EBG, Chapter Two

Two warnings: 1. This post may contain spoilers. 2. This post may contain images of insects. Caveat lector!


Seventeen years? And what had Stenwold made of them, save to grow older and fatter, and to lose his hair? (21)

Chapter Two of Empire in Black and Gold is a bit of a bait and switch, taking a step back from the higher stakes of Chapter One. We rejoin an older Stenwold in Collegium, and meet a new cast of characters, students who are introduced to us via a series of duels he watches in the Prowess Forum. A big long essay this time, because I found the details we learn about Collegium society really meaty.

Character introductions

Honestly, I find the transition between the first two chapters somewhat jarring. I’m not sure how it could be fixed, though even something as simple as calling Chapter One ‘Prologue’ would help. Part of the problem is just meeting four more main characters, introduced once again through their behaviour in a fight – and even though, knowing all that will happen, I love them dearly (well, perhaps bar Totho), I don’t think they’re as immediately memorable as Tisamon. Nonetheless, here’s a quick rundown of what we learn.

Cheerwell Maker (Che) is Stenwold’s niece, a Beetle-kinden girl who has lived with him for ten years (38) and who studies in Collegium. A large part of the chapter takes place in her third person subjective perspective, so what we learn about her is partially coloured by her insecurities, especially as she compares herself to her de facto sister, Tynisa.

Such a difference between us! Genuine sisters surely never had to suffer so. Che, like most Beetle-kinden, was short, somewhat plump and rounded, solid and enduring. She tried her best with fashion, but it wanted little to do with her. Her hair was currently cut short and died pale, which was how people liked it last year… (22)

Che’s defining characteristic in her own eyes is that she’s the ‘catch-up girl’ (22), by which she means she has to try harder than other people to have any hope of succeeding at anything:

She was a girl with her hair cut short and her physique cut broad. No Mantis-grace for her, no Ant-precision or Spider-tricks. She was just poor, lamentably named Cheerwell Maker, and she was no good at sports or swords or anything else. (39)

But Che is a very endearing character; she’s funny and dorky and kind, and doesn’t turn her insecurity into resentment of others. Her ‘major contribution to their duelling team’ (23) is to call it ‘The Majestic Felbling’ after ‘the flying furry animals that people across Collegium kept as pets,’ which is such a dumb embarrassing student thing to do. That the other members of the team (especially Tynisa, 24) don’t seem to care gives us a sense that they don’t merely tolerate Che or think they’re above her, and most of all that they don’t take themselves too seriously, either. She’s the one who invited Totho to join the team, and I get the sense this would have been his only chance as a half-breed to take part in the student duels. Her sense of her own inadequacies doesn’t make her a doormat, and she’s perfectly happy to argue against Tynisa fighting someone who she thinks is out to do her sister real harm. (27-8)

Che seems slightly in awe of her uncle, and feels the burden of impressing him.

More than an uncle but less than a father, and she had certainly never been in a position to monopolise his affections. He could be hard work, Stenwold Maker: he expected many things of his niece, and never quite acknowledged when she tried. Whether at scholarship, artificing or, of course, the fight… (38)

She describes him thus:

He was a big man, Uncle Stenwold. He was broad across the waist, and his belt wrestled daily with his growing paunch in a losing battle. He moved with a fat man’s heavy steps. This hid from many people that his sloping shoulders were broad, purposeful muscle moving there and not just the aimless swing of his belly. He was an active sponsor of the duelling houses now, but he had been a fighter himself years before. Che knew in her heart that he could be so again, if he ever wanted. So much of his manner towards the world was calculated to put it off its guard. (24)

In the previous chapter, far from being a fighter, Stenwold thought of himself as a man out of his depth – but now we learn that he used to be a dueller himself. Maybe Che is inclined to see others more positively than they see themselves. (More on Stenwold and how he sees himself, and wants the world to see him, in the political section below.)

Tynisa. The other member of Stenwold’s household is his Spider-kinden ward, ‘tall and slender’ and ‘fashionable’ with long, golden hair. (22-3)

Tynisa’s origins are mysterious to Stenwold’s acquaintances, but also to Che:

How in the world Stenwold had come by a Spider-kinden ward, or what strange dalliance had produced her, had always been a matter of speculation. Nobody held it against her, however. Everyone loved Tynisa. (23)

This is very much Che’s take; the sponsor of the other duelling team, Master Townsman Magnate Inigo Paldron, refers to her ‘with a sneer barely disguised within the walls of polite conversation,’ (27) so I suspect some people do in fact hold it against her.

We learn that Tynisa is confident at duelling, if potentially not as good as the reigning champion Piraeus, and that she’s also capable of Spider-kinden psychological warfare – which has a decidedly sexual, gendered edge. Though she makes an effort to appear laid-back, ‘elegantly lounging’ (25) through much of the chapter, she’s quite concerned for the welfare of her team-mates: note that ‘she seemed more worried for Salma than she had been on her own account’ (29) and that she’s the one to warn Totho of Adax’s post-bout attack (37). And that’s about all we learn, for now.

