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A Review of “By The Sword: A History of Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai, Swashbucklers, and Olympic Champions, by Richard Cohen

The Vorpal Blade

The New York Times Book Review, March 2, 2003

by the sword book coverBy The Sword: A History of Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai, Swashbucklers, and Olympic Champions.
By Richard Cohen

”Coal,” ”Cod,” ”Caviar,” ”Blood,” ”Gin,” ”Tobacco” — call these books the children of ”Longitude,” the 1995 surprise best seller that showed that the microhistorical subjects previously restricted to academic dissertations — accessibly written and properly marketed — could draw a large popular readership.

Authors of such books tend to fall into one of the two categories Isaiah Berlin made famous in his essay ”The Hedgehog and the Fox.” Hedgehogs focus their ”single, central vision” on a subject with the aim of revealing its heretofore unrecognized centrality (”Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World,” ”Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization”). Foxes dart about, noting references to their topic throughout world affairs (”Coal: A Human History,” ”The Story of Corn”), the implicit argument being that ubiquity indicates importance. Occasionally one comes upon a book, like Jared Diamond’s ”Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies,” that combines foxlike sweep with hedgehoglike analysis.

Richard Cohen is definitely a fox. ”By the Sword,” his engaging, idiosyncratic history, ranges widely across centuries (from its Greek and Roman origins in war to contemporary Olympic sport) and countries. ”From the earliest days, from China and Japan in the East to Persia, Greece and Rome, the sword has served as a symbol of justice, power and righteous authority,” he writes. Few have been so perfectly positioned to write such a book. Metal is in Cohen’s blood, his family having owned one of Britain’s oldest foundries. He was first taught to fence at 13 by a Benedictine known as the Fighting Monk, and has been a five-time national saber champion and a four-time Olympian. Cohen recently appeared as an extra in the fencing scenes of the latest James Bond movie, ”Die Another Day.”

”By the Sword” succeeds in rendering that most iconic of weapons as both mythic and accessible. For a start, everyone who is anyone has fenced: St. Ignatius Loyola, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Sir Walter Raleigh, Descartes (whose treatise ”The Art of Fencing” has been lost), Milton, Handel, Goethe, Marx, Patton, Truman. Fencing’s popularity may have diminished, but its influence on cultural traditions (both West and East) remains deep. Men’s clothes button left over right so that a duelist might unbutton his coat ”with his left, unarmed, hand.” A gentleman offers a lady his right arm because at one time he would have had a sword dangling against his left hip. The custom of shaking hands upon greeting originated as a gesture to show that one was not reaching for one’s weapon.

The word ”sword” comes from the Old English sweord, whose Indo-European root means ”to cut, pierce.” As befits the descendant of a foundry owner, Cohen has much to say about the art of swordmaking. We therefore learn that urine will cool a blade more quickly than water; that Arab swordsmiths tested a new blade’s quality ”by placing it in a river, edge pointed upstream, where it was expected to cut floating leaves in half”; and that Japanese smiths performed elaborate purification rituals before making a sword. On a more corporeal note, Cohen adds, a Japanese blade’s sharpness would then be ”tested on the corpses of criminals (not murderers, or anyone with a skin disease).”

Cohen limits his history of the sword as object and focuses on its use in battle. The Romans perfected the thrusting maneuver and, with the invention of the stirrup, horsemen added the slashing technique to their repertory. The advent of the crossbow and the longbow during the Hundred Years’ War ended the supremacy of the mounted soldier, and the introduction of gunpowder further diminished the efficacy of armored men. In one of his many fascinating asides, Cohen describes a ritualized Chinese battle in which two opponents of equal social level would fight, with the victor presenting his victim’s head to his commander.

As its military use decreased, the sword was employed primarily for sport. The image of fencing that has lodged most firmly in the contemporary imagination is the duel. Giving rise to the code of chivalry by the end of the 13th century, dueling spawned an entire subculture of clubs — with names like Bold Bucks and Hell-fires — in which gentlemen would frequently fight to the death. Pushkin, for instance, was such an ardent duelist he once challenged his uncle ”for stealing his dancing partner at a country festival.” By the late 19th century the duel’s basic rules were codified. ”Seconds were expected to mark the standing spot of each combatant, leaving a distance of two feet between the points of their weapons, arms extended. Bouts were confined roughly to a 20-by-6 meter area, so that a running battle with combatants rushing about helter-skelter was impossible. The swords, rinsed with an antiseptic (carbolic acid) to avoid infection, were measured to establish that they were of equal length. . . . The combatants were requested to throw off their coats and bare their chests, to show that they were not wearing anything that could ward off a thrust.”

Cohen punctuates his narrative with a number of entertaining stories that a more orthodox scholar might have judged tangential. We read of the Chevalier d’Andrieux, who would force his defeated opponents to forswear God in exchange for their lives. ”On hearing their enforced blasphemy he would then run them through — in order, he said, to have the pleasure of dispatching body and soul in one.” And we learn of Helene Mayer, who represented Germany in the 1936 Berlin Games: ”She was Jewish, whatever her citizenship; but so long as everyone turned a blind eye she was also on the Olympic team.” Cohen also devotes an entire chapter to the unfortunately close relationship between fencing and fascism (Himmler, Göring, Juan Perón, Franco, Mussolini, Oswald Mosley and Reinhard Heydrich were all fencing enthusiasts).

With only 20,000 fencers and 750 clubs in the United States, the sport has largely lost its relevance in the modern world. It is to Cohen’s credit that without diminishing its mystique, he leaves one with the sense that the sword is an integral artifact for understanding everyday life.