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By the Sword: A History of Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai, Swashbucklers, and Olympic Champions

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Napoleon fenced. So did Shakespeare, Karl Marx, Grace Kelly, and President Truman, who would cross swords with his daughter, Margaret, when she came home from school. Lincoln was a canny dueler. Ignatius Loyola challenged a man to a duel for denying Christ’s divinity (and won). Less successful, but no less enthusiastic, was Mussolini, who would tell his wife he was “off to Napoleon fenced. So did Shakespeare, Karl Marx, Grace Kelly, and President Truman, who would cross swords with his daughter, Margaret, when she came home from school. Lincoln was a canny dueler. Ignatius Loyola challenged a man to a duel for denying Christ’s divinity (and won). Less successful, but no less enthusiastic, was Mussolini, who would tell his wife he was “off to get spaghetti,” their code to avoid alarming the children. By the Sword is an epic history of sword fighting—a science, an art, and, for many, a religion that began at the dawn of civilization in ancient Egypt and has been an obsession for mankind ever since. With wit and insight, Richard Cohen gives us an engrossing history of the world via the sword.   With a new Preface by the author


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Napoleon fenced. So did Shakespeare, Karl Marx, Grace Kelly, and President Truman, who would cross swords with his daughter, Margaret, when she came home from school. Lincoln was a canny dueler. Ignatius Loyola challenged a man to a duel for denying Christ’s divinity (and won). Less successful, but no less enthusiastic, was Mussolini, who would tell his wife he was “off to Napoleon fenced. So did Shakespeare, Karl Marx, Grace Kelly, and President Truman, who would cross swords with his daughter, Margaret, when she came home from school. Lincoln was a canny dueler. Ignatius Loyola challenged a man to a duel for denying Christ’s divinity (and won). Less successful, but no less enthusiastic, was Mussolini, who would tell his wife he was “off to get spaghetti,” their code to avoid alarming the children. By the Sword is an epic history of sword fighting—a science, an art, and, for many, a religion that began at the dawn of civilization in ancient Egypt and has been an obsession for mankind ever since. With wit and insight, Richard Cohen gives us an engrossing history of the world via the sword.   With a new Preface by the author

30 review for By the Sword: A History of Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai, Swashbucklers, and Olympic Champions

  1. 4 out of 5

    Ben

    This is a book that could finally have unseated Egerton Castle's appallingly Victorian "Schools and Masters of Fence" as the definitive book on the history of swordsmanship. Instead, the author often parrots the same misconceptions or invents entirely new ones. It is an entertaining and engaging book, but those looking for an accurate history of swords and sword-fighters would be better served to read Sydney Anglo's "Marital Arts of Renaissance Europe" and J. Christoph Amberger's "Secret History This is a book that could finally have unseated Egerton Castle's appallingly Victorian "Schools and Masters of Fence" as the definitive book on the history of swordsmanship. Instead, the author often parrots the same misconceptions or invents entirely new ones. It is an entertaining and engaging book, but those looking for an accurate history of swords and sword-fighters would be better served to read Sydney Anglo's "Marital Arts of Renaissance Europe" and J. Christoph Amberger's "Secret History of the Sword." All in all, this book is nothing special, and should be regarded as a decently-written curiosity or tribute by the author to a subject he obviously loves rather than a reliable hoplological work.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Arun Divakar

    Way before the entire aspect of time was even concieved, mankind began its tryst with weapons. The simple yet effective cudgels of the early humanoids would have been the precursors of great waves of destruction in the ages to come. As humans developed, so did their weapons from cudgels to spears until the advent of metallurgy. Then came that groundbreaking find : the sword. The one weapon which redrafted all the rules of private violence. Till the time gunpowder became commercially available an Way before the entire aspect of time was even concieved, mankind began its tryst with weapons. The simple yet effective cudgels of the early humanoids would have been the precursors of great waves of destruction in the ages to come. As humans developed, so did their weapons from cudgels to spears until the advent of metallurgy. Then came that groundbreaking find : the sword. The one weapon which redrafted all the rules of private violence. Till the time gunpowder became commercially available and the gun became the weapon of choice, this sharp object ruled the roost of being both a lawmaker and a lawbreaker. As time went by, soceities brought violence and aggression under the aegis of Governments and the armed services and the vigilantes disappearead slowly yet surely. Richard Cohen's brilliant book tells the story of the sword as it evolved from being man's best friend to attaining the same status as a cricket bat or a soccer ball. The detail to which this book goes is practically breathtaking. Personally other than viewing pieces on display at the museums and on the movie screens, I did not know much about the sword. My knowledge was limited to the name of King Arthur's legendary weapon. To such an untrained mind, the content of this book was a literal treasure chest. Richard Cohen begins at the time of the Greeks and tells us the history of Europe through the eyes of the sword. It is a bloody and messy affair choke full of fencing and duels. The rise and fall of the weapon in England, Italy and France are given the maximum importance through the chapters.The knowledge however is not limited only to historic names and figures. We also take a tour of the literary characters and their life and times : Charles d'Artagnan, The Count of Monte Cristo and Zorro are but a few characters who tip their hats at us as we pass them by. These men of fiction also contributed tremendously to the unrivalled popularity of the weapon. There is one chapter in this book about a country where the sword ceases to be a weapon. It attains an ethereal existence, something that transcends the planes of mortality. The country that elevated the sword to a near mythical status : Japan. Whereas the Europeans saw a weapon, the Japanese saw a piece of their soul. Tracing the course of history through Tokugawa Ieyasu and the legends of Japan to the time of the last Shogun's surrender is a whirlwind chapter. I rate this to be the finest part of the whole book. The remaining half of the book is almost fully devoted to the establishment of fencing as a respected Olympic sport. It is a story of two World Wars, Mussolini's attempts at Fencing, the resurrection of the sport in Germany following the Third Reich and about America dethroning the others and becoming a serious contender in the 20th century. The research is exhaustive but the author takes the necessary steps to not make it sound like a lecture. If you ever chance across this book and do not fancy reading the entire book, then just read the footnotes. They are truly brilliant anecdotes of the history of the weapon. Men of the class of Casanova, Karl Marx, Bismarck, Ulysses Grant and Darth Wader make their appearances in these little tales. I had countless hours of fun with these notes. As the book nears its end, the focus almost completely is on Olympic games and since I am not much of an Olympics enthusiast my attention kept wavering at places. This though cannot be helped for the history of this weapon is not complete without mention of the Olympics. It impressed me enough to pick up an umbrella, point it at the mirror and shout en garde ! (Nah I am just kidding....or maybe not !) The best summation to this book is from Hamlet Act V, Scene I : King : Come, begin, And you judges beare a weary eye. Hamlet : Come on Sir. Laertes : Come on Sir. They play.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Mike

