The Real-life David and Goliath?
November 23, 2011 9:43 AM   Subscribe

Champion warfare according to Wikipedia is the type of battle where the outcome to decided by a duel between two opposing soldiers. This seems like a pretty common trope in ancient literature - David and Goliath or Hector and Achilles - but has it ever been recorded in real life?
posted by John Frum to Society & Culture (14 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
If you get back far enough, it's kind of hard to separate real life instance from literary instances, for example the the Horatii in Livy might not have happened, but it's presented as if it did (or at least could, Livy can be slippery).

This wikipedia article outlines many examples, most are fictional, but some are from chronicles and could have happened.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 9:49 AM on November 23, 2011

Consider a smaller scale, that much of formalized dueling was not one man vs. one man, but really the end point of gang or clan or political warfare. For example, the famed Burr-Hamilton duel was really about warring political parties.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:56 AM on November 23, 2011

An English knight tried to take down Robert the Bruce, alone, before the battle of Bannockburn. This wasn't a planned event, more of a chance encounter between two men who were slightly separated from their forces. The English knight had his head cleaved open by Robert, and the battle proceeded anyway; it's arguable if it had been Robert who was killed whether or not that would have had an impact on the battle.
posted by Coobeastie at 10:00 AM on November 23, 2011

TVTropes has a dozen real life instances at the bottom of the relevant article. Usually the weaker party proposes the combat, and the stronger party declines; on the rare occasions when a duel actually takes place, the battle continues regardless of outcome.
posted by Iridic at 10:01 AM on November 23, 2011

One of Tom Wolfe's big points in The Right Stuff is that manned space flight was essentially pitched as single combat between the Heroic Mercury 7 and those horrible commie Cosmonauts. But he's talking metaphorically.

(which is too bad- Alan Shepard should have boxed Yuri Gagarin in orbit)
posted by COBRA! at 10:11 AM on November 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Actually, a version of champion warfare can be found in early medieval conversion narratives; there's often a "my god is better than your god" contest where the high priest on one side and Christian saint on the other duke it out over who has the best powers. St Columba has a battle over the weather with some Pictish priests; there's a 'which one of us will stop this drought' in (I think) Kent, and so on.
posted by Coobeastie at 10:19 AM on November 23, 2011

It's not a perfect example, but the chess games of Bobby Fischer vs Boris Spassky were certainly viewed as symbolic combat between the US and USSR. Mind you, I don't think history would have been any different had Fischer ultimately lost...
posted by machinecraig at 10:49 AM on November 23, 2011

Coobeastie, what you're describing is a copy of the Biblical duel between the Biblical prophet Elijah and the priests of Baal (1 Kings chapter 18) . The challenge was to determine which of their gods was real by calling on their respective gods to set fire to a sacrifice on the altar. The priests of Baal performed a useless fire dance. Elijah took some time to smack talk them ("call a little louder, maybe your god is sleeping") then cast METEO.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 10:53 AM on November 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

Trial by combat was a method of Germanic law to settle accusations in the absence of witnesses or a confession, in which two parties in dispute fought in single combat; the winner of the fight was proclaimed to be right. And in England, trial by battle.
posted by londongeezer at 4:16 PM on November 23, 2011

The Combat of the Thirty was fought during the hundred years war between two picked teams. It was not fought as a method of deciding anything in particular, but rather as a sort of (very brutal) tournament, so that all involved could gain renown.
posted by agentofselection at 9:23 PM on November 23, 2011

The practice of each side selecting an agreed number of champions to settle a dispute by combat is recorded in Scottish clan warfare, (e.g.), but can't think of an instance where it was one against one; often a dozen men a side IIRC.
posted by Abiezer at 10:47 PM on November 23, 2011

Here's another famous one, with a bit of cheating involved.
posted by Abiezer at 10:49 PM on November 23, 2011

This kind of thing, or a variant where each side chooses an equal number of soldiers to represent them, turns up several times in Herodotus. Not that everything Herodotus wrote about actually happened, but it might have. Here's a lengthy article.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 2:21 AM on November 24, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks everybody! Fascinating stuff. These links will keep me busy for days to come.
posted by John Frum at 4:26 AM on November 24, 2011

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