In a peacetime, urban, non-military context, how often were swords drawn in an unpremeditated context? Ignore any context in which an individual is directed to draw a sword, or contexts like a duel where drawing of the sword is announced. How frequently was the sword drawn in drunken brawls, in self defense, in the heat of anger, etc. ( I suspect there is a formal legal term for such action, but I don't know it).

I see many period pieces in which swords are worn. I am not sure how accurate they are with regard to them even being worn but what I am really wondering about is how commonly at any point in history using them to settle arguments as opposed to dueling was. It seems like in cities, resorting to a deadly weapon would have been a big deal even in the middle ages but I don't know.

EDIT: The question seems to imply that it was at some point usual but I try to explain that I can accept it never was usual. What I am interested in is, was there ever a time when swords were used as frequently as say fists were in 19th century USA and this was considered okay because both parties were armed or was use of deadly force a very serious legal matter always and if not, when it did become so? Maybe people in England did not carry swords as much as movies would imply.

  • I was under the impression that dueling was a way of using them to settle arguments. Dec 24 '17 at 9:19
  • @KillingTime: But duels are formal things involving seconds, etc. I am wondering if two guys would have pulled out swords during a drunken brawl or if they would have stuck to fists unless it was a serious argument.
    – Jeff
    Dec 24 '17 at 9:41
  • This seems based on a counter-factual - that the use of swords do resolve impromptu arguments was usual for some extended period before a given occurrence, time, or period. Only assuming this counter factual does the question make any sense. Dec 24 '17 at 11:24
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    I don't understand the distinction in this phrase "using them to settle arguments as opposed to dueling was." - could you edit that into the question? I read your response to @KillingTime; I think that should be edited into the question, but I think that "usual" is goign to get complicated. I think you're looking for something like criminal records that would indicate the prevalence of armed assault. ... I'm groping for the right terms, as I think you are.
    – MCW
    Dec 24 '17 at 14:29
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    A good source of information on this kind of thing might be Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature. IIRC England does get orders of magnitude more violent as you go back in time.
    – user2848
    Dec 24 '17 at 22:44

In The Jury and the English Law of Homicide, 1200-1600 T. A. Green outlines much of the history of modern British legal jurisprudence for murder. In summary:

  • From Anglo-Saxon times, the distinction arose between emendable slayings (what we might term as non-premediated slayings) and unemendable slayings.
  • The punishment for emendable slayings was monetary compensation to the kin of the victim, and is well documented back to within a century of the Anglo-Saxon conquest of England.
  • The honour culture (of revenge through feuding for emendable slayings, has been replaced by a dignity culture (of accepting monetary compensation for such) sometime between Alfred's time (late 9th Century) and the 11th Century.
  • Henry II's legal reforms eliminate the distinction between emendable and unemendable slayings, and the consequent concept of monetary compensation for the former. All felonious homicides became capital offenses punishable by hanging, with only a very weak, threshold, definition of malice necessary.

  • At no subsequent time was the employment of deadly force, other than in self-defence or certain judicial or quasi-judicial circumstance, legally acceptable behaviour.

So to address the specific question:

By the time of King Alfred it was already legally unacceptable in England to employ deadly force for the resolution of impromptu arguments. Punishment varied by era and circumstance, from hanging to monetary compensation, to forfeiture of property and chattels to the Crown as well as gaol time (in exchange for a Grace Pardon). One was, however, allowed to defend oneself from deadly attack, though at times only if physically constrained so as to make any thought of escape clearly impossible.

During the Plantagenet era there is overwhelming circumstantial evidence that, in general, juries crafted statements of facts found specifically to enable the finding of self defence for defendants regarded by the community as being of good character and substantial societal value. This practice disappeared after the Tudor legal reforms redefined trial juries, removing their evidence gathering power and beginning the modern practice of making them impartial arbiters of the facts.

Note also that for peers of the land, trial juries were composed exclusively of other peers of the land.

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