    This is certainly an entertaining read, loaded with anecdotes and random facts, and giving some insight into the world of competitive fencing. Unfortunately it is not, by any means, a history of dueling or swordplay, as the the publisher’s description, cover, and subtitle all suggest (“a history of gladiators, musketeers, samurai, swashbucklers, and Olympic champions”). There is a lot of material on Olympic fencing, and a good amount on Hollywood sword-fighting and swashbuckling films, and some This is certainly an entertaining read, loaded with anecdotes and random facts, and giving some insight into the world of competitive fencing. Unfortunately it is not, by any means, a history of dueling or swordplay, as the the publisher’s description, cover, and subtitle all suggest (“a history of gladiators, musketeers, samurai, swashbucklers, and Olympic champions”). There is a lot of material on Olympic fencing, and a good amount on Hollywood sword-fighting and swashbuckling films, and some excellent stuff on dueling and fencing in literature. But the chapters covering swordplay before about 1500 are very weak. Indeed the author admits that his research into those was mainly a reading of the standard 19th century fencing masters (who imagined that the Victorian reproductions of medieval weapons were exact replicas of the original thing, and that swordplay before the rapier and small sword was just hacking with abandon with blunt, heavy, unwieldy iron bars). So you can pretty much discount 90% of what he has to say about that in the section rather tellingly titled “Egypt to Waterloo,” which attempts to cover sword-fighting from ancient to Napoleonic times in what seems like less space than he devotes a single Hungarian saber fencer of the 20th century later in the book. The chapter on the samurai is a little better, perhaps because that period is so well documented in recent literature and the writings of several samurai. The chapters on the history of sword making (which cover some of the most famous centers of the craft -- Toledo, Damascus, & Solingen) and on the legends about a “secret” thrust taught by select masters are good too. When he sticks to his area of expertise -- and the author is both an Olympic fencer and a conscientious journalist -- the book is pretty great. He began to lose me a bit in final chapters, which give detailed profiles of modern fencing masters and Olympic games, but for a book of over 500 pages, I thought it went by all too quickly.

  4. 4 out of 5

    HT Goodwill

    Mr. Cohen's book is an extremely enjoyable read that covers the history of the sword as a weapon, a culture, and a sport. He provides numerous stories concerning historical duels, as well as thoughtful commentary from both himself and from historical figures. He explores the ideas and origins of chivalry and bushido and examines how this manifested itself in the dueling cultures. Accompanied by excellent photos and artwork and a depth of knowledge about the modern sport of fencing, this book is Mr. Cohen's book is an extremely enjoyable read that covers the history of the sword as a weapon, a culture, and a sport. He provides numerous stories concerning historical duels, as well as thoughtful commentary from both himself and from historical figures. He explores the ideas and origins of chivalry and bushido and examines how this manifested itself in the dueling cultures. Accompanied by excellent photos and artwork and a depth of knowledge about the modern sport of fencing, this book is a wonderful experience from start to finish.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Niall519

