By the Sword – A Book Review

By the Sword: A History of Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai, Swashbucklers and Olympic Champions, by Richard Cohen, 2002, Random House, New York.


As a boy in northern British Columbia, we lived in an old log cabin on a section of hilly land with a creek and a river.

The first winter we lived there in the early 1960s, my mother and father and three boys endured each other in the original 20 x 30 foot building with its shingle roof. The snow was heavy that winter, and my father decided that among his many modifications to the cabin come spring and summer, we should put on an aluminum roof the better to induce snow to slide off.

Before the aluminum went on, thick tarpaper had to first cover the roof planks. And to keep that tarpaper there without tearing itself off the nails we hammered in, we put lath down, two-inch by maybe 1/4 inch slices of wood, perhaps three or four feet long.

Now you take a piece of that lath and hammer on a short crosspiece as a guard, and you’ve got yourself a nifty little sword. At least I thought so, and I managed to talk my younger brothers into a short period of enthusiasm about sword-fighting with these impromptu weapons as well.

bigswordfightingBy short, I mean perhaps less than half an hour before my mother discovered us and used that ultimate rationale of parental control: “Stop that, you boys! You’ll put an eye out!” A pause to see if that took hold, and when it didn’t, she took steps. “Give me that!… And don’t you do this again. You’ll put an eye out!!”

And such was her power, and the fear she instilled about our eyes, that we didn’t dare take up lath fencing ever again. And she was right, of course, although my dismay at this rude interference was long lasting.

Research indicates that there are real differences between the toys (and the activities they generate) of girls and boys. Boys prefer wheeled contraptions and weaponry, apparently. Studies of primates and monkeys leads me to think this difference is hard wired and not just socialization.

zorroIn any case, by the time I got to university in the southern part of the province years later, I hadn’t lost the romantic yearning to take up the sword. Years earlier, one summer after my father died, we had travelled to the States to visit a variety of relatives and for some reason watched a lot of TV with old black and white movies of Errol Flynn, Basil Rathbone and others bashing blades. Ever since, I ached to take some kind of sword in hand again.

fence4I joined the university fencing club and took lessons. Over the years, I went on to fence foil and a little epee in New York and Vancouver, and I still fence occasionally at a community centre in Richmond in the Lower Mainland. Fencing has always been a recreational pursuit for me, rather than a serious competitive one, but I’m experienced enough now and still spry enough to hold my own with most, at least with the foil. And it’s still fun and a work-out…

I Finally Get to the Book Review

bytheswordSo I come by my interest in Richard Cohen’s book By the Sword naturally. Cohen is an Olympic level sabre fencer (the third modern fencing weapon, after the foil and epee, and the only one that uses the blade edge as well as the point to score), who decided to write this history of sword fighting to tell how fencing became the sport it is today.

He quotes the 19th Century historian of the sword Egerton Castle on fencing: “… a superior kind of pastime, combining mental excitement and bodily exercise — the excitement of a game of skill not entirely independent of chance, together with the delight — innate in all healthy organisms — of strife and destruction — and an exercise necessitating the utmost nervous and muscular tension while it affords the refined pleasure of rhythmical action.”

The book’s subtitle gives the organization — and the omissions — of this history intended for a general audience. There is much on the Western history of swordsmanship, and a chapter on the Japanese and the samurai, but there is no more than that of the sword in the East, and many threads of its Western history are necessarily bypassed as well, as the author readily admits.

capo-smallThe beginning of the book covers much the same ground, although in more detail, as Barbara Holland’s Gentlemen’s Blood. There is something about fencing, and duelling, that often borders on the ridiculous, and collects to itself absurd stories. Holland’s book brought this to the reader’s notice again and again, and Cohen often bemusedly notes the same tendency.

There was that time, for instance, when duels were used by the courts to determine who had the right of the matter at hand.

“Before long, expert duellists were committing all manner of crimes, confident that they could ‘prove’ their innocence simply by defeating their accusers — for the right to call for trial by combat was not formally repealed in England until 1819.”

Fighting at one point became so widespread in England in the 1500s that one would find while walking the streets at dawn, “dead men, with holes in their breasts…, pale faces resting on doorsteps or merchants’ houses, or propped up and still bleeding, hid away in church porches.”

Ben Jonson, the writer and playwright, for instance, was working on a play when he killed a fellow actor in a rapier duel. He pled guilty and throwing himself on the mercy of the clergy, forfeited all possessions and was branded on his left thumb.

Shakespeare learned to fence under the tutelage of an Italian master. Elizabethan audiences took stage fights very seriously: it was not unusual for unruly members of the audience to join in the action on-stage, and eventually an ordinance was passed banning the wearing of swords to the theater.

