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

3.84  ·  Rating Details  ·  459 Ratings  ·  63 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 1,130)
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Arun Divakar
Aug 28, 2014 Arun Divakar rated it really liked it
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
Sep 13, 2015 Ben rated it it was ok
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 ...more
HT Goodwill
Jun 20, 2007 HT Goodwill rated it really liked it
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
Oct 02, 2014 Mike rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction, history
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
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
Jul 12, 2009 Joe rated it it was amazing
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
Jun 13, 2015 Ahsan rated it it was amazing
Shelves: historical, sports
Fantastic, well-written and entertaining history of the Sword, mostly in a context of fencing and duelling, although the author went out of his way to cover the traditional sword and also dedicated an entire chapter to the sword in Japan. There is even a chapter on cheating, and another on politics in fencing.

The book is full of fascinating anecdotes and micro biographies. I wasn't bored for a single page. This is how history should be written.

The author is an Olympic level fencer, a 9-time Eu
Jun 15, 2014 Malcolm rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: sport-studies
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
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
May 31, 2011 Rosemary rated it really liked it
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
Aug 14, 2013 Dale Amidei rated it it was amazing
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
Feb 07, 2012 Charity U rated it liked it
Passably interesting, especially the Swashbuckling chapter about swords in movies. :) Best for absolute sword enthusiasts.
Jan 25, 2012 Kathryn rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2012
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
Jan 07, 2013 Dean Hamilton rated it it was amazing
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
Jul 20, 2013 Marcus rated it really liked it
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
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
Nov 22, 2013 Will rated it it was ok
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
Sep 13, 2015 Elle rated it really liked it
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
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.
Apr 20, 2015 Holly rated it really liked it
This has been my life-relief reading...What a treat, talk about a grand tour-a bit whirlwindish but exhilarating nonetheless. A little bit of absolutely everything here. I did get a little tired of some of its more scandalous aspects but picked up some amazing historical tidbits about dueling, altered my previous notions on the subject.
Mar 26, 2016 Ralphz rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: own
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
Mar 26, 2008 John rated it really liked it
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
Brian O'Sullivan
Dec 26, 2015 Brian O'Sullivan rated it really liked it
A very informative and educational book. The author manages to merge fencing technique and personal history in a fun and interesting way/
Jul 01, 2015 Ian rated it really liked it
An enthralling romp through the annals of the history of the sword. From antiquity to present, it provides - via Cohen's rich and often comical wit - interludes, asides, main thematics, and glimpses of the great and varied evolution of humanity's mighty blade.
Oct 13, 2014 Amanda rated it liked it
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.
Jinx King
Apr 18, 2016 Jinx King marked it as lost-interest
From the same "former" gay who brought us 'coming out straight - understanding and 'healing' homosexuality'

So I'm sure he'll try to erase the fact that a large number of Samurai partook in homosexual relationships. And so did Gladiators. And so have dozens upon dozens of Olympic Champions. I mean, I'm sure pirates did too, but the others are what I'm focusing on since they have a highly recorded history of it.

Like, you can't talk about these things and not acknowledge how often homosexual acts a
Jan 19, 2009 Catherine rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-nonfiction
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
Feb 19, 2012 Robert rated it really liked it
‘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
Andrew Boswell
Sep 08, 2014 Andrew Boswell rated it liked it
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.
Jun 23, 2008 Stuart rated it really liked it
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
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“He either fears his fate too much / Or his deserts are small / That puts it not unto the touch / To win or lose it all.” 1 likes
“In 1830, the writer Charles Augustin Saint-Beuve (1804–69) fought one of the owners of Le Globe in heavy rain; Saint-Beuve held an umbrella throughout the duel, claiming that he did not mind dying but he would not get wet.” 1 likes
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