    It took me a surprisingly long time to slog through this one, despite the eminently readable style. Possibly it was an issue with the sheer number of footnotes and references to examine alongide the main text, but equally possibly was what else was going on in my life at the time of reading. However the referencing, citations, and illustrations and photos are impressive, and exactly what a good history book should have. I enjoyed it. I think my favourite anecdote remains that of the epidemiologis It took me a surprisingly long time to slog through this one, despite the eminently readable style. Possibly it was an issue with the sheer number of footnotes and references to examine alongide the main text, but equally possibly was what else was going on in my life at the time of reading. However the referencing, citations, and illustrations and photos are impressive, and exactly what a good history book should have. I enjoyed it. I think my favourite anecdote remains that of the epidemiologist Rudolf Virchow challenging Otto von Bismarck to a duel with giant sausages over the subject of food poisoning resulting from poor slaughterhouse practices, but the book is full of gems like that. It's not over-heavy on the philosopy or psychology of combat or sport, but does manage to pack a fair bit in there, along with the history. The sweeping back and forth in time and place a bit probably struck the author as a necessity, given the way he chose to structure his book, but lost me briefly on occasion. I note that version I've just finished was published in 2010, with an afterword written by the author in 2009 where he answers some of the complaints and comments levelled at the book by commenters and reviewers since the initial publication in 2002. I didn't have too many issues with the medieval and renaissance history myself, but I wasn't paying really close attention. Others apprently did, and Cohen has explained why he came to the conclusions he did (mostly based on secondary or tertiary source material), and in some cases redressed them.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Joe Vess

    Terrific book. Cohen is a former Olympic fencer but also a very good writer, and he combines those skills perfectly for this book with an enthusiasm for the subject matter, an insider's knowledge, and an ability to convey all of that to the outsider. As a former fencer I may have enjoyed it more than others, but I think most people would like it. Necessarily selective, he touches on a variety of different historical aspects not only of fencing and swordmaking, but also of the cultures, norms and Terrific book. Cohen is a former Olympic fencer but also a very good writer, and he combines those skills perfectly for this book with an enthusiasm for the subject matter, an insider's knowledge, and an ability to convey all of that to the outsider. As a former fencer I may have enjoyed it more than others, but I think most people would like it. Necessarily selective, he touches on a variety of different historical aspects not only of fencing and swordmaking, but also of the cultures, norms and trends that influenced how swords are and have been used, ranging from dueling to movies (an excellent chapter) to initiation rites at German fraternities. He also fits them into larger cultures--the chapter on fencing and fascism was really illuminating--and one of my favorites was his look at fencing and swords in Japanese society. I think this was part of the trend of books about one very particular topic (i.e. coffee, salt, cod); the other one of those I attempted to read, about the potato, was deathly dull, which is the risk one runs when concentrating on just one topic. Cohen avoids this well, and put together an excellent book.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Matt

    Less an all-encompassing global history of the sword than a rather narrowly defined history of fencing. The author brings a lot of personal experience to bear, as a renowned Olympic fencing champion, but it becomes quickly apparent that his talents lie more in the use of the sword than the pen. The book is chock-full of footnotes, asides, tangents and random trivia that detract from the focus and depth I was hoping for. The author breezes through millennia of sword usage (all of Japan's sword hi Less an all-encompassing global history of the sword than a rather narrowly defined history of fencing. The author brings a lot of personal experience to bear, as a renowned Olympic fencing champion, but it becomes quickly apparent that his talents lie more in the use of the sword than the pen. The book is chock-full of footnotes, asides, tangents and random trivia that detract from the focus and depth I was hoping for. The author breezes through millennia of sword usage (all of Japan's sword history receives barely 20 pages) to get to the period where his apparent real interest lies: 20th century competitive fencing. I'm disappointed in the book but very glad I just skimmed through the second tedious half - there are better uses for anyone's time.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Rosemary

    Research time! After thinking up a theme for a story, I tend to go off the deep end in research. About 5% ends up in the fantasy but the other 95% remains floating somewhere below the waterline, buttressing up the work. At least, that's how I visualize my method. Can't announce the next book yet, but see if you can guess the themes from the nonfiction being posted on GoodReads!

  9. 5 out of 5

    Dale Amidei

    A fascinating look at the role of the sword in interpersonal relations through the centuries. The author's expertise is apparent when relating anecdotes of European dueling and his experiences with sport fencing. Well worth the read for any enthusiast.

  10. 5 out of 5

    BMO

    It was interesting and it was a fluid read for the most part. Nonetheless I question it's sources and I advise not to take this book as credible as it wants it to be.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Edward Taylor

