In this week’s episode, I continue our exploration of our iconic Emancipated/Topless/Flower duel, its main players…and its facts and fictions. MORE scandalousness, queerness, Opera, fashion, flowers…and SWORDS.
Hello and welcome. To Bustles and Broadswords. This is a podcast about women with swords throughout history, fiction and the queer territory in between. I’m your sword-wielding and storytelling host, Claire Mead. And today we’re continuing our story from last episode. If you’re joining in and haven’t tuned in to part 1 because you like living life on the edge, here’s a brief recap.
Meet Princess Pauline von Metternich. This sounds like one of those teen movies…Actually Pauline out of all the people we cover would be great for a Mean Girls type movie.
She’s a 19th century trendsetting Austrian aristocrat who spends most of her life being an ambiguous gal pal to an Empress, casually starting new fashion trends and being an opera influencer. That’s when she’s not planning the biggest events with maximum flower power. But a challenger approaches in fin de siècle Vienna – Countess Kielmannsegg who is challenging her authority when it comes to maybe the one thing it would have been best not to challenge – her taste choice concerning flowers in an event all about opera. Pauline issues her challenge in response – a sword duel. Yeah. If you’re just stepping in you must think…that’s already a lot. And to those who joined in the first half, you may be clamouring – well what about the part where they both fence topless?! Oh yeah. It’s a lot. But when it came to weird duels fought over petty reasons…we’ve also covered (pun FULLY intended) that this was a Thing.
So now let’s look at the duel, its fallout, and all of the gender feelings.
Which leads us back to our confrontation…many months after the initial challenge. Because a duel was a serious affair. I mean…its preparation process. Not always its cause, as we’ve seen. Or…heard. Usually there was limited rushing outside to solve this in the moment. Tradition would have called for a careful preparation in terms of letter exchanges between the two opponents, determining a day, a time and a suitable spot. I mean…if it kind of sounds like a date…you’re not wrong.
Duels had mostly been a huge source of casualties over the past centuries. And many still took place with swords, pistols or other inventive weapons. Like…I assume…at some point in history…sausages. And despite numerous attempts to prevent this it in previous centuries there were still several cases of duels to the death. Even though the general, less bloodthirsty rule was that a person would win when they hit a person first – and drew first blood. Presumably because it was getting increasingly awkward when you had to avoid an acquaintance at a dinner party because you stabbed their cousin to death over a play they didn’t like.
I mean, we’ve all been there.
So the right choice of location was a must to avoid any kind of trouble with the law. And Liechtenstein at the time was an independent principality where things were low-key enough for two aristocrats from Austrian high society to duke it out discreetly without getting arrested. Whatever the subject of their quarrel was. And whatever their gender was.
So let’s get back to our chaotic fools. Because if they’ve chosen the location, they still need to choose the weapons. And no, this wouldn’t be a pair of sausages. I just can’t get over the sausages. Guns would have made sense, with Pauline’s sharpshooting skill. But the story, much to our delight and the Internet’s, goes with…swords.
By all accounts, in a late century of pistol-wielding, a pretty old fashioned choice. But it may also have spoken to both ladies’ aristocratic backgrounds and rooting in Viennese culture. Which was at the time obsessed with fencing – taught as much to men as it was to women. And as much as we know very little about Anastasia, we do have one engraving of her in full Russian traditional costume – sporting at her belt, a delicate but deadly saber.
Even though, on the day of the duel itself, like her opponent, she would be sporting a rapier. And on that day in August of 1892, it must have been…quite a sight. The older Princess ready to face off against the ambitious debutante. They stare at one another, with steely determination – seconds by their side.
Wait, what by their side? Oh yeah! Seconds!
Seconds in a duel are witnesses to the fight. They can provide balance and vouch for the person they are seconding in the case of cheating and other foul play. They could also step in as replacements as needed. These two seconds, according to newspaper accounts, were Princess Schwarzenberg and Countess Kinsky. Is this a Princesses vs Countesses tag team situation? Potentially.
But there was yet another woman present. And she’s kind of a game-changer. Because her alleged recommendations took the vibe of this fight and its either semi or fully fictionalised account in later centuries from 0…to 100.
Introducing the duel’s official doctor – Baroness Lubinska.
There is frustratingly little about the Baroness in historical records if we rely on the assumption that, like the other figures in this story, she is a real person. Most of the information I can find about her is that she was a Polish medic from Warsaw who may have been involved in medical work on the battlefield. Now many of the people who claim this entire story is false also go a sexist step forward. And go so far as to say…“well besides, women wouldn’t have been allowed to practice medicine at the time so any mention of a woman being a doctor is false.”
