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 Christian Tobler from the Selohaar Fechtschule 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?
I like the Arms & Armor ones a lot. I also think the VB trainers, available from my friends at Purpleheart Armoury are a fantastic value for the price.
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 huge treatise by Lecküchner can be a daunting place to start, so I recommend beginners first work with some of the simpler, smaller ones, such as the eleven technique suite in the Glasgow Fechtbuch, it’s larger and likely related cousin by Jobst von Württemberg, Paulus Kal and/or Talhoffer’s work, or the handful of fun techniques in the Von Baumann’s book (aka ‘Codex Wallerstein’). With this sort of grounding, Lecküchner is easier to tackle.
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?
Yes, and particularly regarding Lecküchner. It can be tempting to look at, say, his initial play for the Zornhau and rely too much on one’s familiarity with that play as it appears in the longsword glosses. The realities of using a shorter blade in one hand, and how that informs differences in measure, have to be understood properly: the messer doesn’t thrust in opposition with the ease the longsword does because of the shorter blade.
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?
Well, the example above re: longswords vs. messer is one such cautionary tale. Perhaps more surprisingly however, one can get into trouble trying too hard to map Meyer’s dussack to Lecküchner’s messer. That can be quite bedevilling, as there are places where there are one to one correspondences and places where there are extreme disconnects. For instance, Meyer’s Zwingerhau is completely different from the Schielhau-like stroke described in Lecküchner.
5) Are there any modern or secondary resources that you think are worth consulting in addition to the original, primary sources?
I hope I’ll be forgiven for suggesting some of my own! There’s interpretive work on Paulus Kal’s messer in “In Saint George’s Name” and of course our DVD “Sword, Buckler, and Messer”, plus a downloadable video on the Glasgow treatise. But let me also recommend the pair of outstanding DVDs on Lecküchner’s messer by my friends at Ochs Schwert; these are wonderful and beautifully produced.
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?
One such moment illuminated not only my messer practice, but my whole approach to medieval combat, with any weapon. In the plays for the Entrüsthau (the messer equivalent to the Twerhau in the longsword), the first blow of a pair delivered in succession, first to the opponent’s left side, then to the right, isn’t likely to cut them, as the abbreviated back edge can’t be relied on to be what lands. It may ‘bonk’ them, rather than cut in. This led me to re-evaluate how much commitment was expected in the initial attack; that is, how much we could rely on a first hit being decisive. I now regard the first blow’s most important function to be that of creating safe entry into measure, rather than delivering a decisive stroke. That ‘proof’ of something I’d long suspected was a huge thing for me.
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?
Sure. Over the years I’ve heard the assertion that spending time on something like messer might take away valuable time from their longsword practice. So, the question would be: do I think that’s a viable concern. My answer is “no”. First, in a general sense, I don’t believe any martial study can rob you of another; while the mileage may vary, any practice can potentially improve every other one. Second, and more specifically, the messer can improve your longsword game because the differences between the two forms illuminate important first principles of the fight. I alluded to one example earlier regarding measure, but there are others; for example, how does the game change when your weapon doesn’t create cover for an entire side of the body? What does that in turn tell us about the nature of cover as a whole? Every weapon in the tradition has something to tell us about every other weapon.
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.