Wednesday, April 28, 2010

"By the Sword" by Richard Cohen

Summary: A history of the sword and fencing and their relationship to individuals, countries, and eras.

Musings: I was a competitive fencer in college and eventually president of my college club.  I was never an especially strong fencer, but as I fenced in a southern state with little fencing presence, my club was fairly well-known for the area and I competed with some success.  Fencing played an enormous part of my life (I met my husband fencing and, crazily enough, five marriages have come out of the fencing cohort from when I was an undergrad), and although I no longer compete, I have always been fascinated by the sport.   In fact, my undergraduate thesis was on the history of women in fencing and the ways in which gender roles and assumptions have shaped women's participation in the sport. I first came upon Cohen's book when I was doing research for that paper.  Although I read most of it then, I was inspired to reread the book after looking for--and failing to find--modern fiction which includes realistic fencing.

The first half of the book is centered on the evolution of the sword, from early days of gladiators through the long history of dueling, primarily in European countries.  Although there's some interesting stuff here, particularly concerning the way in which dueling was used to act out "macho" codes of male behavior, the information didn't particularly appeal to my interests.

What I was interested in was the history and evolution of the modern sport of fencing, begun largely in the mid-19th century.  Here, for me, Cohen had some success and some misses.  A significant amount of time is spent on famous people, mainly authors and politicians, who fenced at some point in their lives.  Although it was scarily informational to learn about Fascist leaders' love of fencing, I wanted to read about star fencers, not hobbyists.

The last quarter or so of the book, then, was my favorite part.  I enjoyed reading about the development of the French and Italian schools of fencing, the invention of electric scoring, and the lives of the best fencers throughout the last century. I was surprised to learn of the dominance a select number of countries have had over the sport and the ability of one great fencing master to single-handedly bring a country to fencing prominence.  Sections of fencing injuries (few, but gruesome) and cheating in fencing were great. 

The "cheating" issue certainly reverberated with me, particularly in the area of directing fencing bouts, which despite the advent of electronic scoring, still has some measure of subjectivity.  As Cohen notes, there's a tendency to favor the better fencers, consciously or not, when a directing a bout.  In one of my clearest memories, I was fencing a significantly better fencer (for those for which this means anything, I was unranked and she was a B) in a the direct-elimination portion of a large high-ranked competition.  My opponent seemed to have only one move, a quick flick to the back, but her flicks weren't landing.  She complained about everything under the sun: my hair was blocking my target, my lame had a dead spot, etc, but despite the director insisting on multiple changes on my part, she couldn't land her hit.  I would have changed tactics, but she seemed devoted to the flick, and she tried another flick and I counterattacked.  No light went off on her side and the on-target light went off on mine, but the director gave her the point anyway.  I was rather peeved, as clearly she had not hit me, but my complaining would have made no difference.  I beat the whiny girl anyway and earned my rating. 

(I've no photos of the bout I mentioned above, but I thought I'd include a photo of my fencing.  I'm the one in the striped socks.  I choose this not because of my terrible half-lunge but because we're both dumbly looking at the box--and I scored.)

Cohen admits to not being comprehensive, and things are left out.  He does describes Japanese sword-making, but otherwise very little time is spent on Asian countries and their relationship to sword fighting or fencing.  Other than an interesting chapter on Helene Mayer, a German girl of Jewish grandparents who fenced for Nazi Germany, almost no time is spent on women's fencing (hence my thesis!).

By the Sword examines the ways in which sword fighting--central to every day and military life not too long ago--became fencing, a small and largely misunderstood sport, at least in the United States.  It was an eye-opening account for me, since as an American fencer, I knew only little pieces of the long European legacy.  Some sections can get dry, but the book certainly provides a comprehensive look at a mystical weapon.

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