Saturday, December 02, 2006

By the Sword

By the Sword by Richard Cohen, 2003, Modern Library

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the seminal modern work on the history of fencing. This book is not really about how to fence, but about its history and many of the colorful characters that have taken up steel over the millenium. For not being an experienced author, Mr. Cohen does an admirable job of covering the subject in a thorough, and thoroughly readable, manner. The stories in here touch on many subjects, from the samurai of Japan to ancient duelling practices, to modern Olympic fencing champions.

One should note, however, that while all of these subjects are included in the book, this book is really about fencing, and not swordsmanship (or swordsmen) in general. The book's subtitle is "A History of Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai, Swashbucklers, and Olympic Champions." This isn't completely accurate, however, as the gladiators get a page or so, the musketeers get one chapter, and samurai get a few paragraphs and one good story about Miyamoto Musashi. Swashbuckling gets a chapter on swordfighting in movies, but most of the book is about fencing in the modern sense. As an experienced fencing champion, obviously the author knows much about this subject, but I must admit that I was expecting a more broad-based discussion of swordfighting over the years, which isn't what this book is really about. I must also note that the book is rather long, and especially towards the end there is just too much detail for a gneralist to take on all of the travails of fencing over the last 50 years. I just don't care enough, I guess.

That aside, the first half of the book is marvelous, touching on such disparate topics as medieval dueling practices, ancient Japanese codes of honor, and why what you see of swordfighting in movies is pretty much all wrong. I really enjoyed the discussions of how different swordfighting techniques evolved over the years, and how each European country tended to develop its own unique styles, even favoring special weapons designed for those styles. If more swordfighting was discussed in schools, the boys at least would likely show more of an interest in history. Pretty much everybody at least knew something of dueling a few hundred years ago, and this book has helped me to understand why that was and how it played into overall society. So, in the end this is a good book, but it is somewhat too long and too exculsively focused on fencing in the end.

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