    This is a very enjoyable book on "swordsmanship" through the ages, with fascinating historical tidbits on the equipment and accouterments, and many exciting, funny (and horrific) anecdotes concerning fencers and duellists. The book has many wonderful footnotes, which alone almost justify the purchase price. Here, for example, is one on armor: "It was never called 'a suit of armor,' a phrase that arose only about 1600, but always 'harness.' The expression 'he died in harness' does not mean that a This is a very enjoyable book on "swordsmanship" through the ages, with fascinating historical tidbits on the equipment and accouterments, and many exciting, funny (and horrific) anecdotes concerning fencers and duellists. The book has many wonderful footnotes, which alone almost justify the purchase price. Here, for example, is one on armor: "It was never called 'a suit of armor,' a phrase that arose only about 1600, but always 'harness.' The expression 'he died in harness' does not mean that a man was, at death, doing his job like a horse, but that he was wearing full armor. 'Armed' originally meant wearing armor- not carrying a weapon." In another footnote in the section on dueling, Mr. Cohen comments favorably on the Greenland Inuits manner of dueling: When a Greenlander considers himself to have been insulted, he challenges the offending party to a "duel of wits." Each man, supported by seconds, composes a satirical song. The songs are sung in front of an audience, which acts as a jury and votes for a winner. After that, the matter is considered to be settled and the men must be friendly towards one another. (This is certainly a lot more civilized and a lot less deadly than the traditional duel!) The book covers every area you could possibly want to know about- there are sections on knights, duellists, samurai, musketeers, swordplay in the movies, Olympic competitors, sword manufacture, injuries, etc. In the section on samurai, Mr. Cohen mentions that it was common practice for the warriors to test the sharpness of their new blades by hacking up the corpses of criminals who had been executed! The more corpses you could chop up before having to stop to sharpen the blade, the better the weapon. In the section on the various types of blades, the author explains that the curved weapon known as the scimitar was invented by the horsemen of the Near East. While fighting from horseback it was much easier to swing your arm in an arc and slash away than it was to try to jab someone with a straight blade- hence, the advantages of a long, curved blade. In the section on the movies, Mr. Cohen talks about the sequence in "The Empire Strikes Back" where Darth Vader fought Luke Skywalker. Real swords were used, made with carbon-fiber blades, painted with reflective paint to simulate laser light. The Darth Vader costume was so bulky and restrictive, with poor visibility due to the helmet, that the filmmakers were concerned that Mark Hamill (who was wearing no protective clothing) could be injured if the sword sequences were done with a regular stuntman. So, they brought in an expert swordmaster - Bob Anderson, who had been a British professional champion and British national coach. The section on fencing injuries is not for the squeamish, as Mr. Cohen talks about the dangers of broken blades and the rather unpleasant experience of having a sword lodged in your throat or thrust through your eye. The reason I gave the book 4 stars rather than 5 is that I felt the book could have been a bit shorter- some of the sections ran on a bit longer than necessary and could have been "tightened up" with better editing. Also, the last 200 pages or so, which is about 40% of the book, dealt with Olympic fencing, modern competition, and coaches, etc. It may be a sign of my preference for the earlier historical material, but since the book is supposed to be a history of all aspects of swordsmanship I thought this was too much space to devote to just one area of the subject. Still, as you can tell from what I've mentioned previously, this book covers a lot of ground and is an interesting (as well as just a plain fun-to-read) book.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Marcus

    When I picked up "By the Sword", I was pretty excited. Not only am I military history buff, but I also dabbled with fencing for a couple of years in my teens. Therefore, it was quite natural that I was looking forward to what I assumed was a detailed study of development of the weapon itself as well as the art of fencing. Well, it is safe to say that this is not the book that I expected it to be. The author recognizes the fact that the impact of the sword was very broad on our society and the sco When I picked up "By the Sword", I was pretty excited. Not only am I military history buff, but I also dabbled with fencing for a couple of years in my teens. Therefore, it was quite natural that I was looking forward to what I assumed was a detailed study of development of the weapon itself as well as the art of fencing. Well, it is safe to say that this is not the book that I expected it to be. The author recognizes the fact that the impact of the sword was very broad on our society and the scope of his book is therefore much wider that one would expect. The fact is that this book is much more a history of the society that used the sword than it is about the weapon itself. The book itself is divided in three major parts. Ancient and medieval eras are covered rather briskly, for the simple reason that there isn't much contemporary material that survived to our times. Maybe just as well, because some of authors conclusions on military developments of those periods made me rise the eyebrow on more than one occasion. Things get much better once Mr. Cohen reaches the Renaissance and introduction of rapiers - author's depth of knowledge is apparent and the story of sword's impact on society and subsequent dueling culture of those times is quite fascinating. The narrative next progresses into modern times and explains how "real" duels were transformed by different social factors into today's sport of fencing. The final part of the book (more or less half of it) is dedicated to examination of the sport itself, from its birth out of the anachronistic institution of duel to its modern form. It is only here, once the author reaches the truly familiar ground, that I felt that he finds his stride. A couple of words need to be said about the somewhat unorthodox writing technique of Mr. Cohen. The book is divided in a series of chapters; some of them are sticking to historical chronology; other, inserted here and there, are dedicated to particular aspect of the subject at hand - peculiar culture of the sword in Japan, phenomenon of 'mensur' in Germany, intricacies of sword-making, sword as it is depicted in movies... Once the author reaches the modern era, many of those chapters are entirely dedicated to a specific fencer, used as an object illustrating specific aspect or development in the sport of fencing. These rapid jumps between different topics are at times distracting, but rest easy, the pieces do fit together and the book as a whole is quite coherent. So "By the Sword" is sadly not the book I wanted it to be. On the other hand, it was still an extremely interesting read, which because of its focus social and cultural aspects of the subject matter, should appeal to much wider public than military history buffs and fencing aficionados. If that was the goal of Mr. Cohen (and I suspect it was) then I must congratulate the author on the job very well done!

