The origins of Stoccata go back to the early 80s when Stoccata founders Stephen Hand and Andrew Brew were both reading the currently available secondary sources on historical fencing, mainly Castle’s Schools and Masters of Fence and Wise's The History and Art of Personal Combat. Both were members of historical re-enactment groups, each looking for real historical systems that they could learn and teach, rather than simply making things up. Both also studied modern sport fencing in an attempt to discover the core principles of western swordsmanship.
Unfortunately, the books available at that time were dismissive of medieval fighting. Stephen was a member of The Medieval Society of Tasmania and grudgingly accepted that he might not find much to help him reconstruct medieval combat. Andy, however, was a member of the recently formed Pike and Musket Society of New South Wales and found much more useful material in the secondary texts.
In 1985 Andy and fellow Pike and Musket member David Green presented some embryonic reconstructions of generic “renaissance rapier” to re-enactors at an inter-group conference at Maldon, Victoria. After the demonstration Steve and Andy compared notes and discussed reconstructing historical swordsmanship long into the night. On his return to Tasmania Stephen tried to get members of the Medieval Society interested in reconstructing 17th century rapier fencing, with little success.
In 1989 Stephen moved to Sydney and immediately joined the Pike and Musket Society. He became an enthusiastic participant in rapier fencing, working with Andy and David to improve our understanding of how it was actually done. A breakthrough came in 1993 when Stephen found Patri Pugliese on the internet. Patri was a splendid gentleman from Boston who had made it his mission to collect and copy historical fencing manuals. Stephen immediately ordered one of everything.
Having the original manuals, rather than relying on secondary sources changed everything. Andy focussed on Ridolfo Capo Ferro’s Gran Simulacro of 1610, but lacking a translation found it tough going. Stephen decided to focus on English sources, settling on two works, Saviolo’s Practise and George Silver’s two works, Paradoxes of Defence and Bref Instructions Upon my Paradoxes of Defence. While Saviolo taught rapier (early rapier as we later discovered), Silver was railing against what he saw as subversive foreign influences on English swordplay. His second work sets out a coherent system for the use of what he calls the shortsword, a basket hilted single handed sword.
In 1995 Stephen and Peter Radvan, another long term medieval re-enactor, were asked to assist in teaching combat to a new Dark Ages re-enactment group, the Macquarie University Dark Ages Society. Very little is known of Dark Age combat. Pete initially wanted to teach what was then fairly standard re-enactor combat, while Stephen (still not knowing that there was much medieval material out there) argued that it would be better to teach Silver, a proven historical system, albeit one separated from the Dark Ages by several centuries. While it is almost certain that Vikings and Saxons did not fight like George Silver, Stephen felt that it would be pointless teaching inferior made-up techniques. He felt that a proven combat system from 1600 must be closer to the reality of Dark Age combat than a made up system from 1995. After initial resistance Pete became an enthusiastic convert, recognising how much more effective Silver’s system was.
By the late 90s it was becoming clear that historical swordsmanship was branching out from re-enactment and becoming its own activity. People outside of re-enactment were expressing interest in studying historical swordsmanship in its own right. Consequently Stephen, Andy and Pete decided to start a historical fencing school. It was decided to name the school Stoccata after the Italian word for a straight or rising thrust, a word also used by Silver to refer to one of his guard positions. The first formal night of teaching was at Gordon, Sydney in August 1998. Stephen taught a one hour class on Silver’s single sword, assisted by Pete, while Andy taught a class on Italian rapier, assisted by Steve.
At around the same time that Stoccata was forming, several other groups were coming to much the same conclusion and starting their own historical fencing schools. Scott McDonald formed the Australian College of Arms in Brisbane and organised the first Historical Fencing Meeting (later Historical Fencing Conferences) in Brisbane in September 1999. The second conference was organised by Stoccata in Sydney in 2000 and successful conferences were run in Canberra (2001 and 2005), the Gold Coast in 2002, Melbourne in 2003, Sydney again in 2004 and Brisbane in 2006. Unfortunately enthusiasm for the conferences waned after that. As part of the coming together of the different historical fencing schools, the Australian Historical Swordplay Federation was mooted in 2000 and formally started in 2002, with Stoccata’s Stephen Hand as the inaugural President. It included six groups and was successful in fighting repressive anti-sword legislation in Victoria and New South Wales.
May 2000 saw Stoccata become part of the wider international historical fencing community. Stephen Hand was invited to teach at the first two international historical fencing conferences. These were held within two weeks of each other (deliberately, to allow overseas instructors to attend both) in Lansing, Michigan and Houston, Texas, both in the USA. Stephen presented Silver and Saviolo at both events, where he met and fenced with many of the early pioneers of historical fencing. Also during this trip Stephen gave a lecture at the Higgins Armory, in Worcester Massachussets, one of the largest collections of Medieval and renaissance arms and armour in the world.
At the event in Houston, hosted by HACA (later ARMA), a group called the Swordplay Symposium International was founded to further research and host international Symposia. While the group never managed to host another event it did sponsor publication of two volumes of research, edited by Stephen Hand. Spada (2002) and Spada II (2005) set the standard for the fine research that has followed in this field. Eight out of the 20 scholarly papers in the two volumes were authored by Stoccata members.
Over the next few years Stephen travelled across the globe, teaching fencing at many international conferences, and at private seminars. Later Stoccata’s fourth Provost, Paul Wagner joined him and now regularly travels and teaches overseas.
Paul Wagner was a member of the Macquarie Dark Ages Society and was present at the first night of Stoccata in 1998. He quickly became Stoccata’s top student and in 2004 played a Provost’s prize, the first person outside the initial three founders to do so. Part of Paul’s grading was to conduct original research, which he did into the sword and buckler system of MSS. I.33. This culminated in a book by Paul and Stephen on the system, which was released in 2003 to accompany Professor Jeff Forgeng’s fine translation. Paul was also a prominent contributor to both volumes of Spada. Stephen and Paul have both gone on to write other books, cementing Stoccata’s place as one of the premier research and teaching schools in the world.
Stoccata has also put its money where its mouth is, with members winning several prestigious international competitions. In 2001 Stephen won the rapier fencing tournament at Western Martial Arts Workshop in New York, while in 2013 Paul won the Gloriana Cup, the backsword championship of all England.
Stoccata has also grown significantly from its origins. In 2004 Stephen Hand decided to return to his native Tasmania, where he set up a branch of Stoccata. Since then Stoccata in Sydney has gone from strength to strength, spawning new branches across Sydney and into regional New South Wales. We have a fifth Provost, Rick Cullinan, who specialises in Bolognese sidesword. Stephen Hand has just completed working as the Fight Director on the Feature Film Macbeth: 1040AD. In the future Stoccata members will continue to teach in Australia and across the world, will conduct and publish new research and will lend their swordfighting skills to a range of theatrical and historical organisations.