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 Kelly Anderton from the Medieval Combat Group in Northern Ireland.
A note from Kelly: I’ve been training messer for a few years now but I’ve only much more recently started to delve into the source material myself and look towards teaching, therefore all my answers are placed very much within that context.
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 think it’s quite a personal thing. What works for some people, feels good in the hand and is a pleasure to use, others don’t necessarily like that much. Certainly in our club people have range of different messers from a number of suppliers and we each have our own favourites. If you’re in a club with messer fencers, or at an event where you have an opportunity to handle some different models, I’d try to handle as many as you can to help you to discover what works for you before committing.
That being said, the best recommendation I can when choosing your messer, is to consider what kind of training you want it for. If your focus is on solo work, partner drills and Berlin Buckler style controlled free play, a messer with a fairly stiff blade is fine. Landsknecht Emporium make lovely messers that are beautiful to use for that type of training. However if you want to do a lot of kitted up sparring with more intent behind it I’d say that something with more flex in the blade is safer and more comfortable for your sparring partner. The Kvetun messer has a much more flexible blade and a rolled tip which increases the comfort and safety factors.
Ensifer messers also have a more flexible blade than the Landsknecht ones and I find them to be a great all-rounder for solo work, partner dills and sparring. My first messer was one of Ensifer’s standard messers and when training its’s more often than not the one that I’ll still reach for.
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?
I was very lucky to start my messer training in a club setting, with a really knowledgeable instructor to get me started and guide my learning. The club trains Leckuchner so that was naturally what I started with when I recently moved into looking at source material to further my training and development. I love Leckuchner, there’s so much material to work with and a breadth of interesting and fun techniques to develop. I’d direct anyone who wants to study messer to it, particularly if they have any background in German longsword. However, I know that it might be a bit of an intimidating starting point if someone is a complete beginner. Something like the Glasgow Messer Treatise is a short series of plays that would be an accessible introduction, and people can build up from there.
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?
Until recently most of my engagement with the source material has been to go over references to it made to it by my instructors or by others at events I’ve been to . I’ve just started directly creating my own interpretations and developing drills etc, so I’m sure there’ll be many people more experienced than I who could give a better answer to this. However I suppose the key thing for me is to take it step by step, break down each play down into its elements, try each element and build it back up again bit by bit. In that way you can more easily identify the point at which your understanding of the technique isn’t working in practice, rather than necessarily assuming that your whole interpretation is wrong. I suppose that seems a little basic, and applies to interpretation of any source, but it’s the first thing that helped me to get started.
With Leckuchner, as I mentioned above, there’s a wealth of material and lots of really fun plays. I’d just recommend avoiding the temptation to flick through looking at the plates and skip to the “cool stuff” right away. The plays often build up and follow on from the one before, or sometimes the one or two before that. It’s important to read the plays around the play you are looking at to see if/how they can help you to understand it. If you treat the plays in isolation there’s a danger you’ll miss something that would have otherwise changed your thinking.
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?
I came to training messer with no background or prior training in anything else. I know this slowed down my development in some ways but it also meant that I looked at Messer with totally fresh eyes, and I think that was helpful. There can be a danger in imposing your prior knowledge on to a totally different system and that can lead to approaches and interpretations that aren’t perhaps as true to the system as they could be. Quite often you hear people in a training hall working through a new technique say “in Aikido we’d do this” or in “sabre we do that” and there’s no harm, and possibly quite a few benefits, in identifying the parallels, so long has you don’t assume that it’s definitely the same thing. By all means try it out and test your ideas, it’s the best way to learn, but don’t get wedded to it.
Also there’s an immense satisfaction when you come up with an interpretation but don’t be afraid to revisit and change it as your knowledge of the wider system continues to develop or as you test it out in drills or sparring. The greatest danger is in thinking you’ve totally got a technique and being unwilling to consider new ideas or approaches to it.
5) Are there any modern or secondary resources that you think are worth consulting in addition to the original, primary sources?
When I started training a friend directed me to the Hans Heim messer videos and I found them to be really clear and helpful in building up my understanding. I dip in and out of Youtube to look at people’s interpretations and watch sparring. Whilst you should reflect critically on these videos, it can be a very useful way to spark ideas and maybe challenge your own thought process on a particular technique, and that can only be a good thing.
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?
As I said above I came into messer training with no background in anything else and, whilst the first weeks of training were enjoyable, I sort of wondered if I’d ever get my arms and legs to cooperate and do the things I was being taught. There was a point about 3 months in when we were working on the first bits of Leckuchner’s ringen material that we’d done since I joined, and somewhere in the middle of having my sword taken off me and being dumped on the ground there was a little voice in my head that said this is the most fun thing and its definitely what I need to be doing with my time. It wasn’t a lightbulb moment as such, but it’s what drove me to keep on training and trying.
A little bit after that the principles of strong and weak really clicked in for me. I know it’s so simple but suddenly all the other stuff we’d been training worked better and made more sense. Once I was able to start seeing how techniques fit together and build on fluidity of movement I felt like I was really making progress.
There’s been lots of little moments in my training over the years since then where a technique suddenly makes more sense and works better, and it’s a really nice feeling when it happens, but for me the early days of training saw the most memorable shifts in my understanding ,when I was going from absolute level zero to just a little bit, and if I can do it anyone can.
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?
It’s not a question, I’d just encourage anyone who is considering studying messer, whatever your background or experience level to give it a go. It’s such an interesting and enjoyable system.
If you can get to a class I’d absolutely recommend that as your starting point but even if you can’t, and you would be undertaking solo study, I’d say go for it and try to get along to events where you can share your ideas and benefit from the experience of others in the messer community.
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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.