Double-edged history

A four-time Olympic swordsman takes a stab at 3,000 years of the world's most romantic sport

Long before craven killers employed long-range scopes or sent biological toxins through the mail, individuals with particular grievances settled things simply: They dueled with swords.

In America, visions of such swash and buckle radiate from the silver screen, where a fleet Errol Flynn slaps steel with the ravishing Basil Rathbone as they plié down steep steps. From "Scaramouche" to "The Prisoner of Zenda," "The Mark of Zorro" to any one of the countless incarnations of "The Three Musketeers," American cinema swoons at the adroit sword fight, endowing the clash with the musky air of testosterone from a bygone era.

If only real dueling had ever been so neat, dashing, and simple.

In "By the Sword," Richard Cohen, a five-time British national champion at sabre and a four-time Olympian, repeatedly shows why swords of all stripes became forever linked with notions of chivalry, honor, and self-worth. In doing so, Cohen, whose droll British tone fits the subject perfectly, provides a fascinating, often blood-soaked history that globetrots through nearly 3,000 years of the art, science, and practice of swordplay.

It was Seneca, the practiced Roman stoic, who declaimed, "The sword fighter reveals himself only when he gets to the arena." Little did he know the aphorism would prove so prescient. Throughout history, swordsmen have been fiercely independent, often unknowable and focused primarily on their craft and specific charge: defending against slights, offenses, and comers of all sorts with skill, élan, and a trusty cold blade.

Cohen addresses universal bravery (and occasionally cowardice) by tracing the development of dueling and fencing in its modern aesthetic homelands: France, Britain, and Italy. He also does a phenomenal job of encapsulating the intriguing history of Olympic fencing in the 20th century, including the rise of Iron Curtain countries Hungary and Poland to international acclaim.

Further, Cohen covers every conceivable topic on swordsmanship - from the actual forging of the weapons and how the process has changed to the literature of fencing; from fencing in literature (Doyle, Chekhov, Dostoevski, Rostand, and Dumas) to swordplay in films. And, if that isn't enough, he devotes a chapter to the history of cheating in duels and contests; one to the Samurai belief in "Bun bu chi" (pen and sword in accord); and one to the mysteries of bottes secrétes, those secret thrusts long-rumored to provide a failsafe when in a difficult position.

He relates these tales through revealing vignettes that center on personalities, and not surprisingly, such a history contains plenty of vibrant characters.

Charles d'Eon, a Frenchman thought to be a woman (and who dressed as a woman, and at one point was legally declared a woman), was one of the best swordsmen of all time. James Crichton, a 16th-century Scot, fought as well as he thought. Peter Westbrook, America's dean of fencing, consistently faced harassment from the fencing establishment for being African-American and Korean. Bob Anderson, for years the sword master of the Royal Shakespeare Company, was a Hollywood sword-fight choreographer who donned the dark suit of Darth Vader for the light-sabre battles in "Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi."

For all the richness, outstanding range of research, and impeccable writing, it's Cohen's digressions and endless anecdotes that continually amaze and amuse.

For instance, we learn that the sides of the House of Commons are separated by the "precise length of two sword blades." Mussolini loved to fence, although he wasn't very good. Napoleon, Karl Marx, George Washington, Voltaire, and George Patton all fenced. So did Abe Lincoln and Harry Truman. In the 17th century, a Naples nobleman "fought some 20 duels to prove Dante was a greater poet than Ariosoto; at last he admitted he had read the works of neither." The father of basketball, James A. Naismith, was convinced fencing helped build strong bodies and minds, and he routinely sparred with his University of Kansas students when he was in his 70s. Russian poet Alexsandr Pushkin was noted for sword skills, but was killed in a duel (by pistols).

In this splendid, lively history, Cohen mixes dexterity with intelligence, flair with focus, and respect with charm - the perfect tools for play with either sword or word.

Mark Luce serves on the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Kansas City, Mo.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.