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Napoleon fenced. So did Shakespeare, Karl Marx, Grace Kelly, and President Truman, who would cross swords with Bess after 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 alternative history of the world.
Sword fighting was an entertainment in ancient Rome, a sacred rite in medieval Japan, and throughout the ages a favorite way to settle scores. For centuries, dueling was the scourge of Europe, banned by popes on threat of excommunication, and by kings who then couldn’t keep themselves from granting pardons—in the case of Louis XIV, in the thousands. Evidence of this passion is all around us: We shake hands to show that we are not reaching for our sword. A gentleman offers a lady his right arm because his sword was once attached to his left hip. Men button their jackets to the right to give them swifter access to their sword.
In his sweeping narrative, Cohen takes us from the training of gladiators to the tricks of the best Renaissance masters, from the exploits of musketeers to swashbuckling Hollywood by way of the great moments in Olympic fencing. A young George Patton competed in the 1912 Olympics. In 1936, a Jewish champion fenced for Hitler. Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone were ardent swordsmen. We meet their coaches and the man who staged the fight scenes in Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and James Bond’s Die Another Day.
Richard Cohen has the rare distinction of being both a compelling writer and a champion sabreur. He lets us see swordplay as graceful and brutal, balletic and deadly, technically beautiful and fiercely competitive—the most romantic of martial arts. By the Sword is a virtuoso performance that is sure to beguile history lovers, sports fans, military buffs, and anyone who ever dreamed of crossing swords with Darth Vader.
Praise for By the Sword
“In this enormously learned but also gripping book, Richard Cohen describes the part sword fighting has played in the history of male society in many lands since the earliest times, and succeeds in conveying the sensations, excitement, and sometimes terror of the contest. His text takes its authority from his achievement as an Olympic fencer.” —John Keegan
“Touché! While scrupulous and informed about its subject, Richard Cohen’s book is about more than swordplay. It reads at times like an alternative social history of the West, as it deals with the big themes of chivalry, the need to compete, and that elusive quality that men call ‘honor.’ ” —Sebastian Faulks
“One must not hiccup while sword-swallowing; Indian elephants, alone in the animal kingdom, can be taught how to fight with foils—just two aperçus from Cohen’s quite wonderful book. Like swordplay itself, By the Sword is elegant, accurate, romantic, and full of brio—the definitive study, hugely readable, of man’s most deadly art.” —Simon Winchester