Brawny Books: Edmond Desbonnet, The Kings of Strength (David Chapman Translation)

Very few things excite me more than a new book on physical culture. It’s a sad admission. Believe me I’m well aware but it is nonetheless true.

While the fitness industry is a haven for new, often uninformed, websites and ebooks, a well researched history is often lacking. One of the few men to consistently buck this trend is David Chapman.

Now for those who are unaware of David’s work (and you are in for a real treat if so), he is the author of multiple books on the history of physical culture. While many readers will likely know him from his excellent biography of Eugen Sandow, he has also produced excellent books on strongmen, strong women and, last year, a cowritten book with John Fair on muscles in the movies.

Getting deep down and nerdy, David is part of my Mount Rushmore of physical culture historians alongside John Fair, Jan Todd and Terry Todd. Not only does he do great research but he writes entertainingly.

With all this in mind, I return to my previous comment about being excited. You see, David has just published a translation of Edmond Desbonnet’s Rois de la Force. This is a pet projects of David’s that has been thirty years in the making.

Desbonnet was one of France’s most influential physical culturists in the later nineteenth and early twentieth century. He was the publisher and editor of La Cultur Physique – France’s premier physical culture magazine during this period -, the producer of mutiple workout manuals and a producer of workout materials.

For European lifters, Desbonnet’s influence cannot be understated. What furthers my love of Desbonnet is that he intuitively understood the importance of history. His writings in books and magazines often made reference to the lifters of yore and the strength athletes he believed would soon become legends.

It is at this point that we turn to Les Rois de la Force or The Kings of Strength. During his time, Desbonnet became concerned that the feats of his contemporary strongmen and women would be lost forever. He thus set about chronicling the biographies of these individuals.

The result was The Kings of Strength. This was an ambitious encyclopedia of strength athletes from the nineteenth and twentieth century. It was broad in scope and covered everyone from Sandow to Vulcana. Having worked in this field for over a decade, and having devoured a great deal of reading in this time, it is safe to say that Desbonnet’s work went unrivalled for several decades.

Indeed it was not until the 1970s and 1980s when David Webster and David Willoughby began to write biographies of strength athletes that a rival work emerged. There was just one problem for those of us in English speaking countries …. Desbonnet’s work was entirely in French, with no English translation.

Sure workarounds could be found. When I wrote my own history of physical culture in Ireland, I was able to read the book thanks to a paltry retention of French from my teenage years. Others I know would copy and paste portions from online copies into Google translate and make do. In either case it was not ideal.

David’s translation of The Kings of Strength is the first ever English translation of one of the most important physical culture texts ever written. This may seem like an exaggeration until I remind you that Desbonnet’s work is effectively a time capsule for the first great wave of strength athletes.

Alongside the translation of Desbonnet’s writings, David also provides the first full length biography of Desbonnet’s life. In it we get an insight into one of Europe’s most enigmatic strength enthusiasts.

This book is a must read for anyone interested in the history of fitness which, given that you’re reading this post, likely includes your good self. It is engaging, entertaining and downright fascinating. We’ve recently welcomed a budding physical culturist into out family and, despite massive sleep deprivation, I went through this book in three days.

I’ll likely continue to return to it again and again. As someone who writes a lot around the history of fitness, David has once again proven a source of entertainment, inspiration and, yes really, envy! His contributions and passion for this field are also welcomed by those struggling to swim in his wake, present company included.

So with the proviso that I have zero financial stake in this whatsoever, I’d encourage you to buy the physical or ebook print of The Kings of Strength. Trust me. You will not regret it!

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