  13. 4 out of 5

    Dean Hamilton

    It is telling that swords are so often named. Excaliber, Charlemagne's Flamberge, Beowulf's Hrunting, the Sword of Damocles .... How many other weapons or objects for that matter, carry the weight or significance of a sword? In the 600-odd years that firearms have made their noisy presence felt, few, if any, of them carry the aura or mystique of the blade. The sword carries a power, elegance and personality within it, reflecting the user. The sword is, above all, a personal weapon, wielded up cl It is telling that swords are so often named. Excaliber, Charlemagne's Flamberge, Beowulf's Hrunting, the Sword of Damocles .... How many other weapons or objects for that matter, carry the weight or significance of a sword? In the 600-odd years that firearms have made their noisy presence felt, few, if any, of them carry the aura or mystique of the blade. The sword carries a power, elegance and personality within it, reflecting the user. The sword is, above all, a personal weapon, wielded up close, not remote or distant, whether on a battlefield, a dueling ground or a piste, it reflects the personalities behind them. Swords have always been symbols: of power, of choices, of status and honor, of elegance, skill, romance and justice. And of death and resolution. Richard Cohen, Olympian and five times U.K. National Saber champion, has written a book that amply demonstrates that, while the pen maybe mighter then the sword, the sword has an abiding fascination and magic. By The Sword is a memorable and evocative history of swords, swordsmen (and women), duelists, swordsmiths, swashbucklers, fencers and beau sabreurs throughout the ages. The book covers the earliest known history of the sword and fencing, stretching from ancient Egyptian wall murals and bloody gladiatorial Rome, to the heavy blades of the medieval European knights. Cohen paints a global picture, examining the samurai of feudal Japan who, when testing their blades, used criminals and peasants but for the honor of their swords, disdained testing them on murderers and those suffering from skin diseases. Cohen looks at the European culture of the sword, dissecting the age of the Musketeer's and beyond with a discerning eye to detail and the people behind the blade. The book covers virtually ever facet of the sword including the hidden alchemy of metallurgy, the evolution of the design of the sword, it's impact on fighting styles, the formalities (and legalities) of the duel and dueling culture (Ever wonder why you shake hands with your right hand? It demonstrates good faith as it was your sword hand), German schlager fighting, the rise of fencing as an Olympic sport, and modern fencing technology and styles.

  14. 4 out of 5

    William Schram

    This book is a history of swordsmanship throughout the world. It's written well enough I suppose. I never really followed swords and swordspeople, it never really interested me since I figured I wasn't wealthy enough to participate. If I can't afford martial arts lessons I sure as heck can't do swords, so I never really got into it. Sure I can pick up a stick and wave it about, but that is hardly swordmanship. As for the book itself, it is structured into six parts and an epilogue. The first part This book is a history of swordsmanship throughout the world. It's written well enough I suppose. I never really followed swords and swordspeople, it never really interested me since I figured I wasn't wealthy enough to participate. If I can't afford martial arts lessons I sure as heck can't do swords, so I never really got into it. Sure I can pick up a stick and wave it about, but that is hardly swordmanship. As for the book itself, it is structured into six parts and an epilogue. The first part talks about the history of the sword, which is what I mostly expected. It starts with ancient Egypt and other cultures that knew of swords. Greece didn't really get into the whole sword thing, which surprises me, but they didn't feel it required skill to slash at things. The second part then gets into sword masters; people that make their living through fencing and dueling. Following that is the culture of the duel itself, especially it's zenith back in some unmarked period where it was actually acceptable to duel with impunity. This section talks about US dignitaries that fenced and dueled, which I thought was pretty interesting. It also talks about Hollywood and the culture of sword fights in movies. Then it goes into wounds that swords cause, which isn't really surprising. I mean, they cause cuts or perforations so... Next up was fencing during WWII and the years leading up to it. The book ends with scandals that rocked the sport in the 1990s. So it is somewhat what I expected, but at the same time it sort of veers off into tangents that I don't expect. Some interesting factoids I took from this book is that elephants can learn to fence better than trained people. This is probably due to how flexible and strong their trunks are. Another thing I took away from it; a lot of people were into fencing. Wow. I can understand Theodore Roosevelt, but Harry S. Truman and Abraham Lincoln? Anyway, the book was okay. It wasn't great, but it wasn't bad.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Kate

