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By the Sword: A History of Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai, Swashbucklers, and Olympic Champions Hardcover – November 5, 2002

42 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Cohen's enthusiastic history of the sword and of swordplay captures the adventure, romance, danger and intrigue that the weapon has represented throughout world history. The narrative contains superheroes, villains, underdogs, spies, alchemists, movie stars and champions. Rather than use a purely chronological structure, Cohen (who has written for the New Yorker) takes apart many of the influences that fencing has had on society and vice versa. Barely a subject escapes his eyes: metallurgy and the quest for a sword that would hold its edge and remain strong; the damage swords can do to a body (including purposeful gashes across the cheek); judicial duels (it was believed that God would intervene on behalf of the innocent party, who would win regardless of fencing ability); the history of the Musketeers; swashbuckling movies; modern sport fencing (which countries and even families reign supreme and why), Fascists (Mussolini and many higher-ups in Hitler's regime fenced), cheating and the Olympics. Staying away from an impersonal history, the author extends his own involvement with the sport he was on the British Olympic team four times (1972, 1976, 1980 and 1984) by visiting as many of his subjects as he can, from the historically superior sword-making city of Toledo to Gretel Bergmann, a figure in a Nazi fencing scandal. There are copious playful asides as footnotes filling the reader in on wonderful facts and anecdotes. For those with even a casual interest in fencing, Cohen's work will be a delightful read; he brings the daunting breadth of the history of the sword within easy reach of the curious.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

The culture of the sword has given us everything from words like prizefight and freelance to such customs as shaking hands, the military salute, or men buttoning their coats on the right. Cohen's exuberant history of swordplay begins with an account of his own 1972 "duel" in London, then leaps into the story of civilization as measured through the evolving technology and customs around broadswords, armor, lances, foils, sabers, rapiers, and epees. Readers wanting only to escape into chivalric tales from Musketeer days will not be disappointed; however, the polished writing and masterly use of centuries of anecdote should lure them through equally vivid sections on Roman gladiators, medieval knights, Japanese Samurai, and the swashbuckling crazes in Italy, Spain, France, England, and Hollywood. (According to Cohen, a British publisher and Olympic fencer, actors Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Jr. were exceptional fencers, while Tyrone Power might not have opened a pi$ata without a sword double.) Cohen perhaps didn't need to explore the sword proficiencies of American presidents, but this is a small matter in a work so rich in social history: Cohen investigates the sword duels of Ben Johnson and Voltaire and the real source of Cardinal Richelieu's hatred of sword dueling. A fascinating story told with literary verve and the pride of a longtime practitioner; highly recommended.
Nathan Ward, "Library Journal"
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 519 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; 1st edition (November 5, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375504176
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375504174
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.3 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (42 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #695,475 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Richard Cohen is the former publishing director of Hutchinson and Hodder & Stoughton and the founder of Richard Cohen Books. Five times U.K. national saber champion, he was selected for the British Olympic fencing team in 1972, 1976, 1980, and 1984. Richard is the author of "Chasing the Sun", "By the Sword" and "How To Write Like Tolstoy". He has written for the New York Times, the Guardian, the Observer, the Daily Telegraph, the New York Times Book Review and has appeared on BBC radio and television.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

