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By the Sword: A History of Gladiators, Musketeers, Duelists, Samurai, Swashbucklers and Points of Honour [Hardcover]

Richard Cohen
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)

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Book Description

8 Nov 2002
Though fencing is seen as a graceful and noble sport, it is not without its seamy side. "By the Sword" traces the darkness behind the mask, from the sport'searly brutal days to the more civilized, yet no less dangerous, days of duelling and then to the present day. Abraham Lincoln, Karl Marx and Mussolini were all involved in duels, Hitler gave fencing a special emphasis in his regime and the best fencer the world has even seen as an anti-Soviet spy. Richard Cohen explains how these disparate people came to be bonded by the same sport as well introducing other aficiondados such as Henry VIII, Mozart, Byron and Marcel Marceau. Against this historical tableau, Cohen also delves behind the headlines exposing lurid tales of cheating and blackmail, of murder and strange love affairs, the honour and dishonour of swordmanship and its cultural side from "The Three Musketeers" to "Star Trek". Above all the book portrays the character of fencing - at once graceful, balletic, rough, technically beautiful and fiercely competitive. Richard Cohen traces these subtleties, the passions that it arouses in its players, and explains his personal devotion to this ancient art.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Macmillan; First Edition edition (8 Nov 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0333901924
  • ISBN-13: 978-0333901922
  • Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 16.2 x 4.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 572,520 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description

Review deals with the big themes of chivalry, the need to compete and that elusive quality that men call "honour". -- Sebastian Faulks

In this enormously learned but also gripping book, Richard Cohen... succeeds in conveying the sensations, excitement and sometimes terror of the contest. -- John Keegan, Military Historian

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 (Author of The Surgeon of Crowthorne)

About the Author

Richard Cohen is the author of By the Sword. He was previously publishing director of Hutchinson and Hodder & Stoughton and the founder of Richard Cohen Books. He has written for the New York Times, the Guardian, the Observer, the Daily Telegraph, and the New York Times Book Review and has appeared on BBC radio and television. In 2004 he was appointed Visiting Professor of creative writing at Kingston University and is the recipient of a Sloan Foundation grant for this book. He lives in New York City. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fencing - the new rock and roll? 7 Dec 2002
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Of all the weapons of war and combat, the sword has fascinated more and for longer than any other. 'By the Sword' is an entertaining, informative and eminently readable journey through the history of swordsmanship from gladiators to Olympic athletes, taking in the antics of famous swordsmen and swashbuckling filmstars, and including an interesting (but hopefully not too helpful) section on how to cheat.
Somebody wrote recently in the Times that fencing is the new rock and roll. Its comeback in the film business, and particularly the work of Bob Anderson on -- among others -- the Lord of the Rings and others gets due treatment in this book.
Whether you are a fencer, or a former fencer, or a lover of interesting stories and interesting characters, this is a book to linger over long winters evenings or bright spring mornings.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
The book is an impressively researched history of fencing.
As such, the main goal is the concept of one-on-one combat, first as duels, then, progressively, as a sport.
While the book devotes some pages to swords in general, their military use, and their role in other cultures (like Japan) the majority of the text is devoted to the west and to non-military uses of the sword (including staged fights for movies and theatrical plays).
What the book excels at is a vivid portrait of fencing, with hundreds of historical figures, episodes and little-known facts. As such it is pretty entertaining even for people (like me) who know little or nothing about fencing.
On the other hand, I feel that after having read it I have absorbed a lot of trivia on the subject, but I still feel pretty ignorant about fencing. The author often uses technical terms (tierce, fleche...) which I am unable to visualize in my mind, and this somehow diminishes the experience: lots of the fights described in the text would probably be more striking if I were able to understand what happened.
In a sense, is like reading an history of chess, including the various quirks of famous historical masters, without actually know anything about the game itself.
Perhaps what I wanted is too difficult to express on paper, or would have required too much dry pages with drawings and pictures. The book is still pretty accessible to the layman, and is fun to read, anyway, and I understand why the author prefers to go for the historical episodes and short portraits of famous fencers instead of drab technical pictures.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
I was bought this book some years ago and have only just picked it up (I'm an avid book acquirer, but don't read as much as I would like!).