    I enjoyed this book tremendously, but I cannot give it more than four stars because egad, it needs to be broken down into TWO books (maybe even three). At nearly 500 pages, with scads of footnotes (BEST FOOTNOTES EVER), it's a bloated book filled with ALL THE SWORD THINGS! and while I loved it, it just tries to do too much. Richard Cohen wants to present the history of the sword AND the history of dueling AND the history of fencing AND the history of fencing at the Olympics, all of it as GLOBAL I enjoyed this book tremendously, but I cannot give it more than four stars because egad, it needs to be broken down into TWO books (maybe even three). At nearly 500 pages, with scads of footnotes (BEST FOOTNOTES EVER), it's a bloated book filled with ALL THE SWORD THINGS! and while I loved it, it just tries to do too much. Richard Cohen wants to present the history of the sword AND the history of dueling AND the history of fencing AND the history of fencing at the Olympics, all of it as GLOBAL as possible, and what he needed was an editor who either cut down this book with vicious clarity, or told him to focus on ONE OF THE THINGS and not ALL OF THE THINGS. As it stands, the chapters prior to those on 20th-century fencing tend to be overwhelmed with facts and stories, and haphazardly organized. I also can't tell how he decided what stories to put in a footnote and what stories to leave in the main text--as I said, this book has the BEST FOOTNOTES EVER, but I don't understand what makes some of them footnote-worthy but not text-worthy. I can only assume that, for the sake of the page count, someone chose stories practically at random to stick in the footnotes. All of this said, Cohen clearly loves fencing and has a deep understanding of it as both a sport and as a discipline (he was a national champion and an Olympian), and I can't think of anyone better-qualified to write such a book or tell these stories. If he writes more books about The Sword--and I dearly hope he does--my wish is that he finds an editor with a firm hand to keep the book on-track and well-organized. A book of great sword stories (even just dueling stories, frankly) would be most welcome. Mr Cohen, I thank you for this most entertaining book. I got this from the library, but I think I'm going to buy a copy of my own.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Will Mego

    I'd forgotten about reading this when it came out years ago. Written in a breezy style, I believe every fencer in the English-speaking world received a copy that Christmas. I, as a professional in the sport was no exception. Mr. Cohen speaks with a voice that attempts to appeal to all audiences though he must have suspected the fencing world would receive it with the high degree of suspicion and eager and unhelpful criticism it meets nearly everything with. My complaint with this book is that by I'd forgotten about reading this when it came out years ago. Written in a breezy style, I believe every fencer in the English-speaking world received a copy that Christmas. I, as a professional in the sport was no exception. Mr. Cohen speaks with a voice that attempts to appeal to all audiences though he must have suspected the fencing world would receive it with the high degree of suspicion and eager and unhelpful criticism it meets nearly everything with. My complaint with this book is that by trying to be all things to all readers, it fails to be anything to anyone. The history of fencers in the Olympic era is nearly impossible to discuss because we all violently disagree on what any bit of information means (I know this sounds strange to a non-fencer, but think about arguments about which Superbowl winning team is better than others) If you want an ACTUAL book about the ACTUAL history of fencing, I would recommend (the much maligned and ridiculed) William M. Gaugler's book The History Of Fencing: Foundations Of Modern European Swordplay I point out that the fencing world has a low opinion of Dr. Gaugler's thoughts as to the weakness or strength of modern fencing, but his approach to the history of the activity is very solid in this ex-professional's opinion. I warn you, it's not a quick or witty examination, but was that REALLY what you wanted?

  17. 4 out of 5

    Kathryn

    This is a marvelous book about fencing by Richard Cohen, a British fencer who competed at three Olympic Games. He goes into just about everything that is possible to discuss about fencing, which has always been a sport that has fascinated me. This history goes into dueling, history, world figures, swords in literature, the stage, and movies, the making of swords – just about the only thing not included is the swordplay in the Kill Bill movies, which came out after the 2002 publication date of th This is a marvelous book about fencing by Richard Cohen, a British fencer who competed at three Olympic Games. He goes into just about everything that is possible to discuss about fencing, which has always been a sport that has fascinated me. This history goes into dueling, history, world figures, swords in literature, the stage, and movies, the making of swords – just about the only thing not included is the swordplay in the Kill Bill movies, which came out after the 2002 publication date of this book. (Alas.) After a Prologue, the book has several main sections: From Egypt to Waterloo (containing a chapter on France In The Age of The Musketeers), The Search for Perfection, The Duels High Noon, Wounded Warriors (the chapter Scars of Glory has to do with the specialized dueling at German universities), Great Powers, and Faustian Pacts (about cheating at this most honorable of sports). The author, being a fencer of renown himself, goes into great detail about world champion and Olympic champion fencers of the past and present, possibly into too much detail. At the same time, I would have appreciated very basic photos and explanations as to the differences between foil, épée, and sabre, both in terms of the weapons themselves and what parts of the body are legitimate targets (which information, of course, one can get online). With those caveats, this is a dandy book, giving you everything you ever wanted to know about swords, sword-fighting, and fencing.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Mark Austin

    This book started out fascinating: each chapter a compressed summary of the sword told in paragraph-to-page long snippets of various storied individuals from the time period in question. These tantalizing little bits were just enough to pique interest and curiosity, but not enough to tell a complete story of each individual. As such, they formed a chain of little let-downs, seeming to always end right when you get into it. And then the Olympics. I had this book on my shelf for years and never rea This book started out fascinating: each chapter a compressed summary of the sword told in paragraph-to-page long snippets of various storied individuals from the time period in question. These tantalizing little bits were just enough to pique interest and curiosity, but not enough to tell a complete story of each individual. As such, they formed a chain of little let-downs, seeming to always end right when you get into it. And then the Olympics. I had this book on my shelf for years and never read it due to an (admittedly cover-based) impression that it was just about Olympic fencing - a sport I have only marginal interest in. Last month I noticed it again and skimmed over it, realizing that it was about the whole breadth of historical swordplay - a conclusion that was only partially correct. If you don't care about Olympic fencing, stop about 2/3 of the way through as the last 150 pages are just that. Given that the author was a competitive fencer, I can almost see the pitch for this book as it resolved: Richard: "I want to write a book about Olympic fencing!" Agent/Editor: "But no one will read that." Richard: "Oh. What if I research a bunch about other sword-stuff and throw that in the beginning and just end with the Olympic bit?" A/E: "Hm... I guess we could try to sneak it through. If it gets them to buy it I guess..." First 2/3 of the book: ★★★ Last 1/3 of the book: ★

