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The "Feudalization of the Bourgeoisie?" Part I: Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad (1880)

Mark Twain’s (1835-1910) description of a student duel offers evidence of what historians have often referred to as the “Feudalization of the Bourgeoisie.” This thesis claims that the upwardly mobile middle classes of Germany succumbed to the archaic traditions of the nobility in order to gain social acceptance. A student corps, similar to a fraternity in the United States, was once a privileged part of German university life. These groups often created networks among a closed group of alumni. With the broadening of access to higher education, bourgeois students created their own organizations, often mimicking their noble forebears.

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ONE day in the interest of science my agent obtained permission to bring me to the students' dueling place. We crossed the river and drove up the bank a few hundred yards, then turned to the left, entered a narrow alley, followed it a hundred yards and arrived at a two-story public house; we were acquainted with its outside aspect, for it was visible from the hotel. We went up stairs and passed into a large whitewashed apartment which was perhaps fifty feet long, by thirty feet wide and twenty or twenty-five high. It was a well lighted place. There was no carpet. Across one end and down both sides of the room extended a row of tables, and at these tables some fifty or seventy-five students were sitting.

Some of them were sipping wine, others were playing cards, others chess, other groups were chatting together, and many were smoking cigarettes while they waited for the coming duels. Nearly all of them wore colored caps; there were white caps, green caps, blue caps, red caps, and bright yellow ones; so, all the five corps were present in strong force. In the windows at the vacant end of the room stood six or eight long, narrow-bladed swords with large protecting guards for the hand, and outside was a man at work sharpening others on a grindstone. He understood his business; for when a sword left his hand one could shave himself with it.

It was observable that the young gentlemen neither bowed to nor spoke with students whose caps differed in color from their own. This did not mean hostility, but only an armed neutrality. It was considered that a person could strike harder in the duel, and with a more earnest interest, if he had never been in a condition of comradeship with his antagonist; therefore, comradeship between the corps was not permitted. At intervals the presidents of the five corps have a cold official intercourse with each other, but nothing further. For example when the regular dueling day of one of the corps approaches, its president calls for volunteers from among the membership to offer battle; three or more respond,—but there must not be less than three; the president lays their names before the other presidents, with the request that they furnish antagonists for these challengers from among their corps. This is promptly done. It chanced that the present occasion was the battle day of the Red Cap Corps. They were the challengers, and certain caps of other colors had volunteered to meet them. The students fight duels in the room which I have described, two days in every week during seven and a half or eight months in every year. This custom has continued in Germany two hundred and fifty years.

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