When we think of historical duels, we may tend to imagine two men handsomely dressed wielding pistols or swords over some offense to one party’s honor. One particular duel, however, presents a very different picture of honor battles. Not only was it between two women; it was between two women fighting topless.
Atlas Obscura has been running a series of short videos about unusual duels, and the first video in the series offers a brief account of an 1892 duel between two Viennese noblewomen, Princess Pauline von Metternich and Countess Anastasia Kielmannsegg.
The rivalry between “Princess Paulina” and the Countess Kielmannsegg was apparently so well known that it was documented in the Vienna society pages of the British women’s magazine The Lady’s Realm. In one issue, the magazine reported, “The Countess Anastasia, who is Russian by birth, is very ambitious, and has a great talent for arranging entertainments of all kinds, and during the mourning of the Princess Paulina she has come more to the front than ever and has been most indefatigable. She is young enough to be the daughter of her rival in good works, and, like her, is possessed of an untiring energy.”
In the summer of 1892, Princess Pauline was the Honorary President of the Vienna Musical and Theatrical Exhibition and Countess Kielmannsegg was the President of the Ladies’ Committe of the Exhibition, and the two clashed over some of the arrangements for the Exhibition. (Several sources claim it had something to do with the floral arrangements.) Heated words were exchanged, and the two women agreed to settle their differences with a duel.
Robert Baldick, in his book The Duel: A History of Duelling, explains that women sometimes had male champions fight on their behalf in duels. However, in late 19th century Europe, there was a movement toward encouraging “new women” to fight for themselves. (He cites the example of Séverine, a female journalist who had a colleague fight for her in a duel to defend an article she had written. She was censured by the Paris League for the Emancipation of Women.) Gisèle d’Estoc (who herself supposedly dueled with another woman, actress Emma Rouër, and inspired Emile Bayard’s lithograph “Une Affaire d’Honneur” [NSFW]) said that a woman who employed a male champion was committing a “deed of inferiority.”
The Metternich-Kielmannsegg duel was therefore an “emancipated duel,” because all the parties involved were women. The duelists seconds were the Princess Schwarzenberg and Countess Kinsky, and a woman even presided over the duel: Baroness Lubinska, a Polish woman who had a degree in medicine.
So why on Earth were they topless? According to Atlas Obscura and the Women of Action Network, that was Baroness Lubinska’s idea. The duel was not supposed to be a deadly one, but the baroness noted, that if a piece of dirty clothing was pushed into a wound, that would would be more likely to become infected. It would be much safer, she reasoned for the rapiers to touch only bare skin. So she instructed the combatants to strip down to the waist and ordered the male servants off in the distance to look away.
The combatants met in August 1892 Vaduz, the capital of Liechtenstein, and dueled with rapiers to first blood. The Princess Pauline was the victor in the third round, when she was injured slightly on the nose but also drew blood from the countess’s arm. The report in the Pall Mall Gazette says that, once the round ended, the seconds “advised them to embrace, kiss, and make friends.” But the idea of topless duelists captured the imagination of many folks, with images of women, breasts bared and swords crossed, appearing in paintings and erotic photographs of the era.