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The Ever-Fixed Mark

The proof-read draft of my new book previously titled “The Longsword of Fiore dei Liberi” came back from the proof reader on Friday literally tied up with red tape!

I’m thinking of re-titling it “From Medieval Manuscript to Modern Practice: The Longsword Techniques of Fiore dei Liberi”. This describes the book better, and hopefully using the not-so-accurate word “techniques” (instead of the more correct “plays”) will make more sense to people who are not currently Fioristas.
With luck this will be in layout by the end of the week…
In the break between applying the editor’s corrections and getting the manuscript back from the proof reader, I’ve been mostly doing woodwork: building some Pilates equipment for my wife, a box to keep medicine in for my father, and finishing the second bookcase. I also built a shooting board, which is a critically useful tool especially for working on small pieces of wood. Its primary function is planing the ends of pieces of wood square, or at exactly 45 degrees (for mitres).

I followed Paul Sellers’s method, as shown here.
Why am I telling you all about my woodworking? Because it got me thinking about compounding errors. Any error in the shooting board will be repeated in anything I cut on it. That’s a simple repeating error. Bad, but fix the shooting board and the error goes away. We need fixed reference points to measure our work against and woodwork makes this exceptionally clear.
When dimensioning wood by hand, we always proceed as follows:

  1. Create one flat surface (usually by planing). This is the ‘reference face’.
  2. Create one flat surface square to the reference face. This is the ‘reference edge’.
  3. Create one more flat surface square to the reference face and parallel to the reference edge. This is just the other edge. It’s worth nothing, never measure off it.
  4. Create one more flat surface square to the reference edge, and parallel to the reference surface. This is just the other face. Never trust it.
  5. Cut one end square to the reference face and edge.
  6. Cut the other end square to the reference face and edge, at the right distance from the first end. These ends are also not usually used as reference surfaces, though there are exceptions such as cutting dovetails (hence the need for a perfect shooting board).

All future measurements on the timber will be made in reference to the reference edge and face. Yes, if you’ve done the work properly, you can mark a line square all round and it will meet up perfectly. But you still don’t trust that other face or edge. Because the slightest errors there will compound.
When cutting a dozen pieces to the same length, you always pick one for your reference length, and make each other piece match that length. Or indeed make marks on your bench to offer the pieces up to. Hence ‘benchmark’. That way, if the tolerances are 0.5mm, and you’re accurate to within .25mm (a very generous margin in fine cabinet work), then if one piece is short by 0.2mm, and another is long by 0.2mm, they are within 0.4mm of each other, and so within tolerance.
But if you measure each piece by the one before it, you could be out by 0.25×11, or 2.75mm!
What on earth does this have to do with swordsmanship, I hear you ask?
Let me remind you of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

In the search for benchmarks, we are looking for the ‘ever-fixed mark’; the ‘star to every wandering bark’ (a ‘bark’ in this context is a ship).
Simply this: what are your fixed marks against which you measure your art? Your reference face and edge?
Mine include but are not limited to the following:

  1. The historical source in question. Books don’t change (though our understanding of them can and often does).
  2. Simplicity. In a sword fight, you control the opponent’s weapon and hit them. That’s it. If it requires complex explanation, then it’s probably wrong. Immediately I say this I hear Thibault devotees jumping up and down… but you can relax. Thibault knew what he was about when it comes to fencing, no question. He chooses to break everything down and build up all sorts of intellectual fancies around his art, but at the end of the day every one of his techniques (at least that I’ve seen and tried) can be explained in very simple terms- he just chose not to, preferring to justify his art according to the most sophisticated academic tools available to him.
  3. Mechanics. Principally grounding, and power generation. Can I connect my blade to the ground through my body, and can I deliver power efficiently from my centre to the blade? This can be rather subjective, so I tend to hit things hard every now and then just to make sure it’s all working correctly.
  4. Point control. Can I hit the inner ring on my point control target ten times in a row at speed with every weapon I have, both with just the extension of my arm/arms, and with a foot action appropriate to the system (eg lunge and/or pass)? If not, things have slipped, and I need to work on my point control some more.

There are other benchmarks, of course, and I have a similar set for my general health- range of motion, tolerance for CO2, pull-ups, and so on.
I hope my musings on benchmarks amused you, and perhaps made you ask yourself what your ‘ever-fixed marks’ may be. By all means let me know in the comments below!

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