Because famously, women don’t do anything unless they are legally allowed to. Duh!
I have a confession. I don’t like the quote “well-behaved women seldom make history” because it’s often twisted out of context and it favours the idea of exceptional lady badass rebels over different kinds of women in history. And in doing so, tends to favourise a certain flavour of said badass lady who is very white and straight. But…let’s not pretend women didn’t break sexist laws all the time.
Why don’t we actually look at some facts in terms of that particular claim? Because why have a podcast if you can’t have a tangent on Polish women doctors in the 19th century? I mean what’s even the point…? The sword point? [pun goblin laughter] Well first we have the tale of Regina Salomea Pilsztynowa who was the first Polish woman doctor we know of…as early as the 18th century. But more around Baroness Lubinska’s time, we also have Anna Tomaszewicz Dobrska who got her medical degree in Switzerland, worked in Paris and Vienna…and despite being forbidden from passing the Polish state exam several times to try and become a member of the Polish Society of Medicine, said “screw you all,” passed her exam in St-Petersburg to practice in Poland and Russia and…then led a maternity shelter during an outbreak of childbirth infection in Warsaw in 1882. Oh…yeah…that was just before becoming the first woman to perform a Caesarean section there in 1896. Oh and then we also have Mélanie Lipinska who was not only a Polish physician but became a historian of women doctors in the early 1900s.
So…Just like the histories of women who fought, just because it was uncommon – didn’t mean it didn’t happen – and that the women involved didn’t fight tooth and nail to make it happen.
So let’s also go with the assumption that, yes, the Baroness has been called to attend in her capacity as a doctor. And according to some articles the Baroness was not just standing around offering her help. She was specifically sent for – travelling all the way from Warsaw to provide her services. The Baroness would have tended to the fighters’ wounds. But she wasn’t just ahead of her time because she graduated from medical school and had experience working on the battlefield. You know, tending far more serious injuries caused by far more serious reasons.
She was also an early supporter of germ theory, which argued that germs could cause deadly infections. A fact that we are all acutely aware of at this stage. And as a trained medic, she also had first hand experience of what happens when people are badly wounded and are wearing a lot of different layers of clothing. Infection. And by that logic, any piece of fabric from the waist up – because in this duel, any strike below the waist would be a foul – might compromise either lady.
So in our legend we don’t just have two nobility ladies ready to duke it out.
We also have a pioneering woman surgeon urging them to remove their shirts.
We’ll get back to that.
The first round is about to begin. And it starts off slow, and cautious at first perhaps, before slowly picking up momentum.
One thrust, and the other swerved with a skillful feint, and things still looked relatively tame. By the second round, you might even say not much was happening, as neither Princess nor Countless were landing a hit. With blades clashing and twirling but failing to meet their mark.
Until…the third round.
It starts as the others had, in a swish of feints and thrusts, before…Countess Anastasia makes her move. And with a slash of her blade, strikes Princess Pauline fairly on the bridge of her nose.
From which a faint trickle of blood starts to drip, staining the grass beneath their feet.
The Countess, upon seeing this, realises for a split second that…verbal sparring is one thing. Actually going for someone’s face and causing a flesh wound is another. And as she drops her blade, her hands fly to her face, in visible shock at what she just did.
This is first blood.
And as we know this signals the end. But Pauline, visibly pissed off at having been giving the equivalent of a blood-inducing boop on the nose, takes advantage of this shock…and takes her revenge. With a lunge, she pierces Anastasia’s right forearm, from which blood, to no one’s surprise, gushes as well.
The seconds upon seeing this, take action within seconds.
By promptly fainting.
Fine, seconds. You do your thing.
And the footmen and coachmen who had been asked to turn their backs away from the whole thing as men…hear shouts of pain and shock. And turn around to go help, much to their credit.
Except Baroness Lubinska, who probably saw far worse and wouldn’t have really seen much cause for alarm around two small flesh wounds she could easily heal, let’s say…misinterprets their actions.
She lunges towards them, in her hand a formidable weapon…her umbrella, yelling “Avert your eyes, avert your eyes—you lustful wretches!”
So with that I’d like to add a new subsection to this podcast about ladies with swords. Not ladies with edged weapons no, although we have axes and spears galore as far as our next guests are concerned.
