by Richard Cohen
New York: Modern Paperback Library, 2003. Pp. xxiv, 519 pages.
Illus., notes, index. $15.95 paper. ISBN:0-8129-6966-9
While Richard Cohen’s By the Sword isn’t directly related to the topic of military history, it does provide the reader with a rare and fascinating glimpse into the development of the sword, a weapon that played a pivotal role in warfare for at least three millennia.
A former Olympic fencer himself, the author starts off by telling us that it was the ancient Assyrian king, Nimus, who first made fencing into a formal sport and hired fencing masters to teach his troops swordsmanship. Cohen then tells the reader that the classical Greeks, for all their record of military success against the Persians and in producing brutally efficient soldiers like the Spartans, looked down on the art of swordplay. They admired skill with the javelin more than the sword, feeling that it was a weapon of last resort only.
Cohen devotes an entire chapter to the art of sword-making. He tells the secret of the Damascus steel, used to make some of the most highly prized swords of the Middle Ages. The city’s famous sword smiths would use special steel ingots imported from India that were a mixture of low-carbon and high-carbon iron alloys that gave Damascus blades the combination of strength and flexibility that made them so highly valued in their time.
Each culture would have its own unique way of testing the sharpness of a newly forged sword. Arab smiths would place a new blade point down in a stream to see if it could cut a drifting leaf. The Japanese used what had to be the most gruesome method of all to test a blade’s quality: one medieval Japanese sword smith certified his blades through the use of the iai, a special upward thrust that involved chopping a condemned criminal in two by slicing him from hip to shoulder.
One of book’s charms is that Cohen populates it with interesting characters. We learn that d’Artagnan, the famous hero of Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers, actually existed. Born in 1615, the French swordsman led a life just as adventurous as the one described in Dumas’s novel, including service as a secret agent for Cardinal Mazarin, the successor to the fictional d’Artagnan’s nemesis, the real-life Cardinal Richelieu.
One truly strange personality was the 18th century French swordsman, the Chevalier d’Eon. The best fencer of his day, the Chevalier was also Europe’s most notorious transvestite. In 1787, when he was 59, he participated in a duel in London witnessed by the Prince of Wales and other members of English high society; Dressed like a grandmother, and nearly 20 years older than his opponent, d’Eon still won the match, outscoring his adversary by seven hits to one.
As the stories of d’Artagnan and the Chevalier d’Eon show, it is the idea of the duel that ties Cohen’s book together. Long after the sword began to lose its military utility, the ability to use a blade remained a mark of character and skill. Otto von Bismarck, Germany’s Iron Chancellor, was a duelist during his student days. Even Karl Marx learned to fence. In pre-Civil War New Orleans there was a dueling ground called “The Dueling Oaks” where at one point up to a dozen duels were held every week.
And sometimes the art of the sword was an aid to the imagination. The duels in Alexandre Dumas’s books were more than just the products of a vivid imagination. T he French novelist took fencing lessons three times a week.
The tradition of using swordplay to settle matters of honor survived throughout the 20th century. Duels were being held in Italy as late as the 1920s. Even modern Germany, the land of Siemens and BMW, still quietly maintains the custom of the duel. Cohen notes that between 1500 and 2000 non-lethal duels are still fought in Germany and Austria every year. And though it’s never mentioned in their quarterly reports, some German companies require a dueling background if a person wants to become a senior executive. Settling affairs by the sword seems to fulfill a primal need for pe