Salme Dien (Salma), the third member of the duelling team, is a newcomer to Collegium (28), an exotic and graceful Prince of the Dragonfly Commonweal:

He was beautiful, as nobody was more aware of than himself. Golden-skinned and midnight-haired, he was a foreign dignitary from a distant land who, it always seemed, had just deigned to favour them with his presence. (23)

I find his name interesting; in our world, both Salme and Salma are female given names, with Salme from the Estonian for poem and Salma an Arabic name associated with peace and safety. I don’t know if the associations with courtly and effeminate nobility are intentional, but they are fitting.

Salma is kind of a condescending arse, but he’s charming enough to make it work, handsome and always smiling. Through his comments about Totho, he’s heavily implied to be Inapt and to see mechanical work as beneath him. (34, 37) Like Tynisa, he’s reasonably confident in his duelling abilities, but interested in appearing nonchalant. Or maybe he simply is nonchalant: perhaps because of his various advantages and privileges, Salma doesn’t seem to take anything too seriously.

In that he couldn’t be more different from Totho, ‘a strong-framed, dark youth with a solid jaw and a closed, careful face that bore the stamp of mixed parentage,’ (24) a halfbreed apprentice artificer and undeniable pessimist. Whenever Totho speaks, he seems to do so ‘gloomily’, ‘darkly’, (28) ‘tiredly’ (34) or ‘glumly’ (33) – though perhaps this is unsurprising, given the racism he has to face on a daily basis. (More on which below.) He’s hypersensitive to others’ opinion of him – note his constant assessment of Kymon’s attitude – and he hungers for the approval of those who treat him with kindness, whether Stenwold, Che or the rest of the duelling team. (35, 37)

Che’s opinion of Totho is that ‘he was as much of a catch-up as she was,’ (23) although given that he was the one who helped her with equations, he’s clearly academically brighter than her. This is far from the last time that someone underestimates Totho. Apparently, he’s not so great at swordplay; though they don’t say so in front of him, the moment he leaves to fight his match, Tynisa and Salma have this somewhat condescending exchange:

‘He’s going to take a beating, no two ways.’
‘Oh surely, agreed Tynisa.
‘Can’t you two have a little faith?’ Che asked them.
Salma spread the fingers of his good hand in a lazy gesture. ‘Dear one, I’m fond of the little halfway and I’m sure he does his…’ Another vague gesture. ‘His tinkering like a master, but he’s not so good at this.’ (34)

We get a chance to judge for ourselves what kind of swordsman he is, when we switch to Totho’s POV for his fight with Adax, an Ant. It’s probably the most interesting bout in the chapter, whatever Kymon thinks. (36) Totho quickly decides that his only advantage over the Ant is being an outsider who can ‘outthink him’. (35) In fact, whilst he doesn’t quite manage this, he does prove his indefatigable determination as he manages to cling on for much of the bout without being hit – staying a step ahead, ‘holding, holding’ and relying on his stamina – before reacting instinctively to break Adax’s nose. (36) His rare grins at having drawn a stalemate with a bully who hates him based solely on his parentage are my highlights of the chapter. Stubborn commitment, combined with his understandable insecurity, will continue to be the keynotes of his character going forwards, and I look forward to seeing how his behaviour evolves over the book.

Political analysis

There are two levels of politics I want to talk about in this chapter: the higher political plot, and the socio-political workings of Collegium.

The advancements of the first are quite simple: we learn that Stenwold has continued to warn the Lowlands of the Wasp threat, such that ‘[f]rom artificer and idealist he had become politician and spymaster.’ In the years between chapters, he has established ‘cells of agents […] across the Lowlands,’ at least some of whom are recruited ‘from among the College students.’ (21) Though we only get hints at how this information network functions (Flies are used as messengers, and there’s also some element of counterespionage) we do hear the name of another figure involved – Scuto, who is based somewhere outside Collegium – and that Stenwold’s patronage of the duelling court is one element of his training and recruitment process. (21-2)

His open political activity has apparently been less effective.

