"Avert your eyes, avert your eyes — you lustful wretches!" Princess Pauline von Metternich and the first Emancipated Duel

28 September 1921, the Austro-Hungarian socialite Princess Pauline Clémentine von Metternich, if nothing else famous for fighting the alleged first “emancipated duel” with swords near Vaduz in 1892, died at the age of 85 in Vienna.

“At the dueling ground on the fateful day, all formalities were carried out to the letter including an attempt at and refusal of reconciliation. The ladies engaged and, after a few trifling feints and thrusts, a wild slash from the princess brought about a light flow of blood from the countess’ nose. Seeing the injury she caused, the shocked princess, in a stereotypical feminine gesture, threw both hands up to her cheeks. Just then, the countess lunged and pierced the princess through her right forearm. The sight of the ensuing blood caused the respective seconds to faint. The footmen and coachmen, who had been ordered to stand some distance away with their backs toward the action, heard the cries and ran toward the women to render aid. Baroness Lubinska, however, decided the male servants had more salacious motives and attacked them with her umbrella, shouting, “Avert your eyes, avert your eyes — you lustful wretches!” (Probable eye-witness account, quoted after Derek Ware, “Did Women Duel Topless?”)

An early 20th century magazine illustration of the first "emancipated duel"

Prince Metternich was not exactly known for his revolutionary attitudes. Quite a lot of his granddaughter Pauline’s mannerisms, as befitting her rank, were rather not progressive either and would not have caused any comment at the courts of what Frederick the Great called the “petticoat league”, the royal households of Empress Maria Theresa, Empress Elizabeth of Russia and Madame Pompadour, back in the good old days of Absolutism. By wedding her own uncle, Pauline certainly kept it in the family and gave the originally Rhenish House of Metternich an almost Pharaonic slant. She was well aware of class distinctions all her life and did not tire to make her environs aware of them, too. Preferred target of her pride of place and status usually was the Austro-Hungarian Empress herself, Elisabeth of Austria, Sisi, stemming from just a cadet branch of Bavarian royalty, House Wittelsbach, and not quite on par with the Habsburgs. It might have come from Sisi’s inherently artistic streak, writing poetry, having Heinrich Heine making guest appearances in her dreams and what not, but the empress couldn’t care less about court protocol and etiquette and playing Imperial hostess and Princess Pauline, along with Princess Eleonora “Nora” Fugger von Babenhausen, who positively indulged in these things, filled the vacuum left by Sisi and became Vienna’s grand dame. And while cultivating her enmity with the empress, the good people of Vienna dubbed her “Mauline Petternich” (“Maul”, German for bigmouth) for her perpetual gossiping. And she exported these endearing features to France’s Second Empire as well, becoming a close friend and confidante of Empress Eugénie, playing a considerably important role at the court of Napoleon III.

The Austrian court painter Franz Xaver Winterhalter’s (1805 – 1873) 
rendition of Pauline von Metternich in 1860, when the princess was 24 years old.

It’s not that Princess Pauline did not live out her own artistic streak. But as befitting her rank, goes without saying, of course. She was one of the last great Salonnières of the German-speaking countries and a true patroness of the arts, of a surprisingly quite modern persuasion in terms of art if the truth be told. Acquainted with composers from Liszt to Gounod and Smetana, she influenced Napoleon III to downright order the premier of Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” at the Paris Opéra in 1861, socialised with Mérimée and Dumas and was a model for Boudin and Degas. In short, she did take her role as patroness and grand dame rather serious. Having a slight variance over flower arrangements for the Vienna Musical and Theatrical Exhibition in 1892 with her rival Countess Anastasia Kielmannsegg made the Princess call out the latter to an “emancipated duel”. The real thing, of course, fought with the old arme blanche. Highly unusual, but not unheard of, in regards to the two combatants being female as well as the choice of weapons, since swords were, according to the Code Duello, usually reserved for officers and gentlemen in days when the sabre still was a common military weapon. However, pistol duels between two women have been recorded since the 18th century and just six years before, in 1886, Madame Astie de Valsayre fought one American Miss Shelby over the merits of American doctors at the field of Waterloo, of all the places, with épées. But Metternich vs. Kielmannsegg became downright popular as the first all-women “emancipated duel” with both the seconds being female, as well as the mandatory doctor who had to be, again according to the Code Duello, present on the spot. The service was performed by Baroness Lubinska who had, remarkably enough, a medical degree already in the early 1890s, and who came up with a perfectly reasonable but consequential idea, at least in terms of male fantasies: The baroness insisted that the duel was fought topless.

Topless duels - a contemporary French postcard showing the most dramatic seconde parry in fencing history

The idea that soiled fabric pushed into a wound by a bullet or a blade might end with gangrene and a painful death even from minor injuries was actually quite well known among physicians as well as soldiers during the 19th century. However, it was not until the 1870s and the pioneering work of Sir Joseph Lister that the cause of infections and antiseptic surgery became common medical knowledge. Thus, Baroness Lubinska’s insistence had basically no erotic overtones, medical purposes only, but, pretty soon, French postcards began to indulge in the sujet of fencing females, topless, naturally, along with a few oil paintings, stereoscopes and even a silent movie. That day in August, however, near Vaduz, in the more or less independent principality of Liechtenstein, the two combatants were really out for blood and fought in earnest, Princess Pauline, 56 years old by then, literally got her nose bloodied but managed to wound Countess Anastasia’s arm, drew first blood, was declared “winner” and honour was satisfied. What became of the floral arrangements is lost to history, though. The princess survived not only the “emancipated duel” but the two empires she played such an influential role in, the second French in 1871 as well as the Austro-Hungarian one in 1918, published her memoirs and ended her long life in 1921 in Vienna, when the long 19th century and its picturesque follies finally drew to an end and the worship of elevators and such began in earnest.

Edgar Degas: "Princess Metternich" (1865)

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