Reflecting on By the Sword

Cohen, Richard. By the Sword: Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai Warriors, Swashbucklers, and Olympians. London: Pocket, 2003.

I recall starting this book when I was much younger, driven by my desire to take and ingest all things sword and samurai. I remember my younger self being disappointed that though in the subtitle mentioned samurai, the book wasn’t based around the samurai, rather the evolution of fencing within the context of Europe, and what eventually led to Olympic fencing of today. Unfortunately, this book is about twenty years old, so the “today” aspect is dated, but nonetheless, Richard Cohen, a former British Olympic fencer, pieced together and consolidated Europe’s history and fascination with sword that pans thousands of years – a feat in of itself. From Ancient Rome to the German and Austrian fraternities of the eighteenth century, Cohen chronicles not only the sword’s history but dives into its constant evolution through the centuries and examines the many reasons why and how the sword has remained ever so popular in the minds of those who wield them. It should be noted that for most of Cohen’s work focuses on pre-Olympic fencing, or historical fencing, which greatly overlaps with the growing Historical European Martial Arts movements in both Europe and in the United States. From his work and others, the researcher can see how some of these fencing arts morphed, evolved, and standardized its practices to either gain and edge over an opponent or for the art to survive in some capacity.

Cohen begins with Ancient History, with the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians, explaining how each culture and civilization flourished in the Bronze Age and transitioned into the Iron Age, getting down the some of the nitty-gritty of sword making from those eras. Upon shifting the focus to Western Europe during the Middle Ages, mainly England, France, Spain, Germany, and Italy, he discusses the differences between the swordplay of each country and how each respective monarchs and governments viewed the steely art. England, as Cohen explained, did not enjoy the sword arts and did all that they could to regulate the practice and prohibit the gentry and those that had enough money to buy blades to duel each other, which ultimately led to many confusing and disheartening legal cases. The mainland countries, on the other hand, while issuing its own laws and regulations on swordplay and dueling, held a more liberal view of blood and steel. Ironically, with all this romanticism of the sword and dueling in the Middle Ages, there was still a prevailing notion that if one took up learning the sword, they would have been considered as a ruffian, an immoral person, and a criminal.

No matter what the general feeling of swords and those who used them, it was mainland Europe that saw the most duels during this period. Knights, aristocracy, civilians that had enough money to spare, fencing masters, and even kings attempted and participated in duels of their own, often resulting in death of one or both parties. These duels were rough and bloody affairs to which, as compared to later sections of Cohen’s work, there is sparely any deep detail in the specifics of how these combatants fought. It is on this similar theme to which he turns his attention to the fencing masters of the age, Middle Ages to the Renaissance, and their instructional manuals, or lack thereof.

The masters of Italy, France, Germany, and Spain spent time and effort to produce their manuals, however, some of the material they explained did not, for some master their high status, cover what others thought they would cover. Similarly, many issued what would be considered basic or fundamental movements, stances, positions, and other sorts, but these “basics” varied from master to master, a could differ greatly from country to country, as the Italians may focus on one specific basic unique to their style, but then the French may focus on something that the Italians would not think twice about not teaching a beginner. Even in times where the sword and steel found flesh and blood more easily than today, there were still no consensus on how fencing should be approached, taught, and regulated.

Cohen goes into detail about numerous aspects of fencing, one that is most important to the modern fencer is safety. He retells stories of fencing teachers who, while using a live blade with their students (who were also using live blades), would purposely inflict injury on them particularly in the eyes. Apparently, these teachers did not feel much remorse for their actions, nor the loss of a student and his reoccurring payments. However, safety did not become an object of focus for the greater fencing community until the French and others like them began to issue standardizations and what would be more akin to modern day Olympic fencing during the nineteenth century. Having a blade crack and break during a such a standardized and sportificated duel commonly resulted in drawing blood, mostly by accident, given the speed at which fencers fought each other. One such incident that Cohen discusses in detail is the untimely and accidental death of Soviet/Russian foil fencer Vladimir Smirnov when he faced West German foil fencer Matthias Behr in 1982 during the World Championships in Rome that year. As both foilists went on the advance, Behr’s blade broke, creating a point that ultimately rushed through the mesh of Smirnov’s mask, piercing him in the eye and into his brain. Behr was completely unaware of what occurred, as he turned around and walked towards his end of the fencing strip to restart. Cohen explains that the way his blade was made and how much force it was experiencing – the West German fencer could have had no idea that was going to occur, let alone result in the death of a high-level athlete. Smirnov’s was not the first accidental death from fencing, but the fencing community vowed to make it the last. His death was a watershed moment to where the community completely redesigned their equipment to ensure that such deaths like these never occur again. Blades switched from carbon steel to maraging steel, Kevlar replaced most of the material in the uniforms, and masks became two or three times stronger than the one Smirnov was wearing that bout.

The amount of detail and depth that Cohen goes into is staggering at times and overall commendable. He dives into duels in the United States, mainly presidential and political persons; the fully explains the might and ferocity of both the Italian fencers and Hungarian sabreurs, to the extent the Soviet Union wanted in; Cohen relates fencing and its hand in fascism, speaking to Benito Mussolini’s zeal and clumsy technique to some the Third Reich’s leaders and famous civilians. The number of facets within fencing’s long and multicultural history almost seems endless – one can keep going down the rabbit hole and never get closer to its end. Any researcher, historian, or avid fencer should give Cohen’s book a read and see for themselves how far down this rabbit hole goes.

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