  19. 4 out of 5

    Kian

    As a fencer and coach, I've read plenty of books which focus on the technical aspects on swordplay. This was the first book really looking into the history of a sport I've been involved with for over a decade. There was quite a bit of fanfare when this book was released, due to the prominence of the author - an established veteran of the UK fencing circuit. I've fenced Richard Cohen a few times at opens, and he still has a damningly fast hand. The first two-thirds of the book deal with classical As a fencer and coach, I've read plenty of books which focus on the technical aspects on swordplay. This was the first book really looking into the history of a sport I've been involved with for over a decade. There was quite a bit of fanfare when this book was released, due to the prominence of the author - an established veteran of the UK fencing circuit. I've fenced Richard Cohen a few times at opens, and he still has a damningly fast hand. The first two-thirds of the book deal with classical fencing and duelling, presented as a series of anecdotes and stories, revolving around themes. They are interesting and provide insight into the rich history of the sport. The final third is concerned with modern Olympic fencing, from its inception at the first games, through the introduction of wireless equipment, the dominance of the original powers and moving through the Soviet era into the modern generation. It answers questions many fencers have about why things work in such a way - strict FIE rules due to numerous attempts at cheating, why Hungarian coaches are *such hard work* and why Russians hit quite so hard. For those focused purely on the technical aspects of the sport, there is very little for you here. If you wish to add some context and texture to your understanding, this book is invaluable.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Ralphz

    Excellent subject but not as well done as I was hoping. "By The Sword" promises more than it delivers. As another reviewer notes, the subtitle calls it "A History of Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai, Swashbucklers, and Olympic Champions," but it felt like the main part of the book was about fencing - the sport of the writer. I had hoped to learn more about Samurai and other swordfighters, but instead learned an awful lot about Hungarian epeeists, among others. I imagine this is a good intro and t Excellent subject but not as well done as I was hoping. "By The Sword" promises more than it delivers. As another reviewer notes, the subtitle calls it "A History of Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai, Swashbucklers, and Olympic Champions," but it felt like the main part of the book was about fencing - the sport of the writer. I had hoped to learn more about Samurai and other swordfighters, but instead learned an awful lot about Hungarian epeeists, among others. I imagine this is a good intro and there's another book out there that'll be what I want. But this book? Worth the $2 I spent on it. Not much more. More reviews at my WordPress site, Ralphsbooks.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Elle

    I know very little about fencing or the history of the sport. This was just a random book I picked up because it looked interesting and, at the moment, I'm making an effort to read more non-fiction books. Considering that, I still found this book fascinating. It goes from the early days of swordsmanship right up to modern fencing, and is filled with anecdotes and stories about various 'celebrities' and their fencing habits, duels that have been fought, and the wider public reaction to the act of I know very little about fencing or the history of the sport. This was just a random book I picked up because it looked interesting and, at the moment, I'm making an effort to read more non-fiction books. Considering that, I still found this book fascinating. It goes from the early days of swordsmanship right up to modern fencing, and is filled with anecdotes and stories about various 'celebrities' and their fencing habits, duels that have been fought, and the wider public reaction to the act of duelling, as well as delving into the swords themselves. I thought it would be a bit more dry, perhaps a little boring, but I was quite surprised at how much I enjoyed reading it, despite not being a fencer myself. An entertaining and informative read and, really, what more could you ask for?

  22. 4 out of 5

    Lindsey Duncan

    A highly entertaining and very readable chronicle of the history of fencing, from the earliest era to dueling to modern Olympic competition, this book strikes an excellent balance between providing an overall historic and cultural perspective, and relating the stories of individuals - often with humor and/or drama. For my tastes, the later chapters on fencers in the 20th century were less interesting and took up more of the book than I would have wanted ... but that may show my bias more than an A highly entertaining and very readable chronicle of the history of fencing, from the earliest era to dueling to modern Olympic competition, this book strikes an excellent balance between providing an overall historic and cultural perspective, and relating the stories of individuals - often with humor and/or drama. For my tastes, the later chapters on fencers in the 20th century were less interesting and took up more of the book than I would have wanted ... but that may show my bias more than anything else. Particularly recommended for any fiction writer hoping to chronicle duels or professional sports - the book is a great source for insights on sportsmanship, legal challenges, honor, cheating, and other related topics that transcend fencing.