It's a very enjoyable book for me as a recreational fencer, but I feel some of the less complimentary reviews treat this as a 'history of swordplay'. In reality, although it touches on some history of swords in Japanese culture and Medieval times (and some oddities like Sword Swallowing!), it is a history of competitive fencing whether dueling or sport fencing.

If you take it as this (rather than expecting a detailed history on the use of swords as weapons of war) it will be an entertaining and enjoyable read for the fencer and non-fencer alike.

The number of references to famous historical figures (writers, politicians, actors, etc) saves the book from being a dry text only of interest to fencers and the author's style is lively and enjoyable.

I asked for the book as I found it very cheaply (and you can't argues with used copies for 1p!), but I didn't really expect to find it such an enjoyable read.

I feel anyone with even a passing interest in dueling or fencing would enjoy the book, providing they don't go in expecting the definitive history of 'Sword play'.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting history 30 July 2010
By Gareth Wilson - Falcata Times Blog TOP 500 REVIEWER VINE VOICE
As a huge fan of fantasy I've always been fascinated with the whole sword play angle, be it the old fashioned hack and slash or the more refined duelling. Within this offering you get a history of sword work by a well known and talented swordmaster. Beautifully written with some of the authors personal anecdotes make this offering one of the best titles I've read about the development on this subject. Definitely a book that I'm going to have "borrowed" by my Dad who's just as crazy as I am.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Touché! 5 May 2007
This is a perfect book for people interested in miscellaneous trivia on sports, history / cultural history, anecdotes on fascinating people and happenings you never heard about. It is true that Richard Cohen does not explain the technical terms of fencing that for him are as familiar as his own palms. For a fencer wanting to know more about the history of his/her sport it would be boring to have them spelled out, and a non-fencer can manage without the technical details. On the other hand, if your knowledge about fencing (like mine) is based on the Errol Flynn movies, a book like this probably stimulates your curiosity and makes you read more about the technique of fencing. For a person with a curiosity in everything unfamiliar this book is a fountain of interest and amusement. In addition to this, "By The Sword" reads like an excellent novel, the author moves in his own world and takes the reader into it with him in a most entertaining fashion. I recommend this book to sportsmen and culture enthusiasts alike.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars You'd have to be a real fencing fan to find this interesting
This is reasonably well written, though the author has a habit of messing with timelines so one can find oneself a bit confused. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Michael Bolton
5.0 out of 5 stars Book worth to buy and as personal collection!
It's a great book to read especially on the history of fencing. It can be referred for fencers either beginners or professionals of the details of origin for fencing. Read more
Published 4 months ago by L'homme du Arma
4.0 out of 5 stars A very interesting book
I picked this up as a fencer of mid-level ability, and reading it has doubled my enthusiasm for the sport. Read more
Published 23 months ago by Hideo
1.0 out of 5 stars Ill informed
The author clearly knows nothing of the history of western martial arts beyond his own specific and limited field which is predominantly sports and stage orientated. Read more
Published on 15 Mar 2010 by Mr. P. B. Saddington
5.0 out of 5 stars Swashbucklingtastic!!
This book is proberly one of the best i have read on the history of the sword and fencing in general. Each section is carefully wrighten and the hole book is very hard to put down! Read more
Published on 8 Jan 2004 by "smokingbunney"
4.0 out of 5 stars A good read for the person interested in fencing.
A comprehensive and entertaining look at swordsmanship down the ages. The author has succeeded well in using anecdotes, history and fact to produce a readable book that avoids... Read more
Published on 3 Dec 2003 by S. Howarth
3.0 out of 5 stars A bit to much to chew... for author and reader alike
This is a well written book and an impressive work. I quite like it, yet there are things that annoy me and which pulls down my overall appreciation of it
Being a sport fencer... Read more
Published on 25 July 2003 by Henning ÷sterberg
4.0 out of 5 stars Try Parrying That, Rousseau!
This is a very enjoyable book on "swordsmanship" through the ages, with fascinating historical tidbits on the equipment and accoutrements, and many exciting, funny (and horrific)... Read more
Published on 25 Feb 2003 by Bruce Loveitt
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent
This is a thoroughly entertaining read for fencer and non-fencer alike - plenty of good boy's own antics coupled with genuine scholarship on both the art of the swordsman and the... Read more
Published on 8 Jan 2003 by Machiavelli
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