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 Jess Finley from Ritterkunst Turnhalle 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?
Training equipment is always a tricky subject, as each person has very different bodies and goals that they bring to this Art! I personally prefer the short handled messers with more blade presence, so I have a custom Arms and Armour training messer, where they gave me a much shorter handle and significantly increased the “beak” of the pommel. What I love about this for myself, is that my pinky almost “hooks” into the beak, allowing me to loosen my overall grip on the messer during movements where the blades are not bound. I’ve found this to be super useful for easing stress on my forearm during long messer training sessions!
I think when considering your training messer, it is important to look for an option that has some blade flexibility for landing thrusts, as well as to be light enough to be used safely against your partners during the cut. I’ve seen quite a few training messers that were economical, but brutal due to their inflexibility and weight.
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?
When starting with messer, I strongly recommend that one spend time with the anonymous treatise that is in the “Glasgow Fechtbuch” (MS E.1939.65.341). It is translated into English in numerous places, but my favorite is Christian Tobler’s translation that is available through Freelance Academy Press. This little treatise has twelve techniques, and we lovingly call it “Messer For Dummies” because it provides a very basic introduction to the stances, cuts, and parries that one must know in order to be able to work with the messer.
In addition to this, there is a little messer treatise authored by Jobst von Württemburg, which is quite similar to Glasgow’s but adds in a number of other techniques, building on that foundation. I’ve translated the two copies of this work, and that is available through my Patreon. With these two text sources, one should have a look to Paulus Kal and Talhoffer’s 1467 treatise for some imagery of these techniques.
Of course, once you have gained proficiency with these techniques, I would recommend any serious student of the messer then spend time with Lecküchner. He has hundreds of techniques for the messer, based on Liechtenauer’s longsword, but adopted for the messer. He presents his techniques often with body very long-form partnered drills, which exemplify the principles of the technique, and also with very simple ideas. (For instance, almost everything he explains can be countered by shooting Longpoint to the chest. He doesn’t say this just once. He points it out over and over and over and over.)
While one could start with Lecküchner, I feel pretty strongly that to do so is unnecessarily difficult. It would be like starting to study the Krumphau with the Longsword never having learned what an Oberhau or Pflug parry looks like.
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?
I think that if you are coming to the Messer after having studied Longsword, it would do you well to focus on what is the same, and what is different between those two weapons. Notice how the difference between the strong and weak of the blade have very little overlap, but rather how you can either stand easily and confidently in your bind, or have no chance at all of withstanding a cut.
The orientation of the body is also different. With Longsword it is important to be aware of which side you present forward or backwards, stepping with your strikes and pulling your sword back to the rearward side. Whereas with the messer, you don’t need to pass with your cuts, nor do you need to be as particular about how you pull the sword, because both sides of the body aren’t tied together on the hilt.
This freedom of movement, when added to the constraints of the weak and strong of the blade, result in some techniques being performed differently. For example, throwing a Twerhau (which Lecküchner calls the Eintrusthau) from the shoulder with the messer is rather weak and ineffective, though possible. Instead, Lecküchner has us do a more tactically complex approach, placing our sword down in front of us to offer an invitation to the head. If the opponent responds with their Oberhau to our upper openings, then we take a longer circular route to the Twer, giving it power and speed while, by necessity, sacrificing the ability to throw it as an emergency response as we can with the Longsword.
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 have often tried to describe messer as a “soft” art as opposed to the “hard” art of the Longsword. This isn’t entirely true, of course, both have moments of flow as much as they have moments of opposition. Even so, the messer requires that motions with it have just a little more preparation and recovery time, and if you choose to neglect this, you will eventually pay with joint pain.
If your previous study of sword arts includes a lot of “jabbing” type of actions, it might be useful to let those be set aside, and allow the weight of the messer to inform your movements. While the messer is wicked fast and nimble, it isn’t weighted like a stick, and will tend to want to rotate around a point in the blade rather than inside the hand.
5) Are there any modern or secondary resources that you think are worth consulting in addition to the original, primary sources?
Christian Tobler put out a video on both the Messer and the Sword and Buckler, which I quite enjoy, that goes over the basics of movement with the sword in one hand. I can easily recommend that as a starting point for anyone that needs to begin at ground level: https://www.freelanceacademypress.com/swordbucklermesserdvd.aspx
I also really enjoy the “TheRealGladiatores” YouTube channel, though their videos are quite old, they are clear and entertaining to watch: https://www.youtube.com/user/TheRealGladiatores
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?
I think what stands out to me the most isn’t about learning technique, but about training safely and efficiently. When I was first learning messer, I was training quite hard and frequently, and as I was largely self-training, I didn’t have anyone locally to see what I was doing. It is quite easy with a one-handed weapon to put your arm in such a position that it is over-extended at the shoulder during cuts, particularly when you are dropping a short-edge Oberhau of any of the variety that come up in the system. After a while, I developed some overuse injuries in my right shoulder from always pushing to get that extra 5 cm in those cuts. What I have learned is that it’s better to fix measure with your feet, instead of compromising the body, especially when you’re putting in your reps. A single compromise during a match probably isn’t a big deal and might be worth doing. Hundreds or thousands of them against a heavy bag will ruin your year.
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?
Question: “If messer is the foundation of longsword fencing, as the author of says, why doesn’t Liechtenauer teach messer?”
I would say that he does teach messer fencing, but he teaches it from horseback. If you spend time on Liechtenauer’s Rossfechten with the sword, you find that those foundational basics I mentioned from the Glasgow Fechtbuch are all there in the Rossfechten. It seems that extracting the important parts and applying them to ground fighting is something that we were expected to be able to do on our own. I cannot recommend strongly enough that anyone interested in Liechtenauer’s fight with the messer spend time understanding the Rossfechten section of the treatise. It references back to the tactics we know from the longsword, but deals with an entirely different application, and in that way helps us to more fully understand how Liechtenauer’s fight is framed.
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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.