He had tried to spread the word of invasion to a people who did not want to hear. […H]e had fought with words against the conservative nature of his people, who just wanted to be left to their commerce and their provincial squabbles. He had stood before the Assembly of Collegium and made speeches and arguments and pleas of warning until they had begun to stay away whenever his name was listed as a speaker. (21)

A nice hint at one of the relative disadvantages of a city democracy against the single-mindedness of a centralised military system. And in the mean time, while Stenwold has been turning into an ignored expert/Cassandra, the Wasp Empire have been advancing their world-empire agenda:

Instead of westwards, their armies had struck elsewhere: undertaking a brutal war of conquest against their northern neighbours. Oh, there had been merchants and travellers, and even the occasional diplomat sent by the Black and Gold, but no armies. […]
It would come masked. There would not be armies at first. The Wasps would come with smiles and open hands, promising peace and prosperity, but Stenwold’s spies had told him of the march of thousands, the sharpening of swords. […] He knew the Empire had not been idle. It had been keeping its blade good and sharp these past seventeen years. (20-1)

Stenwold sees the Wasps as duplicitous, preferring a soft takeover but always ready for a hard and bloody one. A fun detail is the mention of ‘open hands’: usually a sign of peace, for the Wasps this is of course a way to exercise their Art-given stinging attack.

On a character level, Master Maker worries that he has become too complacent and wasted his chance to prepare the city: ‘He had settled back comfortably in his home city, made himself influential […] He had since become the College Master indeed.’ (21) This ties nicely into my second political theme, namely the ambivalences of Collegium society. Having learned a bit about the cosmopolitanism of Stenwold’s city, and heard mention of its democratic Assembly, this chapter does a nice job of illuminating some of its elements of social division, inequality, and exclusion. Tchaikovsky himself points this up in an excellent blog post:

The Beetle-kinden are arguably the most enlightened kinden by our standards – after all they have humanitarianism, democracy, scholarships for the poor – surely they’re the touchstone for virtue? But in the interactions between the Collegium masters and magnates, and much more so when you get to the grime of Helleron, it’s easy to see that the Beetle-kinden have a far from perfect society – their elected Assembly is crammed with merchants and the idle rich, and haven’t you noticed, in a world which is by no means male-dominated, how many of the leading Beetles seem to be men…

Stenwold’s POV tells us quite a bit about money, power and class in Collegium. In his opposite number in the duelling court (Inigo Paldron, who we’re clearly meant to judge both unpleasant and ridiculous), we get a sense of the mercenary nature of some of the city’s Assembly.

This was a good example of the way the affluent classes of Collegium were heading, he reflected sadly: a squat man with a receding hairline who was clad in robes of blue, red and gold woven from imported spider silk. There were rings cluttering his hands and a jewelled silver gorget beneath the third of his chins, to let the world know that here was a man interested in things martial. Each item of clothing and jewellery was conspicuously expensive, yet the overall picture was one of vulgarity. (25)

It’s easy to find Paldron’s ostentatious display of wealth distasteful; Stenwold clearly does. Unlike the artificer, who tries to appear unassuming and nonthreatening (remember Che’s observation, 24), Paldron uses his appearance to make more of himself, even wearing armour as a fashion accessory. He also tries to buy success in the duelling court by paying Piraeus, the old champion, to fight on his sponsored team:

It was, Stenwold reflected, just another problem with the great and good of Collegium today. Give them a famine, a war, a poverty-stricken district or a child shorn of parents and they would debate the symbolism and the philosophy of intervention. Give them some competition or empty trophy and they would break every rule to parade their victories publicly through the town. (27)

Despite the moralising edge, I think Stenwold’s judgement is less of wealth as such than it is of Paldron as parvenu. (After all, you don’t get a foreign prince on your own duelling team by accident.) There’s an interesting exchange over titling that is worth quoting at length:

‘Kymon,’ Stenwold acknowledged. The Ant-kinden raised his hand to his mouth, a soundless cough that perhaps hid a small smile.

‘My apologies. Master Gownsman and Armsman Kymon of Kes,’ Stenwold continued formally, and the Ant granted him a fraction of a bow.

‘Master Gownsman Stenwold Maker,’ he replied. ‘The Collegium Society of Martial Prowess recognises your sponsored house and invites you to name your charges.’


Stenwold watched as another Beetle came forward. […]
‘Master Gownsman and Armsman Kymon of Kes,’ said the newcomer with a flourish.

‘Master Townsman Inigo Paldron,’ Kymon acknowledged. Master Paldron pursed his lips and made an urgent little noise. Kymon sighed.

‘Master Townsman Magnate Inigo Palsdron,’ he corrected. ‘Forgive me. The new titling is but a tenday old.’

‘I do think that, when the Assembly of the Learned spends more time debating modes of address than civic planning, something has gone seriously wrong with the world,’ Stenwold grumbled, not quite joking. ‘Just plain “Master” was always good enough for me.’

Master Townsman Magnate Paldron’s expression showed that, in titles as in other ornament, he was unlikely ever to have more than he was happy with. (24-6)

There’s quite a lot here to unpick. First, as Kymon makes sure to point out, Paldron has only just been made a Magnate. He’s a man on the up-and-up, still making his money. Yet more than that, he’s unable to pass socially because of his obviously nouveau riche concern with manners and status. He’s very careful to address Kymon correctly, and cannot let it pass when he is not given his full title in return. But you know who isn’t hung up on titles? Stenwold Maker, who observes that ‘Just plain “Master” was always good enough for me.’ There’s a little irony in arguing that titles don’t matter whilst simultaneously referring to their shared differentiating status: they’re both Masters, and that matters, even if being a Magnate or otherwise should apparently be by-the-by. This is an egalitarianism, such as it is, that exists between elites.

