That time when a countess duelled a princess

In 1892, honour demanded that two women settled their dispute sword in hand. The Countess Anastasia Kielmannsegg and Princess Pauline von Metternich fought each other over flower arrangements.

Painting of Princess Metternich by Eugène Boudin.

The Princess Pauline von Metternich wasn’t just anyone. Her mother was Princess Leontine von Metternich-Winneburg (1811–1861), the daughter of the Austrian state chancellor Prince Klemens Wenzel von Metternich. Klemens was the creator of the Concert of Europe, a sort of alliance between the great powers of Europe to quench revolutions, nationalism and restore order and uphold status quo in matters of conflict. The period under which the Concert of Europe was in effect is sometimes called the Age of Metternich, that should tell you something of their importance.

A most famous princess

Pauline’s father was a famed horseman of the Hungarian noble family Sandor, and she also made quite a name for herself. She hung out with artists (both Degas and Boudin painted her portrait), and thinkers, and she was a close friend to French Empress Eugénie. Pauline also loved fashion and modern music and became a promoter of composers Richard Wagner and Bedřich Smetana, and she was instrumental in the creation of haute couture.

The cause for the duel

The Princess Metternich, painted by Degas

Maybe it was her sense of style that was offended in 1892, because she got into an argument with the Countess Anastasia Kielmansegg over the flower arrangements at Vienna Musical and Theatrical Exhibition and ended up fighting her in a duel. At their sides they had the seconds Princess Schwarzenberg and Countess Kinsky. More importantly perhaps, Baroness Lubinska provided medical assistance. She had a degree in medicine and had seen war wounds that were infected, so she insisted that they fight topless. Now, anyone familiar with imagery of female dueling also knows that this type of fencing has created quite a bit of erotica, but although the notion caused a bit of a stir at the time, according to some sources they still wore corsets.

The duel itself was carried out in August 1892 in Vaduz with rapiers. During the course of the action Pauline received a tiny cut to the nose, whereas Anastasia was stabbed in the arm. Who won is disputed, but since both restored their honour, it could be said they both did.

Emancipated duels

Fencing topless wasn’t a new thing in 1892. There are plenty of images with topless and nude female duelists from as early as the 18th century. But the duel between the Countess and the Princess was different, because it wasn’t just the duellists who were female, but also the seconds and everyone else present. This type of female single combat is now known as an emancipated duel, because the duellists are topless for their own sake, and the duel is fought for real reasons and is not displayed to entertain men.

Fencing in the buff. A popular theme in shameless magazines and on postcards.

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