FencingMasterCohen says there are 437 references to sword in the Shakespearan canon. Many of the Bard’s plays have swordfighting central to them.

Cohen’s book is full of fascinating detail, stories and photographs. Unfortunately I can’t even begin to cover many of them here. So I will use the shorthand of describing some of the highlights, and lowlights, that I found while reading Cohen’s work, before this post becomes like an oversized sword, lengthy and unwieldy.


  • There is much here on the early history of the transition from the duel of law to the duel of chivalry and “honor.” Cohen, for instance, tells of the celebrated duelist, James Crichton (1560-1583) who by the age of 20 spoke eleven languages, sang and played all kinds of musical instruments, and had what we might call today a photographic memory. Crichton served in the French army for two years, and travelled in Italy, where he built a reputation as a great orator. In Mantua, the home of “a much-feared Italian bullyboy” who often toured Europe challenging all comers, Crichton came up against this fellow just after this worthy had killed three opponents in three days. Crichton so completely overwhelmed this opponent, while wearing a sweet countenance, no less, that the Duke of Mantua rewarded him by making him tutor to his dissolute son. Crichton was attacked by masked thugs one evening while making his way home. He disarmed the ringleader who, begging for his life, turned out to be the Duke’s son. Crichton apologized. He handed his sword as a peace-offering to his pupil, who promptly took it and killed Crichton, not yet 24.
  • “Dueling as a partial substitute for ambushes, gang warfare, blood feuds and assassinations was by now an accepted fact of life throughout Europe. No law had more than a transitory effect: it was like trying to ban adultery.”
  • The chapter on the great swordmakers and the famous swordmaking cities of the Middle East and Europe — Damascus, Toledo, Solingen — is fascinating in its account of the relatively advanced technology involved.
  • There was a time when swordsmen believed there might be a magical special perfect thrust that could win all their fights for them. Cohen gives amusing accounts of how certain fencing masters took advantage of this quest to gather students around them.
  • Also fascinating to me was the story of fencing and swordplay in the cinema. Douglas Fairbanks, the short leading man of five foot five, was apparently the best actual athlete to have fought with a sword in the movies. Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn may not have been very good fencers, but they knew how to look dramatic as they lunged.
  • Several actresses also have wielded swords, from Grace Kelly to Lana Turner to Catherine Zeta-Jones.
  • Presidents as different in temperment as Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Truman were fencers. Even Lincoln fought a duel.
  • And then there is the whole fascinating custom of the German Mensur: in secret locations, students to this day in Germany, Austria and Switzerland whack at each other’s heads with heavy sabres, and the scars are greeted with great pride.


  • Cohen’s account of the political intrigues of modern fencing bog down for me. His descriptions of the personalities involved obviously have meaning for him, as he fenced or at least knew many. But I think this is a case of a writer being too close to his subject and treating it as more fascinating than anybody reading is likely to find it. (Perhaps like this post!)
  • I was disappointed at the lack of a more technical history, which could have been done here or there without losing the intended general audience. I’m thinking about the importance of the measure, the distance between the fencers, which is left almost totally undiscussed, or more on the change in techniques such as the fleche and disengagement as we move to the modern weapons.

But on the whole, Cohen’s work is both enjoyable and informative. It left me, oddly perhaps, with pride that I too fence, and that I have participated in the mystique of the sword in the very limited way I have.

theatrical lungeMy relationship to the sword, though, remains that of a boy. When I once held an authentic samurai sword and struck experimentally through the air with it a few times, the experience of its stark killing menace disturbed me.

I much prefer to strike a pose and wave my lath in the air for fun.



Notes on images:

The historical images come from either this medieval martial art group or this gallery (which also had the Zorro photo).

The sabre fencing photo came from

The last photo by Merlin Hendy is from an online article about a ballet production showing Jonathan Byrne Ollivier in Northern Ballet Theatre’s The Three Musketeers.

Explore posts in the same categories: Book Review, Culture, Fencing, Fitness, Martial arts

4 Comments on “By the Sword – A Book Review”

  1. As late as the late 18th century William Godwin wrote a whole chapter in his Political Enquiry on dueling’s contribution to civilization. Now we use our cars to the same effect.

  2. fencer Says:

    Hi Mr. Beer,

    That’s interesting… Barbara Holland at the end of her book mentioned above tongue in cheek (I think) makes the same suggestion about the possible social utility of dueling, after tearing the whole idea apart savagely page after page.

    I just looked Godwin up in Wikipedia… didn’t know of him before, but quite intriguing fellow.


  3. fencer Says:

    Hi Rick,

    Thanks for letting me know of this book! I hadn’t heard of it before. Onto my list of books to get (eventually, after I finish my backlog…)

    Ah, a Red Wings fan… I remain studiously neutral…


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