Reading this passage, I can’t help but think of nineteenth-century liberalism: an ideology that argued for the inherent equality of free individuals, whilst placing implicit limits on who counted as a free individual. Much has been written on these half-concealed hierarchies of liberalism, but one neat summary is in Judson’s essay on the Austrian case:

The universal concept of the reasonable individual provided a foundation for all kinds of liberal political theory […] Behind its optimistic façade, however, nineteenth-century liberalism implicitly harboured the growing fear that there exist individuals in all nations who, on whatever grounds, do not make reason the guide of their existence. And if we move from their universalist rhetoric to examine specific liberal attitudes towards citizenship, we find that these invisible, unreasoning beings actually constitute a majority of the world’s inhabitants. […]

Liberals claimed that the independence of mind so necessary to citizenship was reflected in the degree to which an individual had achieved financial independence. […] In barring non-tax-paying residents from access to the decision-making process liberals not only imposed an implicit hierarchy on humanity, they also connected the trait of reasonableness to income level. […] “Degree of education” [w]as a recognised alternative sign of reasonableness to property ownership. […]

As long as education offered an alternate route to reasonableness, it would technically be possible for even the poorest worker or the most ignorant Slav to gain full rights of citizenship. […] Noting that “People are not free in one blow, they become free, they develop and educate themselves to freedom,” Berger [an Austrian student liberal in 1848] argued against giving the masses complete liberty and citizenship until they had received enough education to make use of it. [1]

I don’t wish to stretch the comparison with the universe of the books too far; we haven’t yet learned about citizenship and voting rights in Collegium. Nonetheless, the two main categories of people sitting in the Assembly – the rich, and those who teach at the College – reflect these nineteenth-century citizenship requirements of education and/or property.

For the moment, however, I’m even more interested in Stenwold’s lack of concern for Kymon’s title. I don’t think this is a case of disrespect; Kymon doesn’t seem to feel slighted, and given the way the Beetle later thinks about the Ant (30), I’d say the two are on good terms. Rather, comfort with his position as (at least) the Ant’s equal allows Stenwold to address Kymon on a comfortable first-name basis. Stenwold’s disinterest in formality is its own kind of status symbol, like unselfconsciously bad table manners for nobles: it’s the middle classes who have to learn how to do things properly, perhaps from an etiquette guide, and not old money. Note that he’s perfectly aware of Kymon’s proper title, and can deliver it with an eye roll when required. Kymon himself is also better at playing the game of upper-class manners than Paldron; his ‘soundless cough’ and hidden smile reassure Stenwold that he doesn’t mind too much what he’s called, but you know, one has to be seen to do things properly. Compare that to Paldron’s ‘urgent little noise’, which makes it far too evident that what he’s called does matter to him, and therefore marks his social status as insecure.

Further, as with his internal observation about buying Piraeus’ services, there’s a moralising edge to Stenwold’s judgement on titles: he believes Assembly members should be thinking about higher things. Of course, being constantly concerned about city planning (rather than mere survival – or, for example, trying hopelessly to ensure the respect of your colleagues) is also a luxury. This is the civic-minded equivalent of judging others for not buying organic food.

Perhaps I’m being a little harsh, because Stenwold isn’t entirely without self-awareness about his own comfortable life:

I should use a mirror more often, Stenwold thought wryly. He might himself own only to the white robes of a College Master, but his waist was approaching the dimensions of this merchant lord’s… (25)

Stenwold knows on some level that his own gestures towards minimalism are no less of a display than Paldron’s vulgar maximalism; they both have the money to eat well, and his white robes, representing as they do his position in the College, are a status symbol in and of themselves. He would probably argue that he tries to do something more worthwhile than Paldron with his comfortable life, and perhaps that as a Master Gownsman, he has earned his status in Collegium in a more justifiable way than sheer wealth. I don’t entirely disagree with him, but town-versus-gown is a different kind of elitism, not its absence.

One last note on class: whilst power from wealth or education each have a theoretically meritocratic element, and indeed there is evidently a degree of social mobility in Collegium, in both cases inheritance matters. Totho, the least privileged character we meet in this chapter, awkwardly makes this explicit:

‘He’s only in the team because of his uncle,’ declared Totho before he could stop himself, and then he grimaced at the look of hurt that Che tried desperately to hide.

