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 Bill Grandy from the Virginia Academy of Fencing in the USA.
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?
One of the best “bang for your buck” messers is the VB messer sold through Purpleheart Armory, as they are inexpensive but handle well and are durable. Landsknecht Emporium are even better, as they aren’t much more expensive, and also have the distinction of being more historical in construction. It’s important to have a messer that isn’t too heavy for the user, as the user is going to have to adapt to changes in grip and finger placement without the use of the other hand, and this will tire the forearm out quickly. Directly related, it is important that the grip isn’t too bulky.
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?
Although the most complete treatise on messer is Leckuchner, I’m actually of the opinion that you can’t seriously study messer without also seriously studying longsword and wrestling. To that end, studying the various Liechtenauer-related glosses on both of these topics are vitally important to understanding the basics of messer usage. Although we can make an argument that it should be the other way around (such as the line in 3227a about longsword stemming from langes messer), in the modern world we simply have more surviving sources for the longsword. That said, if you already study these, the small messer section in the Glasgow Fechtbuch is an easy one to start working through to get a feel for the weapon. Leckuchner is one of the best in the long run, but without a good wrestling background or previous understanding in the Liechtenauer based arts, it isn’t the easiest to start with.
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?
Nothing different than what would be important for all sources, particularly with sources from the 15th and early 16th centuries. The only caution would be that if you already study longsword, don’t automatically assume that everything is exactly the same across the board for messer (despite my insistence that having a longsword background is incredibly helpful).
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?
Beware of treating saber and messer as the exact same thing. Messer treatises are very focused on close in fighting with a lot of point-off-line actions (i.e. starting in Luginslant or Pastei), and there are so many differences in approach. Many people treat them as weapons that are used exactly the same, which makes interpreting the original sources confusing.
5) Are there any modern or secondary resources that you think are worth consulting in addition to the original, primary sources?
Looking into Filipino stick arts as “frog DNA” for movement is very educational. Although the weapons are different, there are so many similarities that it helps to figure out footwork and handwork, as well as to develop drills from the historical plays.
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?
Perhaps this isn’t exactly what you’re asking, but an “aha!” moment I had was experimenting with messer fencing while being partially armored. Wearing gauntlets, a mail shirt, a breastplate and helmet helps to blend the techniques of harnisfechten / blossfechten (something Fiore does a better job of blending). Suddenly, so many of the half-sword actions and close in grappling would just happen organically, without even trying. As we did more of this, those actions became more seamless when we would go back to standard “unarmored” fencing.
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?
Ha, ask people to translate “grosse messer” as “great knife” instead of “big knife”! But seriously, I think this is a good list of questions as is.
7B) Do you see a useful difference between the terms “great knife” and “big knife”? Can you explain that a little more?
Oh, it’s a very minor, inconsequential pet peeve of mine, but many English speakers seem to like the idea that “grosse messer” means “big knife”. The crudeness of the term appeals to them, and of course, it’s not wrong to translate it that way. But “grosse” also can be translated literally as “great”, and that changes the tone in English. World War I is “der Grosse Krieg”, the “Great War”, not the “Big War”, because the word choice changes the cultural meaning. “Great Knife” conveys the tone of a weapon of war more than “big knife”, even if both are technically correct. A direct analogy is the word “Spadone” in Italian, which can be translated as “big sword”, but “great sword” conveys the cultural meaning better.
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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.