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 Robert Brooks from the Hotspur School of Defence in England.
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?
Which messer you ultimately choose is very much down to personal preference – some people prefer short and wide blades, others longer and thinner, grip lengths are highly variable and there is also the choice between nagel, ring or even knucklebow. Then there is the back edge – short clip, double clip, flared and so forth. However, certain factors should really be taken into consideration based on the historical context in which your favoured treatise(s) exists. Is it an early source, which deals more with peasant practicality, or a later one, in which the statutes of Guild and Fechtschule determine what you are permitted to do? My advice is to use something as close to the form of messer which appears in the illustrations, if possible.
If I was to recommend the basis for a good generic training messer, both length and weight will be at the forefront. Ideally, your trainer should be close to the weight and balance of a sharp, live messer. This invariably becomes difficult when we look at steel replicas. In the early days, I found even the shortest messers to be considerably overweight, purely due to construction constraints on producing a suitably dull edge. Thankfully, we now have some excellent producers working in steel.
However, my first choice has to be a controversial one – aluminium. There are many reasons I favour them above all others:
1. Any form or size of messer blade can be milled straight out of aircraft grade aluminium with precision consistency.
2. The cross section of the edge can be considerably thicker than steel – therefore a bigger contact surface for fencing – without negatively affecting weight, balance and handling of the piece. Tip widths are generally well rounded to mitigate thrusts.
3. They weigh close to the same as a sharp while maintaining accurate dimensions (with the exception of the long edge)
4. Durability – the blades are literally unbreakable. I’ve had mine ten years.
5. Price – a basic trainer begins at around £140, which will give you years of happy messer fencing. And it’s leagues beyond plastic.
That said, there are many, many exceptional steel messers on the market. One key consideration, however, is that engineering flex into a weapon this short can ultimately affect the performance of the entire blade. Thrusting with a steel messer trainer needs good control, as they extremely unforgiving.
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?
As much as a love the source, I despair when I see Leckuchner being suggested or recommended as a starting point. That’s not to say it can’t be. But I’ll say this – in educational terms, Leckuchner is the PhD of messer fighting. It is a massive work and requires a substantial grasp of fencing principles.
My advice is this – choose whether your starting point is early messer (pre-1470) or later messer (post-1470). Is it the peasant fighting method you wish to learn, or that of the emerging middle class? While the latter contains all the vestiges of the former, they are very different.
The Glasgow Fechtbuch and Paulus Kal are excellent places to begin, as they teach all of the fundamentals in a few short lessons. Codex Wallerstein is an ideal follow up, for further plays and variations on the former. All three combined should give you a competent skill-set for messer as fought among the peasant class during the first 70 years of the 15th century.
If you are convinced that Leckuchner is what you really want, then start with Peter Falkner (1495). Even though he writes later, Falkner’s messer work is a copy and reduction of Leckuchner’s Kunst des Messerfechtens. With a little cross-referencing between the two, you can get the basis of the larger work without having to plough through the multiple variations that Leckuchner includes in each of his sections.
Falkner is also an ideal bridge for those looking to further their ‘peasantly’ messer fencing into the world of the Fechtschule, as it straddles the two cultural activities very effectively. At that point, I’d recommend Leckuchner!
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?
Absolutely, unequivocally, BEWARE OF TRANSLATION QUALITY, even from online HEMA sources. Medieval Middle High German is very difficult, even for a fluent German speaker like myself – and I’m half-German! This is compounded by regional idioms, period abbreviations and non-standardised spellings. If in doubt, ask a native German speaker from the HEMA messer community! I have several on call! I see far too many translations which add words, miss nuances or are simply WRONG.
As an historian, I cannot recommend highly enough learning about society at that time. “The Martial Ethic in Early Modern Germany: Civic Duty and the Right of Arms”, by Barbara Ann Tlusty, is a superb source of information.
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?
First and foremost – early messer is based on wrestling. We see very, very little fencing. The messer is simply a physical ‘equaliser’ between proponents.
Secondly – the messer fencing we see in all the treatises is almost entirely carried out with the intention of NOT KILLING your opponent. That is not to say you can’t. Talhoffer shows judicial combat. Remember – the messer is NOT A WEAPON OF WAR. It is a civilian tool that became a sidearm.
Moving forward to the Fechtschule culture of Leckuchner and beyond, fencing like a brute is frowned upon.
Bear the above in mind when you practice messer and you will reap the rewards.
5) Are there any modern or secondary resources that you think are worth consulting in addition to the original, primary sources?
“The Martial Ethic in Early Modern Germany” is a must!
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.
Context is KING. It was a profound moment to finally see messer in a cultural light, that it is literally a reflection of a rapidly changing society, going from a farmer’s knife to an amplifier of one’s refinement and social standing in less than a hundred years.
The biggest change to my entire approach to fencing in the last decade is accepting that murder is still murder even in the 15th century. Killing was treated as a last resort then and we need to respect that even when practicing HEMA today. Skill at arms is a moral issue, as much as it is mental and physical.
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?
Would a 15th century Bohemian farmer armed with a messer have been able to kill a Samurai?
The answer is ….!
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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.