174 of 182 people found the following review helpful By Stephen Hand on December 27, 2002
Format: Hardcover
When I wrote my first review of this book I had just read the first two chapters and I was incensed at the number of mistakes they contained. I've now read the rest of the book and have received correspondence from the author. My view of the book is now a little different.
Don't get me wrong, the chapters on the early history of fencing are still replete with errors. To answer some points made by other reviewers, horse armour WAS in the vicinity of 60lbs, not 450, for example, the 15th century Gothic horse armour that forms the centrepiece of the Wallace Collection weighs 66lb, 5 1/2 oz. Medieval fencing systems did rely heavily on parries with the sword. For example, Manuscript I.33, a sword and buckler (small shield) manual and the oldest extant fencing text displays parries with the blade on about 35 of its 64 plates. These far outnumber the parries made with the buckler. The reviewer who claimed that the blade was not used for parries might care to explain this manuscript and indeed all the other medieval manuscripts, because every one teaches parries with the blade, from I.33's overbinds and underbinds to Fiore Dei Liberi's incrosada's, Ringeck's absetzen etc. etc.
La Destreza, the system of Spanish rapier fencing created by Don Hieronymo Carranza may not be comprehensible to Mr Cohen, but it is comprehensible to me. It is more than comprehensible to Maestro Ramon Martinez, the world's foremost expert on the system, who as Tony Wolf stated, lives in the same city as Mr Cohen. I have fenced Spanish rapier and consider it to be a suberb and most logical system. In fact Maestro Martinez and I have written a paper on the system. Too many hatchet jobs have been done on La Destreza. Carranza's contemporaries (such as George Silver) wrote in praise of his system.
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194 of 211 people found the following review helpful By Stephen Hand on November 17, 2002
Format: Hardcover
I am surprised by the extreme number of basic factual errors in this book. In a single reading of the first two chapters I identified numerous errors including the following,
1)"A horse's armor could weigh up to 450 pounds" - more like 60
2)"parries were not attempted" - the world's oldest fencing manual (Mss I.33 c.1300 - which the author refers to) is full of parries.
3)"the use of heavy armor and heavy weapons allowed only simple movements, forcing contestants to concentrate on one blow at a time, so that complicated phrases were impossible." - complicated fencing phrases are described in medieval fencing manuals, including those referenced by the author.
4)"Up until the start of the sixteenth century there were few solid principles of how best to fight with swords. Masters, mainly army veterans, passed on a hodgepodge of techniques" - There are approximately 50 medieval fencing manuals, all of which describe advanced fencing systems that conform to the same fundamental principles of timing, distance and line that underly modern fencing.
5)"Johannes Lecktuchner, a famous master at Nuremburg. Lektuchner's treatise is full of hints about feints, secret thrusts, and surprise parries." - the man's name was Liechtenauer and he described an incredibly subtle and sophisticated system that dominated central Europe for 250 years. The system is described in exquisite detail in Christian Tobler's excellent book "Secrets of German Medieval Swordsmanship".
6)Of Talhoffer's treatise "it is as much a manual for survival as a book about fencing." - As the word fencing is derived from the word defence, this statement is tautological.
7)"Marozzo was the first to establish a regular system.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Munro on December 3, 2002
Format: Hardcover
... unfortunately, the author has not taken advantage of the latest research on historical fencing. These facts are easily available and a serious writer, even if not purporting to an in-depth historical analysis, should at least check his sources against current scholarship.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Dixie on January 25, 2007
Format: Paperback
I was sorry to hear about the historical errors in this book (without them 5 stars), but that doesn't take away from the quality of read. The best content in the book concerns the more recent history of fencing, anyway. Most notably the chapter on cheating in the sport and the portraits of such famous masters and competitors as Aldo Nadi, Emil Beck, and Helene Mayer. Mr. Cohen is a gifted writer and this book is a delight to read. I hope future editions of this book will make an effort to correct the mistakes, after which I will gladly add it to my library. A must-read for students of the sword.
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10 of 13 people found the following review helpful By J. Dance on February 5, 2003
Format: Hardcover
For a beginning fencer and long time lover of history, I must say I enjoyed much of Richard Cohen's "By The Sword". Cohen's presentation of the history of fencing helped to make much of what I do on the piste come to life and have a deeper meaning. This is not a "how to" book, but rather a varied history of the sword, swordsmanship and the sport of fencing.
Mr. Cohen's writing style is easy to follow and understand. I found the footnotes to be helpful and enlightening as I moved through the various stories and anecdotes. There were parts of the book that I felt a bit intimidated by, especially some of the Polish and Hungarian names. A glossary and pronunciation chart in the appendices would have been helpful. A non-fencer will need to check out a fencing website for help with some of the more technical terminology.
Otherwise I found "By the Sword" to be refreshing and a joy to read.
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