite this relatively straightforward history, however, a myth has since emerged that claims sincere is actually a derivative of the Latin sine cera, meaning "without wax," and supposed to refer to cracks or chips in sculptures being filled in with wax; to Ancient Greeks giving statues made of wax rather than stone to their enemies; or to documents or wine bottles without wax seals being potentially tampered or tainted. None of these stories, of course, is true.

11. Sirloin

Sirloin steak takes its name from sur, the French word for "above" (as in surname), and so literally refers to the fact that it is the cut of meat found "above the loin" of a cow. When sur– began to be spelled sir– in English in the early 1600s, however, a popular etymology emerged claiming that this cut of meat was so delicious that it had been knighted by King Charles II.

12. Snob

Different theories claim that on lists of ferry passengers, lists of university students, and even on lists of guests at royal weddings, the word snob would once have been written beside the names of all those individuals who had been born sine nobilitate, or "without nobility." The Oxford English Dictionary rightly calls this theory "ingenious but highly unlikely," and instead suggests that snob was probably originally a slang nickname for a shoemaker’s apprentice, then a general word for someone of poor background, and finally a nickname for a pretentious or snobbish social climber.

13. Sword

In the New Testament, "the word of God" is described as "sharper than any two-edged sword" (Hebrews 4:12). This quote is apparently the origin of a popular misconception that sword is derived from a corruption of "God’s word." Admittedly, this kind of formation is not without precedent (the old exclamations gadzooks! and zounds! are corruptions of "God’s hooks" and "God’s wounds," respectively) but sword is actually a straightforward Anglo-Saxon word, sweord, which is probably ultimately derived from an even earlier Germanic word meaning "cut" or "pierce."

This list first ran in 2014 and was republished in 2019.

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Visit Any National Park for Free on September 28—or Volunteer to Help Maintain Them

Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park
Nick Hanauer/iStock via Getty Images

By the end of September—which always seems especially busy, even if you’re not a student anymore—you might be ready for a small break from the hustle and bustle. On Saturday, September 28, you can bask in the tranquility of any national park for free, as part of National Public Lands Day.

According to the National Park Service, the holiday has been held on the fourth Saturday of every September since 1994, and it’s also the nation’s largest single-day volunteer effort. It’s up to you whether you’d like to partake in the service side or simply go for a stroll, but there is an added incentive to volunteer: You’ll get a one-day park pass that you can use for free park entry on a different day. Opportunities for volunteering include trail restoration, invasive plant removal, park cleanups, and more; you can see the details and filter by park, state, and/or type of event here.

If you’re not sure how you should celebrate National Public Lands Day, the National Park Service has created a handy flowchart to help you choose the best course of action for you—which might be as simple as sharing your favorite outdoor activity on social media with the hashtag #NPLD.

National public lands day celebration flowchart
National Park Service

There are more than 400 areas run by the National Park Service across the U.S., and many of them aren’t parks in the traditional sense of the word; the Statue of Liberty, Alcatraz Island, and countless other monuments and historical sites are also run by the NPS. Wondering if there might be one closer than you thought? Explore parks in your area on this interactive map.

For those of you who can’t take advantage of the free admission on September 28, the National Park Service will also waive all entrance fees for Veteran’s Day on November 11.

And, if you’re wishing a free-admission day existed for museums, you’re in luck—more than 1500 museums will be free to visit on Museum Day, which happens to be this Saturday.

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