Because of his uncle, she was thinking. Well, that’s a broad net these days. (38)

There are advantages bestowed on the descendants of the elite. The Prowess Forum allows the exchange of skill for fame and glory, yes, but participation in the duelling society – something of a status marker, given the desirability of sponsoring a team – is about who you know, not ability. Note that this is true for Totho, though in his case it’s about luck, as well as for Che, who gets her position through nepotism. The difference is that Totho has less to be defensive about.

Alongside and intertwined with class, the chapter touches on race and gender as meaningful power dynamics in an enlightened society. The Lowlands prejudice against halfbreeds like Totho is severe:

It was said, with good reason, that the people of the Ant loved nothing more than fighting their own kind, their brothers from behind different city walls. In truth, there was one thing they took even more joy in, and that was punishing halfbreeds. Totho attended the Great College on an orphan scholarship and there was Ant-kinden and Beetle-kinden blended in his ancestry. Even on Collegium’s cosmopolitan streets, a halfbreed had a hard life. In the harsher world outside it meant exile, slavery or, in the last resort, law-breaking. (34)

Indeed, Adax calls Totho ‘slave’ during their fight (36); Ants bring their prejudices with them to the Beetle city. Yet Totho believes that his background is a mark against him for Beetles, too, hoping that Stenwold can ‘see him in a favourable light, perhaps look past the accident of his birth.’ (35)

Though it’s not an exact analogue (at least from the Beetle point-of-view, neither Spider nor Mantis-kinden are inherently inferior), there’s something to be said about Tynisa and Totho as alternative takes on racial passing, something with a particularly rich history in America. Tynisa, who as far as nearly everyone knows is Spider-kinden, is socially accepted, whereas Totho belongs nowhere. Obviously, there are multiple elements at play: presumably appearance alone makes it harder for Totho to pass, but there’s also the fact that no one expects a halfbreed Mantis-Spider-kinden, because of their intense mutual hatred, and that Tynisa’s privileged social position as Stenwold’s ward protects her from a great deal of racism (presumably people must wonder if she’s not a Spider-Beetle hybrid). In terms of passing, the way identities inflect each other can give someone the benefit of the doubt. [2]

Further interactions between money and race are highlighted by a pair of actions from Paldron. Despite the ancient and implacable race hatred between Mantis and Spider (which Everyone Knows Is True, though we’re already seeing a fair amount of holes in it), his ‘mere money’ gets Piraeus and Seladoris to fight on the same team. (27) On the other hand, what bribery presumably couldn’t achieve, the combined power of racism and elitism can when Adax isn’t disqualified for his illegitimate attack on Totho:

had the victim been anyone but a lowly halfbreed, perhaps it would have even led to the whole team being disqualified. Inigo Paldron was already bustling up to make his unctuous apologies, however, and Totho knew it would not go any further. Kymon shot him a look, though, as he went to rejoin his colleagues, and it had a certain recognition in it. Adax was from the city of Tark, Totho reflected, and Kymon himself from the island city of Kes, and so perhaps the old man had not minded seeing a traditional enemy brought low. (37)

I mean… given that they’re not duelling at the time, it’s not just against the rules, it’s attempted assault with a weapon. But from Totho’s point of view, any sympathy from Kymon must just be about a contradictory form of racism.

Once again, these differential attitudes to race are a realistic part of our own world’s Enlightenment history, which I think Collegium is meant to reflect. As Outram puts it,

Enlightenment, for all its universalist claims, had much difficulty in finding a place for social groups – not just women, but also lower social classes and other races – which previous historical periods had equally defined as outside the central human community. [3]

Universalism effects its own exclusions, all the while masking them in a way that makes them difficult to talk about.

Finally, gender. So far, sexism isn’t immediately a major element of the Shadows of the Apt universe. Chapter One showed male and female Ant soldiers, and this chapter demonstrates that female spies, students and duellists exist without comment. Yet there is a definite male bias to Collegium nonetheless: the entire other duelling team, both sponsors, and the Master Armsman are male, and for that matter, so is much of the language of politics (Master, Townsman, Gownsman). A further sign that power in the Lowlands is implicitly masculine and only incidentally female becomes apparent when Che thinks about Spider society.

In the cities of the Spider-kinden it was the women who pulled the strings and made the laws, and also the women who had the deadliest name in private duel… (28)

This is a somewhat quibbling point, perhaps, but the phrasing ‘it was the women who…’ suggests that female-dominated Spider cities are being contrasted not to egalitarian Beetle society, but to an implicitly (if rather benignly) patriarchal norm. For women to pull the strings, make the laws, and win the duels is unusual enough to Che to be worth acknowledging.

These subtle political dynamics – of gender, class, and kinden, as well as others I’ve not discussed, like Aptitude – are not at all casual; they’re built up with consistency and complexity in the series, and they matter to the characters we follow, as well as to many of the plots. I’m sure I’ll have many more opportunities to opine on the various ambivalences of emancipatory ideologies in the cultures of the books.

