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 Ross Bailey from the Medieval Combat Group in Northern Ireland.
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?
My own baselines for what to look for are fairly elementary – blade of around 70/75cm maximum, point of balance at around 7-11cm, a decent sized grip that’s long enough to comfortably hold in a loose handshake grip and to wrap over someone’s wrist with the pommel. That fits my own fencing and my preferences from Lecküchner etc.
For getting started:
If you’re looking at synthetics, something like the Blackfencer messers are nice. They’re comfortable in the hand, move quite well, and most importantly if you’re looking at sources like Lecküchner, they have a grip long enough to easily wrap over someone’s wrist. I’ve never used one, but I believe the Pentii from Purpleheart is fairly similar for anyone on the other side of the Atlantic. Also the likes of the sandwiched leather & synthetic ones made by Allen Karlsson are also worth keeping an eye out for.
For steel, this rather depends on the intended direction of your training. Landsknecht Emporium make lovely steel messers, and some of the few out there with lovely accurate peened nagel. They handle really nicely, and they’re lovely to drill with and spar with in controlled low protection freeplay. Having said that, if you’re looking to kit up in full SPES gear and spar with high levels of intent you’re probably looking or something with a bit more flex in the thrust, on the grounds that accidents will always happen and we’re mitigating the worst case scenario, not addressing what ‘normally happens’. There are quite a few messers out there that are suitable for ‘heavy sparring’, generally with some combination of more flexible blade and dropped back point of balance and thickened or rolled tip. As with everything, making something safer is a compromise – added safety usually means altering something further away from the originals. My own current preference is the baseline Ensifer messer with the simple slab grip and cord wrap. The edge takes a bit more maintenance than other steels out there, but it sits within my own general preferences for size and handling, binds and winds well for technical drilling and sparring, but also has enough flex that I’m comfortable with it for fully kitted up sparring as well as controlled low protection freeplay. The Ensifers are at the pricier end of the spectrum though.
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?
To a large extent it depends on the ‘other HEMA disciplines’. For example, Lecküchner is a lovely detailed source, but someone coming from an extensive background in longsword working with sources like Lew & Ringeck is going to have a very different experience looking at it than someone with an extensive background in Fiore or smallsword after L’Abbat.
I think overall I’d tend to suggest more or less the same thing, though. No matter the background, if you’ve never really touched messer before, go and read the anonymous material from Nuremberg Hausbuch (it’s only a single page, but think of it as nice general advice to keep in mind), and then play with material from the Glasgow Fechtbuch, Talhoffer, and Kal. They’re all relatively short and relatively manageable. For the anonymous messer material from the Glasgow Fechtbuch, most of the plays are general enough that they can be interpreted with multiple variations, which is good practice at getting your head around things. I think we have at least four or five distinctly different versions of one of the ‘armoured hand’ halfswording plays, all of which agree with some way of interpreting the text.
The advantage of starting with the above set, in my opinion, is that it lets you work with material that’s quite a short set of relatively simple techniques, but ones that you’ll see pop up repeatedly as variations on a theme. It’ll give a feel for moving with the messer, some of the basics of what to do with the offhand, some of the stepping. At that point, people can decide whether they want to move into Lecküchner, or choose something less weighty that extends the material they started with. The Jobst von Wurttenburg material on Wiktenauer, for example, is a perfect source to look at if you like the ‘anonymous’ Glasgow messer material.
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 on the surface?
This somewhat depends on the source. This is slightly off the intended direction of the question I think, but I’d suggest that one of the more useful things just to keep in mind and pay attention to is what context you’re reading into the material. Lecküchner, for example, has a few plays where he outright tells us ‘This is for fun/showing off/flattering yourself’ in the context of, let’s call it a ‘social fight’, whether a fechtschule or something less formal. And there are some where he’s not quite so outright about it. If you read those plays with a preconceived notion of “This is for an earnest fight to the death” you’re going to struggle with your interpretation because you’re trying to make the technique do something it was never intended to do.
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?
This quite strongly links with the answer to 3. Don’t think of it as “Oh, messer is just early sabre, or single-handed longsword” or the like. For any statement like that, there’ll be a few elements are right, and a few wrong, and a few way off the mark. It’s easiest to just ditch any preconceptions about “messers are X, Y, or Z” and just come at the material from a clean slate.
For example, if you’re coming at Lecküchner from the point of view of “Messers are short, choppy, cutty swords”, it’s probably not the most helpful preconception to have when so much of the source might start plays with a cut, but ends many (that aren’t ending in ringen) with a thrust, and advocates breaking with the point as the best of all breaks.
5) Are there any modern or secondary resources that you think are worth consulting in addition to the original, primary sources?