But…for now…let’s give it up for…ladies with umbrellas.
At some point the chaos eventually subsides. And presumably comes the moment to actually decide…what the hell is going on. Who wins? It’s…unclear. Some accounts document the Countess striking on the nose first – but in others it’s actually the Princess.
And honestly that sounds pretty on brand for her as well.
But now that the drama is over, the two seconds, waking up from their bout of fainting, have decided that’s enough excitement for one day. Which, fair enough.
And they ask Pauline and Anastasia to please make up, embrace and kiss.
And…Look. I’d love to tell you this is a fiery enemies to lovers situation where they suddenly make out but this was most likely a demure kiss on the cheek. Or a hug. But really, we don’t know. All we know is that the story ends with their seconds literally demanding they hug it out and a return to Vienna by carriage. And most importantly to put this whole story behind them.
Which, if this ever happened in any shape or form…spectacularly failed.
So…Is this a legend or a real-life anecdote? We don’t know, but newspapers of the time went with it regardless. With a range of them across different countries excitedly recounting the terms of the duel. Pauline soon shuts this down – and makes a public statement in a French newspaper saying this was “a ridiculous invention by Italian journalists!”.
You know, those pesky Italian journalists…
Denial such an event ever happened could have, of course, been damage control. And we don’t have enough evidence to place it in the real-life category. But could it have happened? Save a few crucial details, yes. The fact that the two duellists’ rivalry is well documented at this stage…that we know all the main players’ names and that the event itself was reported on at the time gives us enough space to at least speculate. Even if we can’t confirm.
And leaves us with another enigma. If this happened – would it have been topless? Well, fans of the blade and boob assortment…I’m sorry to burst your bubble but…unlikely. For more than one reason.
Believe it or not, there is in fact another instance, in the UK, of two MPs choosing to duel one another. And one of them, the next morning, MP Humphrey Howarth, obviously not over his night of drinking, choosing to…strip as he turned up for his duel. Not from the waist down. Completely.
And probably still not be the weirdest thing that happened in Parliament.
By which point I should confirm this happened in the same century as our duelling ladies, in 1806. And not last Thursday. Also – that in some stories he’s at least got underwear on.
Humphrey Howard’s hammered hunch was based on the idea that layers of clothing could cause infection but he chose to take it a step too far. His opponent, of course…backed out. Because going for a completely exposed opponent isn’t exactly glory-inducing if you win. It just kind of feels like common sense and hardly an earned victory.
So what would this have meant? Well, remember Pauline’s love of fashion and high society’s general obsession for a great quantity of fabric and layers. Too much of it WOULD cause infection. So when and IF the baroness asked for some layers to be removed, it makes sense that they would have stripped down not literally…but to the thinnest layer possible. To ensure no infections while having a baseline of protection. Such as a thin chemise that would have essentially have been an undergarment.
Now obviously this is the 19th century. So even if it’s not actually a nipple fest, it’s still pretty revealing for two high society ladies to be so pared down in what was essentially a historical bra. And if we rely on word of mouth and the power of a snowballing rumour, that’s perhaps how things would go from…a light top to fence with more ease and less risk of infection to partial nudity, baby.
Well, that and…people loving a juicy, salacious story. It’s like the tale of the naked drunk MP. Doesn’t it sound more compelling or you know, scarring if he’s NOT wearing any underwear? And what’s more scandal-inducing than two high society ladies sparring shirtless? Most importantly, the very nature of this kind of story and its retelling and presentation tell us a lot more. It tells us about the strange sexualized fascination the 19th century had around women with swords. Both to be objectified and ridiculed. We have a clue as to how this legend may have emerged in the first place. And, in terms of a subset of visual culture, its long term ripple effect.
Or should I say – nipple effect.
To study this up close and personal we walk up to a painting. It is by Emile Bayard and it’s called An Affair of Honour. And it’s quite a trip. Let’s have a closer exploration of this painting. We’re in the middle of the countryside, with the sky indicating the very start of morning with its pale blue and wisps of pink. On the left, three women all clad in dark clothing, from head to toe…gawk with quiet shock and a tinge of fascination. One of them clutches the other. On the right, a fourth woman recoils in more visible shock and horror. What are they staring at?
Two women, in visibly brighter clothing that makes them stand out against their dull, drab and earthy-toned surroundings. One in red and the other in light pink fabric. Their ruffles and expensive, satin-like renderings making them quite similar to the fashion of the ladies surrounding them. The only quite noticeable difference? This fabric clads them only from the waist down. And the ripple of the fabric is only matched by the gleam of their swords. Two fencing foils, crossing and clashing as the painting captures a mid-duel snapshot.