Historical analysis

The College duelling society might seem an odd idea, an attempt to insert the excitement of knightly tournaments into a university setting, but such an effort has some solid historical precedent in the Central European Mensur. [4] In this final section, I’ll talk about a bit about that inspiration, as well as the history of duelling and fencing more generally.

The duels between the Majestic Felbling and Golden Shell are not intended to result in serious injury, or fought as a result of issued challenges: they are a kind of sport. (38) I think it’s implied, however, that Collegium’s present day fencing has evolved from an older tradition of trial by combat, which is often seen as one of the historical roots of the European duel. [5] This would explain why the Prowess Forum is also known as the ‘duelling court’ (22). Trial by battle in history depends on the religious associations of the ordeal; the winner does not win because they are better at fighting, but because they have God/Providence on their side. In the markedly non-religious world of the books, I think we get a sense of what might have acted as a symbolic guarantor of the trial by combat instead of a god in the ‘walls that, by ancient tradition, each had an open door’ (29; a form of justice legitimated by its openness to the public?), and perhaps in the ritual salute of the book before a bout of fencing begins – though this might also be a more recent excrescence. (30-1)

I’m not going to talk so much about the general extra-legal duel fought to defend one’s honour; though this has a rich and fascinating history in many countries, the tournament structure and publicly condoned nature of the Collegium duels make many elements of this comparison (the insult, the challenges, seconds, the need to agree weapons, rules and a time and place to fight) irrelevant. To me the duels in this chapter seem to be halfway between these affairs of honour and contemporary sport fencing, bearing some elements of each.

Enter the Mensur, ‘an exercise in aggression checked by accepted rules.’ [6] By the time of unification, many German aristocratic or officer duels were fought with pistols, but students held fast to the duel with swords.  Other differences between academic and non-academic duelling cultures were also increasingly evident. In particular, rather than as a reaction to perceived social affronts, the majority of student duels were Bestimmungsmensur, duels by arrangement. [7]

The Mensur was (and is) a tradition of various German Studentenverbindungen:

the Landsmannschaften, the oldest; the Burschenschaften, the least conservative; and the Corpsstudenten, the most elite. Each organization had subdivisions called corporations, and a given university might sponsor any number of these. Other groups permitting extra-curricular dueling existed […]; however, the aforementioned trio constituted the Holy Trinity of Mensur, and of these the Corps was godhead. [8]

As described in the famous passage from Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad, bouts of Mensur would be arranged between different corporations, and held before an audience of fellow students. Although technically illegal after 1883, Mensur were rarely prosecuted, in part because members of student associations who had participated in the Mensur were heavily dispersed into the upper reaches of the state after graduation. (This old boys’ network reached right to the top: Kaiser Wilhelm II was himself a Corpsstudent, and spoke favourably about fencing. If you read German, there’s an interesting article about his student life here.)

What do we learn about the style of duelling in Collegium, and how much does it resemble Mensur? Well, the duels take place in a ‘circle of bare, sandy earth, raked after every bout, contained within a square of mosaic,’ (29) and the bouts are timed, stopping when the clock runs out or one of the duellists leaves the circle. (33) Mensur bouts were also timed (apparently 15 minutes was the norm), and a circle was sometimes drawn around the combatants; retreating outside of it was looked down on as unmanly. The style of fighting, however, seems to be different. In this chapter, the duellists wear padded arming jackets and heavy leather offhand gloves, and their swords are ‘mere wood covered with a thin layer of bronze.’ (30) There’s a lot of movement in the way they fence, and there are particular fighting systems the students learn, as recorded in fencing manuals:

Salma was immediately on the offensive. He was fighting in proper Prowess style, leading with the edge of the blade, feet tracing a geometry of arcs and sudden straight advances. His free hand was up at chest height, leather gauntlet ready to deflect the Mantis’s strikes. There was nothing that was not book-perfect, from the prints in the fencing manuals, until every so often he threw in something else… (31)

As the Mensur evolved over time and became increasingly ritualised, the weapons and fighting style changed. Thrust fencing using some kind of rapier was the norm in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and where the duel was fought without a knob tipping the weapon, participants faced the attendant danger of a punctured lung. The high level of fatalities led to a phasing out of thrust fencing in favour of cut fencing, usually using a Korbschläger or Glockenschläger.



Images from Adolf Meyer, Neue Schule des kommentmäßigen akademischen Schlägerfechtens (Leipzig 1906), p.12.


Check out the goggles (Paukbrille). ‘Der Herr Paukant’ by Georg Mühlberg, c.1900.