For modern resources, the HEMA Messer Guild is has helpful folk who are generally quite happy to give advice and point the way to anyone that’s having trouble. Various youtube/instagram projects like Oskar’s channel can be a useful resource for anyone working with Lecküchner, and the old Lecküchner DVDs from Hans Heim and Alex Kiermayer are available on vimeo still I believe. Whichever video-based source, even if you don’t 100% agree with the interpretations, sometimes it’s just nice to get a quick look at someone else’s thoughts on a particular play. On occasion that can be enough to spark something in your own head to come to your own conclusions.
I was lucky enough to start into Lecküchner with a background that included a reasonable amount of stand-up grappling, particularly joint locks, albeit from an eastern perspective. For anyone delving into Lecküchner that doesn’t really have a background in ringen or anything related, and doesn’t have access to a class nearby that teaches anything related (and I really hugely encourage folk to find something nearby to get hands-on instruction in), it can be worth picking up a good basic primer on a related art, even if its eastern. Wrestling, ju-jitsu, qinna, something that’s hands on and folding people in unpleasant ways. It’s no substitute for learning from a teacher, and the ‘Frog DNA’ aspect of importing assumptions or mechanics from another art always needs to be kept in mind, but equally when you’re dealing with plays that involve twisting and folding your training partner in various unpleasant ways, it can be useful to have something written in clear modern language that has a variety of more-or-less parallel techniques and a good troubleshooting section. Especially if you’re only really getting exposed to things at event workshops and then taking them away to practice yourself. Sometimes the reason your lovely interpretation doesn’t work isn’t your interpretation, it’s the situation or one of the fine details. Having someone/something with the experience to say “That lock will never work if their response is to straighten their arm like that” or “For this clenching, make sure you’re right down in their elbow” is all it takes to fix things.
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?
The main one for me is fairly pedestrian. One of those moments where, even though you know a thing, it’s only when you take a moment to consciously reframe your thinking in that direction that it properly clicks together.
For me it was when I started thinking of Lecküchner’s plays not so much as techniques but as a series of transition points. That this position you pass through 2 movements into this play, is the same as the one 3 movements into that play, or at the opening of this other play, and so on. Once I’d more deliberately started tagging those points throughout Lecküchner, where each one can shift sideways into any of the others depending on circumstances. That deliberate rephrasing of my thinking and drilling in that direction started to properly give my sparring some momentum. Less, “I’m doing the WhateverHau” and more “Oh I’m here and haven’t hit them. This’ll bring the threat back safely.” Lecküchner has a few nice plays that to me just feel like a rock bouncing down a mountainside – each time it hits an obstacle the momentum just bounces over or around it and keeps going downhill. I tend to think along those lines in my fencing now – where am I and what is easiest to do from here that’ll keep me safe and keep the momentum going.
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?
Is it worth persisting with several hundred pages of Lecküchner, especially if messer is going to be something that I train alongside my [longsword/other]? Or is it worth playing with other related weapons if messer is what I’m chiefly interested in?
In my view, very definitely yes. Particularly for the various Liechtenauer flavours of longsword, working with Lecküchner has clarified my thinking for longsword quite a bit, and vice versa. Seeing a technique or a principle from a different angle applied to a different weapon is sometimes just what’s required to make something click. Certainly, my Zwinger with the messer improved no end after playing with the few longsword vs messer plays out there, some of which use very inverted hand and Zwinger-like ways of constraining the longer weapon. That, then, fed back across into my Schielhau with the longsword. And playing with Lignitzer sword and buckler and looking for the parallels with messer also gave food for thought in terms of how the messer handles threats and closing off lines, by comparing it with how Lignizter uses the buckler to handle certain circumstances instead.
Messer is far and away the weapon I’m happiest with, and given the option in freeplay, I’ll pretty much always lift one regardless of what the other person has, just for the sheer fun of trying to work out, “Now, how do I get around this awkward thing?”, but looking at other weapons has given more depth and colour to it than I’d have if I’d just stuck to messer alone.
A lot of Lecküchner is variations on a technical theme, and counters. To my mind the variations add a bit more depth and flavour to the techniques as they result in a better understanding of the range of places an element can go, and give some better problem-solving tools in terms of options, or varying situations. It’s not strictly necessary – its perfectly possible to be an excellent messer fencer just using the short straightforward sources discussed earlier, or to use the abbreviated versions of Lecküchner cropped down by later writers (with some back and forth to Lecküchner’s manuscripts for added detail) – but the full text is a lot of fun to work with, and you’re never short of “We haven’t looked at this specific bit in class in a while” material.
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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.