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

3.82 of 5 stars 3.82  ·  rating details  ·  358 ratings  ·  52 reviews
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. Igantius Loyala 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 ...more
Paperback, 10th Anniversary Edition, 560 pages
Published August 5th 2003 by Modern Library (first published 2002)
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 871)
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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 ...more
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 am accurate history of swords and sword-fighters would be better served to read Sydney Anglo
s "Marital Arts of Renaissance Europe" and Stephen Amberger's "Secret History of th
...more
HT Goodwill
Jun 20, 2007 HT Goodwill rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Those interested in history, swords, fencing, or dueling.
Shelves: history, martial_arts
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 ...more
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 ...more
Joe
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
...more
Malcolm
It is quite hard to know how to discuss this book; on the one hand it is a rollicking good skip through the cultures and politics of the sword as a fighting, sporting and cultural icon – accessible, readable and engaging. On another hand it is a top-down history, partly told through the development of sword’s play’s great men (and for the most part, they are men) in the form of teaching masters, champions, swashbuckling film actor and warriors. Coming at it from a third angle, it is an insider’s ...more
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!
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.
Charity U
Passably interesting, especially the Swashbuckling chapter about swords in movies. :) Best for absolute sword enthusiasts.
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
...more
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 ...more
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
...more
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
...more
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
...more
Will
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 ...more
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.
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
...more
Amanda
Fascinating and wide-ranging history of (mostly European) swordplay and fencing. Covers all sorts, from medieval combat to dueling to film fights to modern Olympic competition. Includes stories about a number of women and POCs,both historical and modern.
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 ...more
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
...more
Andrew Boswell
Half historical overview of Western sword fighting (with a short section on the Japanese traditions) and half the history of championship and Olympic fencing. An excellent modern treatment of these topics.
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 ...more
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.
Richard Harden
This is an interesting review of the history of swords. Certainly, not of interest to the general public, nor even necessarily for avid fencers. But for someone interested in the sport, who wishes to go beyond just how to fence, who also wishes to understand how the sport fits into society and culture in a larger sense, then this book is well worth reading.
Matt Kuhns
A big, if by-no-means comprehensive, tour of the history of fencing. Mostly this book was quite enjoyable, its only real weakness being the lack of any sort of unifying narrative, which made it easy to set aside. While I was on vacation and could actually just sit and read without being concerned by other priorities, I finished the book quite easily.
Redsteve
Very much liked this one. It's not just a book on dueling and fencing, but also covers ancient training in swordsmanship, religion, sword-related injuries, espionage, sword design and metalurgy - and even sword-swallowing.The book also contains a tremendous amount of anecdodes, which are illustrative and (in many cases) humorous.
Steve
Though containing elements which at times proved absorbing, notably with detailed accounts of duelling, the later chapters concerning the modern sport of fencing detract from the overall attraction of the content. Moreover, the writer's style in not maintaining a common thread, fails majoritatively to enliven this content.
Robert Tupper
Jan 09, 2008 Robert Tupper rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Fencers, history buffs
Shelves: the-new-shelf
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.
Hunter
Middling with some excellent parts. Error ridden, but mostly minor things, and at worst commonly repeated legends. The last portion is dragged down signifigantly with profiles of fencers, where I would have prefered a more in depth look into the evolution of the sport over the past few decades.
Derek
The book begins slowly but hang in there - the author covers the history of swordplay excellently. I particularly enjoyed his chapters on samurai and european style dueling. I was not so interested in the history of the modern sport of fencing however.
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