That’s right. The painting…of a topless duel.
One that became immensely successful and found itself being reproduced everywhere.
Seems like a pretty cut and dry case right? If not an accurate rendering of the Topless Duel, at least reflecting the moment the rumour started to spread.
The painting was finished in 1884.
Almost a decade before our legendary duel.
And that brings us to an interesting phenomenon. Looking at the actual articles about the duel around the time…none of them ACTUALLY bring up the toplessness. The idea of the doctor being there is reported on. But the idea of her batting away servants with an umbrella from topless duellists she herself asked to strip is…definitely not verified by any of the newspaper sources I could find which had already been busted by Pauline.
The sources of the toplessness – and the Baroness’ umbrella exploits – emerge in later accounts. When the story had already started to snowball.
But even before then…search topless duelling on Google and you find yourself facing a real avalanche of risqué vintage ephemera. Mostly involving very scantily clad women poking one another with swords. This included postcards but also stereoscopic views. Which are separate images that you’d see as a whole complete 3D image by looking through a stereoscope. That’s right – the 19th century equivalent of 3D glasses for the privilege of seeing spicy lady swordfighting!
And of course…countless reproductions of Bayard’s image which, for many, came to represent the fateful duel between our Princess and Countess. Even though we don’t actually know who the ladies in the painting were actually meant to represent. According to some interpretations, the place they are duelling is the Bois de Boulogne, a popular site for duelling at the time on the outskirts of Paris. And which was also known, already at the time, as a place for sex work. The fighters themselves are often interpreted as being sex workers. Which is hard to confirm. But also a reminder that upper-class women were not the only women working things out with swords.
And while Pauline may have had countless reasons to deny the duel ever happened, maybe this association…to raunchy pre-existing art and the implications of behaviour linked to a class lower than hers…may also have played a part. As much as the idea that her words carried strength that a blade didn’t have to. It is possible that both women sparred – verbally. And some have even interpreted that the strike on the Princess’ nose could have been a metaphor for a cutting comment on her appearance. But a rumour’s a rumour. So here we are centuries later…neck deep in images of sword-fighting and stripping.
And in the end, what’s better – for nothing to remain of your legacy aside from the rumour of a now internet-breaking duel, or a very well documented life that is glossed over in favour of that one event? Ultimately, Anastasia died at the age of fifty one – and was outlived by Pauline. Who passed away well in her eighties. We don’t really know what Anastasia’s deep feelings were about this duel – and whether or not she ever gave her side of the story.
But Pauline harboured deep annoyance and concern over the last three decades of her life, that this would be the one thing she’d be remembered for. Dying in 1921, she lived through a slow decline. And saw the Austrian Empire that has once been at the heart of her privileged, glittering life fall apart. By then she had sold her carriage to supplement her income. And her last ball was from decades ago – the Gold and Silver Ball in January of 1902 at the Sophiensäle theatre in Vienna.
With its glimmering extravagance and outfits, with its music and drama, it reflected her own life – and the legacy she left behind defined by far more than just one moment.
And yet ironically without that one moment she hated – many of us today wouldn’t know about all the rest. The real moments, the legends and those fragments that resist being pinned down as real or false, as history or story…
We probably won’t ever know the truth. But one thing is for sure. The Internet has loved and latched onto this story with the same gusto as late 19th century newspapers. And it’s not hard to see why. We get sucked into gossip and scandal all the time. It’s in our nature. We feed off of it. For better…and for worse. And while many people might express frustration at it being circulated as truth…or sadness that it is in fact false, I’d like to suggest something else.
Whether or not it is true is kind of besides the point.
What it tells us about women who fought, how they were perceived at the time and how they are perceived now is just as important. While people have often focused on the topless nature of it all, something else emerges through the duel’s other nickname – the Emancipated Duel. This term doesn’t just refer to the idea of a duel between women supervised by women – from the doctor to the witnesses. For some it also points to a duel between two women which was not fought over a man.
Well…I actually don’t think this is the first Emancipated Duel, either way. Forgive me but…I have trouble believing that in all the history of humankind, women didn’t duel previously for reasons other than a man. Or that a women-only duel had not happened before. Think Bechdel test but with blades. But that aspect of the story is useful to show all the different facets and contradictions of this duel and what it meant.
