In the summer of 1892, a peculiar and unexpected event is said to have taken place involving two aristocratic women: they fought a duel with swords while completely topless. The Viennese royal Princess Pauline von Metternich and the Russian-born Countess Anastasia Kielmansegg stripped off their girdles and their tops to slash swords until blood was drawn. Even though this sounds like a ridiculous situation, the duel was fought topless for a good reason.
The Vienna Musical Theatrical Exhibition
The event that caused this duel to come about was the Vienna International Exhibition being held that year. Inspired by the popular World’s Fairs, the Exhibition was to be the first showcase of the musical and theatrical talents of the city, as well as the rest of Europe. Vienna was the perfect location for the event, as it was home to several famous musicians such as Joseph Haydn, Ludwig von Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and many others.
As members of high society, both the princess and the countess volunteered to help in the planning and organization of what was expected to be the biggest event of the year. The princess served as the honorary president, while the countess acted as the president of the ladies’ committee serving in the Exhibition. As each woman had their own sense of power and authority, it seemed inevitable that the two would butt heads.
The princess challenged the countess to a duel
At some point during the planning of the Exhibition, the princess and the countess reached a disagreement. Perhaps it seemed inevitable, considering that the princess was well into her 50s at this point, and had spent the majority of the year mourning the loss of her husband, while the countess was a spritely 32 years old, and was rising through the ranks of the Vienna social scene.
The princess may have felt she was being replaced by the young countess, so she stood her ground on their differing opinions about the floral arrangements that would decorate the Exhibition. Their argument must have been pretty significant, as it resulted in the princess challenging the countess to an old-fashioned duel. At this time, duels involving two women were rare, but this disagreement was described as so serious that the only way to resolve it was by blood.
A female medic told them to take their tops off
The countess accepted the bold challenge. As both women were part of the social elite, they agreed that a formal duel with rapiers would be the proper way to settle their argument. It is important to note that this duel was never intended to be to the death. Instead, the winner would be declared as the one who drew first blood.
It took place in Vaduz, the capital of Liechtenstein, and the two aristocrats brought with them their female seconds, as well as Baroness Lubinska. She was a female medic, a rarity for the era, who had earned her doctor’s degree and was an early supporter of the principles of Joseph Lister. Baroness Lubinska was from Warsaw, Poland, so she had to be sent for to oversee the duel. When she arrived, she had some strange advice for the women.
The baroness told the ladies to strip from the waist up and fight the duel while topless. She then sent away their male servants so the women could proceed with the duel in privacy. While it may have seemed odd to request that the women remove their tops, especially given the time period, she had good reason to suggest it. It came from a place of practicality rather than any kind of sexual motivation.
Removing their tops was a precaution for infection. The baroness explained to the women that she had seen too many times where minor wounds inflicted in situations similar to theirs had become infected due to strips of clothing being forced into the body. Although the baroness may not have necessarily understood the science behind infection, she still suggested that the ladies avoid this potential danger and carry on with their duel half-naked. She would then do her best to treat any wounds they might incur.
The princess was victorious
With the two ladies stripped down to just their skirts, they began their sword fight. During the first and second rounds of the duel, the women fought tirelessly but neither was able to land a hit on the other. However, in their third round, both women landed hits on one another. The countess was able to make a light scratch on the princess’s nose, while the princess successfully made a cut on the countess’s arm.
Their seconds, Princess Schwarzenberg and Countess Kinsk, examined their wounds and agreed that the countess’s cut was the more sizeable of the two, and declared the princess the victor. Following the duel, the seconds were able to convince the aristocrats to move on from the whole situation and make up, advising them to hug it out and become friends, which they did.
This was one of the last major duels of the era, as warfare technology was advancing and swords were becoming obsolete as effective weapons. Social status was also becoming more connected with wealth than with family heritage, so one’s honor wasn’t as easily damaged by others. This reduced the number of duels being challenged.
As the fight between these two women took place during one of the earliest women’s rights movements, it was seen as a prime example of women being capable of participating in the same activities as men. These ladies proved they could fight their own duels, not needing to employ a man to fight for them and submit themselves as inferior. It also become known as the first-ever “emancipated duel,” as it not only involved two female fighters, but also female seconds and a female medic.
The duel made several newspapers, although doubt has been cast regarding the accuracy of the story
As you can imagine, news of the topless duel fought by two aristocratic ladies spread quickly. The Pall Mall Gazette wrote about the event in their August 23, 1892 issue, saying, “No small sensation has been made by the report of a duel between two ladies of the high Austrian nobility. The Princess Pauline Metternich, the Honorary President of the Vienna Musical and Theatrical Exhibition and the Countess Kilmannsegg, the wife of the Statthalter of Lower Austria, and President of the Ladies’ Committee of the Exhibition had a fearful quarrel over some arrangements at the Exhibition. The affair was regarded as so serious that it could only be settled by blood.”
The story made it all the way to America, where the Los Angeles Times wrote of the duel: “It was a real fight, and both were wounded – no hair pulling or plain scratching, but a duel with rapiers.”
There are, of course, some who doubt whether this fantastical-sounding event ever took place. There are no official statements from the duel’s participants. A French newspaper printed an alleged denial by the princess, however, this was a secondhand account that is not verifiable today. Further, a writer researching the matter was unable to locate any news stories from Austria, where the duel allegedly took place.
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Regardless, the highly unusual story has endured and has been retold countless times throughout the years.
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