Clothing worn by student duellists also varied, but in modern Mensur some kind of armour for the torso, neck and wrists became the norm, along with distinctive metal goggles. Twain’s describes the fencing gear he observed thus:

They were bare-headed; their eyes were protected by iron goggles which projected an inch or more, the leather straps of which bound their ears flat against their heads; their necks were wound around and around with thick wrappings which a sword could not cut through; from chin to ankle they were padded thoroughly against injury; their arms were bandaged and re-bandaged, layer upon layer, until they looked like solid black logs. These weird apparitions had been handsome youths, clad in fashionable attire, fifteen minutes before, but now they did not resemble any beings one ever sees unless in nightmares. They strode along, with their arms projecting straight out from their bodies; they did not hold them out themselves, but fellow students walked beside them and gave the needed support.

Although Twain exaggerates for comic effect, the somewhat static fencing style this clothing fits them for – standing still and hitting each other, basically – is echoed in some other nineteenth-century descriptions. Mensur bouts arguably neglected footwork and defence in favour of attacks aimed at the face, which might deliver sought-after duelling scars. All that being said, I’m quite unequipped to compare the specifics of how Mensur were fought with the ‘Prowess style’ mentioned in Chapter Two, beyond ‘probably less footwork’ and ‘more aiming for scars’. There is a vast amount of information about historical fencing of various schools available online, and if your interest is piqued by Empire in Black and Gold‘s mention of fencing manuals, it might be worth going down an internet wormhole here, for example. And regardless of the details of technique, the duelling society in the book does resemble historical examples of duelling as an unofficial component of university education.

I can’t get no Satisfaktion

Practitioners [of dueling] saw it as fulfilling an auxiliary pedagogical function: as an “educational device for manly courage.” It was a martial compensation for the softening effects of book-study, of the merely intellectual life, and just as it toughened the body, it also steeled the will and showed the world that even callow scholars could be obdurate in the face of something more daunting than Greek and Latin grammar. As an antidote to the pedantry of soulless erudition, the Mensur was “a moral examination.” [9]

Just a game. A sport. True, the city was mad on sports just now, with the Games commencing in a mere tenday’s time, but this duelling was still only an idle pastime for College students. It didn’t matter whether she won or lost here. The taking part was the thing. (38)

Duelling, bound up as it is with the theme of honour, is a beloved subject for historians interested in gender and class. Indeed, the three were interdependent; it was class or rank that made someone Satisfaktionsfähigkeit, that is, capable of giving satisfaction, possessed of honour, and therefore able to take part in a duel. [10] Even with the arranged Mensur, taking part, and behaving in a suitably masculine fashion, was a matter of honour; it was not simply a game. And although Che tries to reassure herself that duelling is only a sport, there are signs that in the world of the books, too, honour and class are deeply implicated in bouts of fencing.

What makes something a duel and not simply a fight is debatable, but in the eyes of early modern and modern duellists, it owed something to its supposedly ritterlich (knightly or chivalrous) inheritance. As these associations imply, not everyone was entitled to duel, and in an odd way, duelling someone (whether in an arranged bout, or because of a perceived slight) was a mark of respect and equality. If someone beyond the social pale insulted you, you would simply box their ears, not exchange calling cards. Now, nineteenth century duels are especially interesting, because although duelling is typically associated with the nobility, in the German case I’ve discussed, the two major sites of duelling – universities and the military – were institutions where the bourgeoisie were in the ascendant, and the political rhetoric of this class was, broadly speaking, one of equality and the rule of law. Historiographical discussion has therefore often focused on the problem of how to reconcile the exclusive and aristocratic nature of duelling with its increasingly bourgeois participants. Crudely speaking, the question can be boiled down to this: did these latter-day duels represent the feudalization of the bourgeoisie, that is, their capitulation to aristocratic norms, or the embourgeoisement of previously-feudal society?

Germany is historiographically prominent in part because duels were more persistent there up to the First World War than say, England, but even more so because the German Bürgertum was already under the Sonderweg microscope. Was it in some way abnormal, or deficient, directly resulting in the Third Reich? I think the very question is stupid (to mention only a few points, European countries that remained liberal democracies until the Second World War were the exception, not the norm; and what is supposed to have happened to this weak German bourgeoisie during the Weimar Republic?), but historians of duelling like Kevin McAleer sometimes do answer in the affirmative:

the duel in Imperial Germany was not only a major impediment to the development of a strong bourgeois social identity, but it was also a significant barrier to German success in the democratic sphere. [11]

Duels led to fascism – you heard it here first. In this take on the relationship between duelling and the German bourgeoisie, he is especially at odds with the work of Ute Frevert and Lisa Fetheringill Zwicker. As with many historiographical debates, however, the question of influence between aristocracy and bourgeoisie might be six of one and half-a-dozen of the other: at a time when the European bourgeoisie were increasingly powerful and prominent, they adopted an aristocratic practice in order to increase their own social status by association. Expanding slightly the narrow circle of those deemed satisfaktionsfähig was a claim to bourgeois equality, but it was not at all a disavowal of elitism. There is no reason to equate this to ‘feudalization’, and in fact – as I discussed above – this kind of tension between universalist claims and particularist practices was stitched into the fabric of liberalism, that traditionally bourgeois political ideology.

