It is telling that swords are so often named. Excaliber, Charlemagne’s Flamberge, Beowulf’s Hrunting, the Sword of Damocles ….
How many other weapons or objects for that matter, carry the weight or significance of a sword? In the 600-odd years that firearms have made their noisy presence felt, few, if any, of them carry the aura or mystique of the blade. The sword carries a power, elegance and personality within it, reflecting the user. The sword is, above all, a personal weapon, wielded up close, not remote or distant, whether on a battlefield, a dueling ground or a piste, it reflects the personalities behind them. Swords have always been symbols: of power, of choices, of status and honor, of elegance, skill, romance and justice. And of death and resolution.
Richard Cohen, Olympian and five times U.K. National Saber champion, has written a book that amply demonstrates that, while the pen maybe mighter then the sword, the sword has an abiding fascination and magic. By The Sword is a memorable and evocative history of swords, swordsmen (and women), duelists, swordsmiths, swashbucklers, fencers and beau sabreurs throughout the ages.
The book covers the earliest known history of the sword and fencing, stretching from ancient Egyptian wall murals and bloody gladiatorial Rome, to the heavy blades of the medieval European knights. Cohen paints a global picture, examining the samurai of feudal Japan who, when testing their blades, used criminals and peasants but for the honor of their swords, disdained testing them on murderers and those suffering from skin diseases. Cohen looks at the European culture of the sword, dissecting the age of the Musketeer’s and beyond with a discerning eye to detail and the people behind the blade. The book covers virtually ever facet of the sword including the hidden alchemy of metallurgy, the evolution of the design of the sword, it’s impact on fighting styles, the formalities (and legalities) of the duel and dueling culture (Ever wonder why you shake hands with your right hand? It demonstrates good faith as it was your sword hand), German schlager fighting, the rise of fencing as an Olympic sport, and modern fencing technology and styles.
Cohen brings an authoritative voice to the proceedings, if somewhat marred on occasion by the usage of technical terms that may be obscure to non-fencers. The book is filled to the brim with rich snippets of sword lore (Fencing elephants for example. Read the book if you don’t believe me) and vivid historical personages. Take for example such personages as the cross-dressing La Chevalier d’Eon, who’s prowess with a sword was superceded only by the public uncertainty over his/her sex (a matter not settled until after d’Eon’s death), or the deadly female duelist (and opera singer) Julie d’Aubigny, La Maupin, who scandalized Parisian society with her bisexual affairs and topped off her reputation by dueling three men at once (and defeating all three) during a masked ball at the Palais-Royal. George Patton, d’Artagnan, Descartes, George Washington, Basil Rathbone and countless others, famous and infamous, populate these pages, helping to make By The Sword a fascinating read and one of the very best history books I have read in a very long time.
Interested in Japanese swords? This may be the site for you.
Now please excuse me, I’ve got some buckles to swash…..