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

3.88  ·  Rating details ·  669 ratings  ·  87 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. 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 ...more
Paperback, 10th Anniversary Edition, 560 pages
Published August 5th 2003 by Modern Library (first published November 5th 2002)
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Average rating 3.88  · 
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 ·  669 ratings  ·  87 reviews

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Mar 21, 2007 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
Arun Divakar
Aug 20, 2014 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 12, 2014 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
HT Goodwill
Jun 04, 2007 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Those interested in history, swords, fencing, or dueling.
Shelves: martial_arts, history
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
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
Joe Vess
Jun 10, 2009 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
Jul 10, 2017 rated it it was ok
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
Apr 28, 2011 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! ...more
Dale Amidei
Aug 14, 2013 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. ...more
Mar 04, 2013 rated it liked it
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.
Edward Taylor
Sep 20, 2019 rated it really liked it
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
Jun 16, 2013 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
Dean Hamilton
Feb 09, 2012 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
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
Aug 24, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
William Mego
Nov 22, 2013 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
Jan 17, 2012 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
Mark Austin
Jan 11, 2018 rated it it was ok
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
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
Jul 27, 2014 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: sold
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
Aug 12, 2015 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
Lindsey Duncan
Mar 21, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
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 ...more
Jan 30, 2008 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
Nov 17, 2015 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
May 19, 2008 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
Nov 09, 2008 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 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
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.
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. ...more
Robert Tupper
Jan 09, 2008 rated it really liked it
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.
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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.” 2 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.” 2 likes
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