This interpretation of a strong middle class adapting a code of honour to their own ends, perhaps with a heaping spoon of ‘invented tradition’, seems to fit Collegium, most definitely a bür­ger­lich (indeed, post-bourgeois-revolution) society. Contextualising the duelling society in this way also gives a different slant on Totho’s duel. If the practice of duelling, even when it is apparently only for sport, is linked to proving one’s honour, then when Adax angrily calls out ‘Fight me, slave!’ this is not only because he wants to inflict a beating on the halfbreed. Totho’s refusal to fight offensively – what might be extrapolated as the swordfighting equivalent of firing a duelling pistol deliberately wide – seems to Adax to be an insult to his honour; Totho is not deigning to duel him, implying that Adax is not capable of giving him satisfaction. Looking at it this way also made me rethink the Ant’s attack on Totho after the formal bout ends: on one level, sure, he’s angry that he didn’t win, but on another, to attack outside the constraints of the duel puts Totho back in his (race- and class-appropriate) place. Adax doesn’t want a rematch; he just wants to hurt and humiliate an inferior who deserves it, and who was never satisfaktionsfähig in the first place.

In fact, we get a hint at this before the fight even takes place. To quote again:

It was said, with good reason, that the people of the Ant loved nothing more than fighting their own kind, their brothers from behind different city walls. In truth, there was one thing they took even more joy in, and that was punishing halfbreeds. (34)

To fight one-on-one implies equality, at least of a limited kind. Ants don’t fight halfbreeds: they punish them, something quite different.

Page references within the text refer to the 2012 Tor edition of Empire in Black and Gold. 


[1] Pieter M. Judson, ‘Rethinking the Liberal Legacy,’ in Steven Beller (ed.), Rethinking Vienna 1900 (New York, 2012), pp.57-79; these quotations excerpted from pp.62-66.

[2] Intersectionality, amirite. There’s a huge literature on passing, and I don’t pretend to any kind of expertise, but one relevant and interesting essay is Valerie Smith, ‘Reading the Intersection of Race and Gender in Narratives of Passing,’ Diacritics 24.2-3 (1994), pp.43-57. I’m hoping there are untold multitudes of works on these themes in the fantasy genre, but I haven’t found them yet.

[3] Dorinda Outram, The Enlightenment (Cambridge, 2013), 3rd edition, pp. 94-5. Many people far cleverer than me have written about exclusion and universality; for example, see Étienne Balibar, ‘On Universalism: In Debate With Alain Badiou,’ February 2007, accessed at eipcp.net/transversal/0607/balibar/en.

[4] I can’t be bothered with italicising German words, so I’m not going to, but there will be a fair few in what follows.

[5] V. G. Kiernan, The Duel in European History: Honour and the Reign of the Aristocracy (Oxford, 1989), pp.33-37; though note that others see it as a less important precursor than the joust, e.g. Jennifer Low, Manhood and the Duel: Masculinity in Early Modern Drama and Culture (Basingstoke, 2003), pp.12-16.

[6] Peter Gay, The Bourgeois Experience Victoria to Freud, Volume III: The Cultivation of Hatred (London, 1993), p.9.

[7] Lisa Fetheringill Zwicker, ‘Contradictory Fin-De Siècle Reform: German Masculinity, the Academic Honor Code, and the Movement against the Pistol Duel in Universities, 1890–1914,’ History of Education Quarterly, 54.1 (2014), pp.19-41; Ute Frevert, Men of Honour: A Social and Cultural History of the Duel (Cambridge, 1995), Chapter 4.

[8] Kevin McAleer, Dueling: The Cult of Honour in Fin-de-Siècle Germany (Princeton, NJ, 1994), p.125. This book is overwritten and sometimes sophomoric, more on which below, but it is good on the interesting specifics of duelling codes and practices, and many of the details of the Mensur in this section are drawn from it.

[9] Ibid., pp.140-1.

[10] In addition to the works already cited, see Pieter Spierenburg, ‘Masculinity, Violence, and Honor: An Introduction,’ in Spierenburg (ed.), Men and Violence: Gender, Honor, and Rituals in Modern Europe and America (Ohio, 1998), pp.1-29; and Mika LaVaque-Manty, ‘Dueling for Equality: Masculine Honor and the Modern Politics of Dignity,’ Political Theory 34.6 (2006), pp.715-40. McAleer estimates that 5% of the German population – he does not clarify whether by this he means only the male population – was satisfaktionsfähig: McAleer, Dueling, pp.35-6.

[11] Ibid., p.208.

If you would like to discuss this chapter or any of the points I’ve raised here further, please do leave a comment!


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