To some, surface level titillation with a side dish of sexist sneering at these silly women fighting over flowers. To others, an empowering moment with a side dish of sizzling scandal. Probably an intersection of both these things for several. But also the opportunity to pursue the story further – rewrite it and reinterpret it today – using a language that would have been familiar to Pauline herself.
Which is why, while researching this, I was excited to discover the production of such a performance. Enter stage left…The Language of Flowers, a very recent opera all about the duel! Written by author Cecil Castellucci with music by composer Charlotte Marlow from the feminist and queer inclusive Medusa Collective, it seeks to delve a bit deeper into the story of Princess Pauline von Metternich. And in doing so, uncover who she was, in new original ways. Which includes combining comics and opera, with art by Rumbidzai Savanu, Fiona Marchbank and Vicky Leta. And it first was performed in August 2021 as a scratch performance directed by Lily Dyble.
Unfortunately due the plague, I have not seen it yet. And I can’t wait till I do, some way or another. But the programme provided with the play available online provides extra context on the Princess – and brilliant excerpts of her life presented in comic book form. Which, as a comics artist – I can’t help but love.
And in the passage on the duel in comic book form by Vicky Leta, a phrase stood out to me.
“Why do people relish the idea of two women fighting each other?”
It’s not a question I can easily answer. Hell, if anything I’m actively fanning the flames over here and then throwing some oil onto it for good measure. But I think it says something about our obsession with women’s fighting…over collective solidarity. Over the moments women fought together – not against men specifically but for civil rights that are not limited to their gender alone.
Because we shouldn’t forget that women’s solidarity is meaningless if it refuses to view other intersecting systems of oppression. And would have the most oppressed women in society fighting against women who hold power and privilege yet share neither.
And I think there is something powerful about asking this question in a work that is led by women – not to entertain the cheesecake sexiness nor to strip away the fun scandalousness of it all. But to question the spaces in between, where queer and feminist history lies.
The legacy of the topless duel today is quite different. And in some ways the same.
It provokes this fascination, this intrigue we can’t quite put a finger on. There’s the mockery of the eccentric facts surrounding women’s existence…these existences that often get lost in between the cracks of the sofa of history. There’s the scandalous nature of some bared boobs clashing with bare blades.
But there is also power in taking this story that maybe never happened and reshaping it again and again to reflect our own feelings and stories.
And for some nipple-based, sword-wielding theatrical fun.
Thank you so much for listening! You can access the images referred to, show notes and transcript for this episode via the link in the episode description.
I have wanted to tell this story in my own words for a while and it’s been a chaotic, unexpected ride. I hope to lead you on many more this year. This marks episode one of a reemergence of the podcast after a few interesting years. I learnt a lot about podcasting, did ALL the mistakes and I’m excited about doing many more with a new version of the podcast. To some of you who may have been listening since the podcast initially launched in 2020 – thanks for sticking around! I hope you enjoy the stories I have to tell.
And I also want to hear…your stories. And your questions! If you have a story about a swordlady, real or fictional, or maybe a bit of both that you’d like to tell me about…or ask questions about…write in at firstname.lastname@example.org! In the meantime you can follow the podcast at @bustleswordpod on social media. And you can find me on most social media platforms trying to procrastinate from writing, narrating and producing this podcast at @carmineclaire. Stay safe sword lady lovers and see you in a future episode!
This episode took a lot of digging through old newspapers for a story that may not even be true! Here are a few sources below as well as some recommended further reading…And a bit of a sense of Pauline’s legacy as well as the emancipated duel’s legacy in art!
- Sources and Recommended Reading:
Gil Blas 1892
Pall Mall Gazette, August 23, 1892
The Weekly Missoulian, 1982
Clipping from Daily Arkansas Gazette
Memoirs of Pauline Metternich: My Years in Paris
The History of Duelling, Vol I of II, by John Gideon Millingen, a Project Gutenberg eBook.
Fabulous Fashionistas: Princess Pauline Metternich – The Fashion Historian
A Wizard of Silks and Tulle: Charles Worth and the Queer Origins of Couture
- Images & Film
Eugène Boudin | Princess Pauline Metternich (1836–1921) on the Beach | The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Sepia photograph of painting by de Bayard, showing two women, stripped to the waist, duelling
Émile-Antoine Bayard, The Duel and The Reconciliation
The Countess Anastasia with a sabre
“The Affair of Honor” Photogravure by Emile Bayard
Duel to the Death (1898), BFI National Archive