The messer is an interesting HEMA discipline to study. There is quite an active and vibrant community of people who practise it regularly, and I would like to interview some of these instructors to help show some of the different approaches to study and interpretation.
My inspiration for these questions has come from seeing people asking about how to begin their study of messer, and seeing the kinds of response that they often receive on social media online. I would like to pose some of the common questions and also to ask some of the questions that I think could be helpful but that I don’t often see in these discussions.
In this piece, I am interviewing Joeli Takala from Grieswartt in Finland.
1) Let’s start with the most common question: what models and suppliers of messers do you recommend for people getting started with the discipline? What should people be looking for in a training messer?
We can see that historically the messer was a pretty varied weapon, so there are many models to consider. I really like messers by Regenyei Armory and Landsknecht Emporium.
Training messer can be slightly blade heavy so that you will get clearer feedback on how to use your whole body, and thus learn clean technique. The thing to look for when practising according to Lecküchner is that you will also need a long handle, about 20 cm, for some of the wrestling techniques. If you opt for shorter blades, they can be a bit stiff. This is OK, since you should be able to control the thrusts with a short weapon more easily to keep it safe.
2) The next most common question: what original sources would you recommend for people looking to get started with messer? Would you recommend different sources to a complete beginner and to someone with plenty of experience in other HEMA disciplines, or would this not matter to you?
The messer sections of von Baumann’s fechtbuch (Cod.I.6.4º.2) and Glasgow fechtbuch (MS E.1939.65.341) are both pretty compact and easy to get some kind of a grasp for a beginner. They are not fully sufficient to fence from in every situation due to their brevity, but you can think of them as a starting point to technical handling of a messer. If you know Liechtenauer’s tradition already, you can also find a shortcut into Lecküchner by training the “Fechten Im Rapier” from Joachim Meÿer’s Rostock manuscript (MS_Var.82). It will have most of Lecküchner explained in fifty plays or so.
But once you have the basic grasp of things, either by following the shorter messer books or by having practised Liechtenauer’s longsword, nothing quite compares to Hans Lecküchner’s “Kunst und zedel im messer” (Cgm 582). It is the largest source for a single weapon from the 15th century we know of, with 425 techniques and 416 illustrations. The vast amount of material sheds light to the nuances of the earlier German fencing tradition in a way few other books are capable of.
3) Along those lines, to what do you think people should pay most attention when they start reading messer sources for the first time? Is there anything that merits a closer, more detailed study than might appear surface?
First of all, learn to fight. It is invaluable, and nothing else makes up for the practical knowledge. I would use leather dussacks for this purpose, but German longsword is also a sensible option. Before you know how to fight, you won’t really be able to form interpretations of the techniques from a book. Once you start training with a certain messer book, don’t look for cheap tricks and easy answers – but rather once you go to the sources, just train diligently on the basics like zufechten, oberhaw and winden while trying to recreate the examples as given. They will be your best teacher in keeping yourself safe, and they will give up their wisdom only through repetitions. Stress test your new technical interpretations and make sure they are simple enough so that you are able to execute them under pressure. Remember to especially keep your weapon arm safe, as sniping the arm and fighting for the control of the weapon arm will become very important.
4) Furthermore, are there any “false friends” that you would suggest people are aware of when they start working with messer, to avoid importing ideas or spending time with motions that are ultimately unhelpful?
Don’t get stuck on your first assumptions of how a certain technique works. Remember that practising is an ongoing process, and your initial method of execution will not resemble too closely the way you will do it in the end. But in the end, you will get there. Rather than making long-winded conclusions on your current state of a technique, just try to enjoy the journey.
5) Are there any modern or secondary resources that you think are worth consulting in addition to the original, primary sources?
Jeffrey Forgeng’s “The Art of Swordsmanship by Hans Leckuchner” is certainly an option, though I haven’t worked from it myself. It has an introduction to the subject before going in the details of the translation. Another book to consider if you read German is Rainer Welle’s “… vnd mit der rechten faust ein mordstuck” as a thorough analysis of von Baumann’s book. A third resource to consider is “Messer Fencing Channel” by Oskar ter Mors on YouTube, for videos of the main techniques of Lecküchner – it is a handy reminder of how to do a certain technique and Oskar’s execution of them is very clean.
You could also go in the direction of kali and escrima, though there are differences within both disciplines. The first thing to consider is that a stick can be accelerated within a shorter distance and it can be used in a more percussive manner compared to how a langes messer is used. Emphasizing on stick technique could lead to stress on your wrist when fencing with a heavier messer. That being said, the short fencing distance and the wrestling element of these martial arts can work as an introduction to fighting with a messer-like weapon.
6) Can you describe one or two “lightbulb moments” that you experienced in your own study of messer, that suddenly made things click or work better for you?
Lecküchner recycles and repeats the same motions a lot. First, the action is introduced in a simple way that may work in a specific situation. Then, it is varied in many different ways from one play to another so that you learn new aspects of the idea. At some point the motion will be given a completely new name, but the basic idea of the motion can still be applied. This means there are fewer things to learn than it looks like. This leads to the realization that when you learn to execute one play well, it also teaches you how to execute several other techniques. Also, when you have a shitty interpretation for one technique, the habits from other similar techniques can put the outlier back in line with the rest of the material. In fencing this means that when you just try to apply a simple motion, the reactions of your opponent can cause it to manifest as some other, similar technique.
Another realization was that when starting with Lecküchner’s messer, entüsthaw and wecker will teach you how to fence with your whole body to the point you don’t really need to do much with your arm. Once you have picked that up, you can transfer to cutting an oberhaw or wind to stier with your whole body, too.
7) Finally, is there a question you wish I had asked on behalf of people getting started with messer? If so, what is the question, and how would you answer it?
Aside from purely practical questions about protecting your hand when fencing and choosing the right gear, the question I’d like to answer is – what is the relationship between Lecküchner’s messer and Liechtenauer’s longsword? The techniques resemble each other a lot, with the difference that the messer can be a bit faster, so you have to be more accurate with your sense of timing. Also, the shorter distance to your opponent means you can angulate further with your footwork. Because of these, it seems that fencing with a messer really highlights the correct timing and distance management. The fact that you have only one hand on the sword also requires you to drive more of the technique from your hips and legs. For these reasons, I feel it is easier to learn the same technique well with a messer and transfer it to a longsword, than the other way around. That being said, there are more opportunities to fence people with a longsword and there are more opportunities to compare longsword sources, as there are more of them. With this in mind, I can really recommend being familiar with groups practising longsword and to train with them too.
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Keith Farrell teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events (why not hire me to teach at your event?), and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers. I teach regularly at Liverpool HEMA, and help behind the scenes with running HEMA in Glasgow at the Vanguard Centre.