It was a Catholic priest – Dom Philip Jebb, the ‘fighting monk’ and later headmaster of Downside School – who introduced Richard Cohen (alongside, as it happens, your reviewer) to fencing in the 1960s – just one of the many ironies which this new and full history of the ancient art and modern sport of swordplay delights in.
There can be few activities as old or varied as the disciplined exchange of two foes bearing sticks of steel trying to hit or kill each other. Depending on your era or intentions, fencing is an act of war, a mediaeval spectacle, a judicial device to establish guilt or innocence, a defence of honour, the murdering of your enemy and, of course, a way to woo women (those sexy German sabre scars). For some writers, swordplay is the perfect simile for life. For the German Goebbels it was ‘the only instrument with which one can conduct foreign policy’. The more philosophically minded Orientals see fencing as the instrument of self-perfection.
The sword itself oscillated between being a soldier’s weapon, the staff of the brigand, a gentleman’s fashion accessory and, in the words of the Japanese writer, Eiji Yoshikawa, ‘an answer to life’s questions’. It finally settled (oriental martial arts weaponry excepted) on being a flexible piece of electrified steel, the ‘equipment’ of a modern Olympic sport whose antiquity is equalled only by field athletics: we are reminded that the oldest depiction of a fencing match is an Egyptian relief dating from around 1190 BC.
Richard Cohen, who fenced for Britain in the Olympic Games, has produced not just a history of swordplay but a vivid account of its development over three millennia, full of fact and anecdote interspersed with a regular flow of personal reminiscences, some more relevant to his story than others. There are chapters on fencing’s early history from 12th-century BC Egypt through to the times of the Greeks (not very good at it) and Romans (better), the European Dark Ages (crude and bloody), the mediaeval era of jousting and warfare (crude and haphazard), Renaissance times (ritualised and plain dangerous) and beyond, as the different strands of swordplay – promoting war, making sport, defending honour (this last surviving in Germany to the 1950s) – ran in parallel. There are also accounts of the great swordmakers, of duelling, of fencing masters, of injuries and the depiction of fencing in literature and film. The details and stories tumble over each other: during the opening nine years of the reign of Louis XIV 900 Frenchmen were killed in duels; four American presidents, including George Washington, were keen fencers; in 18th-century India elephants were taught to fence against themselves and the local soldiery; the 19th-century Greenland Inuit settled matters of honour not with the sword but with songs; the first constitution of the modern state of Israel expressly permitted duelling. With so much to put in, selection must have been hard and one’s only gripe is that modern British fencing has been a bit short-changed.
The sections on the 20th century are among the most compelling and interesting to modern fencers who will be familiar with many of the characters, from the Italian Mangiarotti dynasty, the Frenchman d’Oriola, and, most (in)famous of all, the barber and coach from Germany, of whom more below. Among the more interesting strands to emerge during the last 100 years is the interplay between fencing and fascism (fencing frequently attracted right-wing politicians, witness Himmler, Peron, Franco, Mussolini, Mosley, Heydrich) and fencing and communism, when it became an emblem of postwar East European achievement. It was also used by one of the century’s most successful competitors as a cover for Cold War spying.
From an early stage the sword was associated with intelligence and honour and those who held it contrasted socially and morally with the foot soldier who wielded mere lances, axes and arrows. In fact, this antagonism of the aristocratic and plebeian are the twin strands of a teasing dualism that lies at the heart of nearly all swordplay, whether sport or something more determinedly vicious. As Cohen’s narrative approaches the 20th century it emerges as the unspoken theme of the book and makes sense of the extravagant detail with which the reader is in danger of being overwhelmed. For every fencer who picks up a sword in the spirit of chivalry and fair play, valuing style and good form no less – sometimes more – than effectiveness, there are others who regard such niceties as a barrier to the ‘real’ objective: to win or take life. Jousting and duelling, with its instinct to kill-but-not-kill, is a ritual which allows the protagonists to sail as close to the wind as possible without actually causing death, yet in a manner which makes death highly probable and turns the duel into an act of premeditated manslaughter.
Once fencing became an international sport the desire to win at all costs acquired new outlets and there is a grim chapter detailing no less than eight different ways the modern fencer-athlete might cheat. Cohen then goes on to recount several stories of individual honour pitted against political and financial forces – none so compelling as that of Emil Beck and Arnd Schmitt, a modern fable of the struggle between the street fighter and the knight. Beck, a barber turned coach from central Germany, developed an approach to fencing which infuriated those reared in the French and Italian traditions in which the battle to win was fought within the framework of a series of stylised movements designed to promote safety and spectacle. Beck had no training as a ‘maestro’ and saw these conventions as a barrier to his objective, which was to win at any price he could get away with. (I recall being terrorised by him during my first foray into international competition.) Out went the aesthetic of fencing – and many of the rules designed to preserve it – and in came naked thrusting, as well as much else to smooth his way to the victor’s rostrum. But he had an opponent. Although nearly all his contemporaries had thrown in their lot with the Beck empire which brought sponsorship and medals, one fencer stood out. Arnd Schmitt, despite his youth, overwhelming pressure and financial inducements, resisted Beck’s attempt to bring him into the fold and went on to win Olympic gold and become one of Germany’s most successful fencers ever. The balance between honour and aggression had been restored.
Yet at its best fencing brings together in one person the opposing qualities of artist and fighter. The words of Peter Westbrook, a mixed-race American reared in the rougher quarters of New Jersey, tells its own story:
I had only one objective: to win. If I am fencing with you my whole heart and soul are concerned. How can I do this gracefully and effortlessly? I try to become aware of your slightest weaknesses, the ones you don’t even know you have. Then I capitalise on them. . . To do this in life is a crime; but to do it in the sport of fencing is to create beauty and art.
From Egyptian swordsmen to modern athletes, it was ever thus.
James Noel is a former international fencer.