Living by the sword
The sword of myth and legend became obsolete in the early 20th century with the disappearance of cavalry on the battlefield and the final abolition of duelling.
The weapons and practice of swordplay transformed into sport fencing, using lightweight, electrified sabres, epees and foils designed to score points, not injure.
So it would be difficult to imagine a more unlikely occupation at the beginning of the 21st century than professional swordsman, but Tasmanian Stephen Hand has made a sucessful career as a internationally recognised teacher, scholar, author, fight choreographer and practitioner of Medieval and Elizabethan sword fighting.
As a teenager in the 1980s, Stephen became interested in historical fencing through his involvement in Medieval re-enactment groups in Hobart. In a quest for technical expertise, he studied modern fencing and Kendo but neither of these were terribly relevant to the study of historical swordsmanship.
He was frustrated by the existing books on the subject which discussed 16th and 17th century primary sources for western martial arts but gave no practical advice on technique. But in the early 90s he discovered the full text of one of these treatises on the internet.
George Silver, a contemporary of William Shakespeare, had published Paradoxes of Defence in 1599, as a plea to Englishmen to avoid the modish, dangerous European rapiers designed solely for thrusting, which were being promoted into England by entrepreneurial Italian fencing masters.
Silver argued that the honest gentleman’s cut and thrust weapon, the shorter basket-hilted backsword, was safer for civilian use and more effective on the battlefield. He elaborated on his technique in a subsequent text Brief Instructions upon My Paradoxes of Defence.
His rival, Vincentio Saviolo, an Italian rapier master teaching in Elizabethan London, also wrote a treatise on his own technique in two Books, published in 1595. Stephen began studying both authors, analysing their texts line by line.
During the 90s he analysed and interpreted Silver and Saviolo, methodically reconstructing techniques that had been lost for centuries. After several years of teaching in a hapazard manner Stephen and two colleagues who shared his fascination founded a school of historical fencing, the Stoccata School of Defence (a stoccata is a straight thrust), in Sydney in 1998 to cater to the growing demand for accurate historical fencing tuition.
In 2000 Stephen was invited to teach at two international symposia in the United States. Returning the following year, Stephen won the rapier fencing tournament at the annual Western Martial Arts Workshop, against opponents from the best salles from around the world.
He is now recognised as a leader in the field, both as practitioner and teacher and has taught at over a dozen international Western swordsmanship symposia, demonstrating George Silver’s single sword system, early rapier according to Vincentio Saviolo, as well as an endemic English rapier technique developed by Joseph Swetnam, and the sword and buckler (a small fist-like shield) system from the earliest existing fencing manuscript.
Teaching in six different countries, Stephen has conducted dozens of seminars for historical fencers, re-enactors, stage combatants and Hollywood fight directors.
Author of books on the subject, he has also contributed to many journals and is the editor of Spada, a periodic anthology of essays on the theory and practice of historical fencing.
Stephen established a Hobart branch of the Stoccata School of Defence in 2004 and he also teaches Adult Ed courses in historical fencing techniques. Stephen’s latest anthology Spada II is due out soon, and his next book, English Swordsmanship: The True Fight of George Silver will be published later this year.
Stoccata enthusiast Suzy Manigian takes a break from practice
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