  23. 4 out of 5

    John

    This book took me a long time to read. Partly because it is nearly 500 pages long. But, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. My only complaint is that there is no definition of the fencing terms used in the book. I had to do some research on the internet so that I would know the different between foil, saber, and epee. The book is well written and thorough. I think I now know more about dueling and swordplay than I have ever known. It even addresses the modern Olympics and some of the controversies th This book took me a long time to read. Partly because it is nearly 500 pages long. But, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. My only complaint is that there is no definition of the fencing terms used in the book. I had to do some research on the internet so that I would know the different between foil, saber, and epee. The book is well written and thorough. I think I now know more about dueling and swordplay than I have ever known. It even addresses the modern Olympics and some of the controversies that have happened. Apparently no sport is immune to cheating by its participants. Perhaps the will to win is what makes athletes great, but it is what also drives them to win at any cost.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Micahlibris

    Could have been a five star book, but the work is a little misleading. Roughly half of the book is devoted to the first 2000 years of the history of the sword and swordsmen and most of the rest of the book is devoted to the last 100 years--which is to say, modern fencing. I think Cohen really wanted to write about modern fencing but wanted the book to have a more epic scope. Also, there were way too many footnotes for this to be a pleasure read. Better to have made them endnotes. There are some Could have been a five star book, but the work is a little misleading. Roughly half of the book is devoted to the first 2000 years of the history of the sword and swordsmen and most of the rest of the book is devoted to the last 100 years--which is to say, modern fencing. I think Cohen really wanted to write about modern fencing but wanted the book to have a more epic scope. Also, there were way too many footnotes for this to be a pleasure read. Better to have made them endnotes. There are some fun chapters in here though, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants a broad sweep of the subject while still getting a focus on the past century of sport fencing.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Stuart

    Runs a little long on the subject of modern Olympic fencing, but otherwise a very well researched, encyclopedic treatment. Lots of interesting facts on topics ranging from sword-swinging US presidents (all 4 heads on Mt. Rushmore) to Cyrano de Bergerac (based on a real person) to Hollywood swordsmen (Basil Rathbone was tops). The chapter on Japan is a must-read for any fan of Samurai films. But like I said, unless you're *really* into modern competitive fencing, you can probably skip the last 10 Runs a little long on the subject of modern Olympic fencing, but otherwise a very well researched, encyclopedic treatment. Lots of interesting facts on topics ranging from sword-swinging US presidents (all 4 heads on Mt. Rushmore) to Cyrano de Bergerac (based on a real person) to Hollywood swordsmen (Basil Rathbone was tops). The chapter on Japan is a must-read for any fan of Samurai films. But like I said, unless you're *really* into modern competitive fencing, you can probably skip the last 100 pages.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Catherine

    Anecdotal history of dueling and its descendant, fencing. The book is full of lots of interesting tidbits at its best, and disjointed, seemingly random bits of info when it doesn't work. It didn't feel disjointed to me until the last couple of chapters; they felt as if they needed more context. The rest of the book was much more successful at conveying a history of dueling. Other than that, I did learn a great deal about dueling and picked up some extra details for some historical projects that Anecdotal history of dueling and its descendant, fencing. The book is full of lots of interesting tidbits at its best, and disjointed, seemingly random bits of info when it doesn't work. It didn't feel disjointed to me until the last couple of chapters; they felt as if they needed more context. The rest of the book was much more successful at conveying a history of dueling. Other than that, I did learn a great deal about dueling and picked up some extra details for some historical projects that I'm researching. Quite well written and definitely worth reading.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Robert

    ‘By The Sword’ is a history of swordsmanship, particularly as it relates to the modern sport of Olympic fencing. In addition to chapters on the origins of the sword, duelling, and the rise of sport fencing in the 20th Century, there is also an interesting chapter about the Japanese samurai, and a chapter devoted to how swordmanship has been depicted in film and literature. Cohen is a fencer and mixes personal anecdotes with stories about famous historical swordsmen (and women), creating a book th ‘By The Sword’ is a history of swordsmanship, particularly as it relates to the modern sport of Olympic fencing. In addition to chapters on the origins of the sword, duelling, and the rise of sport fencing in the 20th Century, there is also an interesting chapter about the Japanese samurai, and a chapter devoted to how swordmanship has been depicted in film and literature. Cohen is a fencer and mixes personal anecdotes with stories about famous historical swordsmen (and women), creating a book that is as enjoyable to read as it is informative.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Nev Percy

    Steph's mum gave her a copy, and my mum gave me a copy, both for the same Christmas. The Type-cast Twosome! Like the cover suggests, it's more about the sport of fencing than about swords down the ages. I should've been prepared for this, but it was still a disappointment. The book was a bit dry in tone but well-written and did have some fascinating bits in. I came round to it by the end.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Jocelyn Koehler

    Good overview of the history of fencing. Very much of a survey--don't expect too much depth in any particular period. The later part, of course, focuses heavily on the professional sport of fencing, so it becomes more of a story about sport than the story of the weapon or customs of a time. I am more interested in the historical aspect, so my interest waned toward the end. However, it's well researched throughout.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Robert Tupper

    Lots of fun for those who fence but would like to know alittle more about where all the silly things we do come from. A great deal of this book deals with dueling (how silly) and you may be surprised to read some of the names linked to such activities. I love the detail given by the author, very fun read.

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