Crossing words and swords

Reputation has always mattered and status has always been important. Claiming status, saving face, stepping up that ladder so the others are forced to climb down is a game we all play. Off and on the page. The great merit of writing and literature is that the game played on the page doesn’t lead to loss of life, as it often does in disputes, challenges and battles. People don’t kill each other over written words. They might eviscerate each other in fiction, but the disputes don’t leave the page.

Not always, though.

According to an (unsourceable) story first quoted by Alain de Botton, a literary man killed his cousin in duel in 1702 because the latter had accused him of not understanding Dante. It isn’t clear what had led to the disagreement, but the incident, if genuine, shows that letters can kill. Besides, Dante is not easy to understand, so if misunderstanding the somma poeta is cause for violence, then we should all be running for our lives.

Some people, like the Dante-reading cousin, died for words that had been written. Others died for words that would not be written, said or accepted. In 1532, Thomas More was executed after refusing to sign the Oath of Supremacy and the Oath of Succession under Henry VIII.

Thankfully, most disagreements over words, semantics and hermeneutics won’t get one killed. Scholars may cross swords on the page, they may hack each other to shreds in reviews, articles and books, but at the end of the day, they can go safely to bed.

3 thoughts on “Crossing words and swords

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  1. Well, d’Artagnan duelling with Aramis over a passage from Augistin seems entirely plausible in the Three Musketeers. Maybe that duel in 1702 was also really about some lady’s embroidered handkerchief? Love and letters stand very well for each other…
    Most recently though, there was a murder over Kant, as well as a fatal dispute over the prevalence of poetry over prose. People are still passionate about these things…


    1. How fascinating, thanks. It makes one wonder, are poetry/literature/philosophy/words the cause sine qua non of these disputes or just the catalyst? Anyway, we are a competitive species, and everything we make or do should be a cause of bickering.


  2. Well, the booze is the catalyst for sure, bringing out man`s innermost thoughts and desires. The case of poetry dispute, it`s fairly simple: Pushkin is “Russia`s everything”, so to claim that prose is better is a sacrilege (even though Pushkin has written a lot of prose, but he is popular mostly as a poet). With Kant, it`s a bit more tricky, but if the dispute was around the notion “is Kant a Russian or a German philosopher”, it could easily have ended in mayhem and murder.


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