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 Katja Poppenhaeger from Schildwache Potsdam in Germany.
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 Ensifer messers a lot. Their standard messer is a good all-rounder, and I think for a beginner it is important to have a weapon that is reasonably good at everything, so that you can distinguish what is your own growing skill versus some natural strengths or weaknesses a particular training weapon might have.
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?
Personally, I work with the Lecküchner treatise on the Langes Messer. I would recommend it to both beginners and advanced fencers. My interest in the messer comes primarily from its usefulness in complementing my early German longword training. Lecküchner is great for that, because his Fechtbuch is very detailed, and many of the techniques are translatable to longsword techniques (but see caveats in answer no. 4!).
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?
When one comes to the messer from the longsword, as I did, it can be a bit tricky to figure out the many techniques that lead to some kind of wrestling. To interpret those parts of the manuscript correctly (or, at least in a way that has a good chance of being correct), I think it helps to take a few lessons in unarmed combat, to get the basics of throws, levers and such. Once those body mechanics become more intuitive, the messer techniques start to fall into place.
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?
Yes: a lot of motions feel very similar to what you would do with a longsword. For example, with the longsword you might do a Hengen in response to an Oberhau, and correspondingly a Bogen in response to an Oberhau for the messer. However, how these techniques play out is quite different: because the messer is shorter than your arm, any attack by your opponent brings their hands and forearms into your range. Therefore, you might use the Bogen to deflect their blade, step closer and grab their forearm, and then do one of the fancy levers you have learned. With the longsword, there is much more playing with distance involved, while with the messer the forward motion is more prominent.
5) Are there any modern or secondary resources that you think are worth consulting in addition to the original, primary sources?
Personally, I don’t read that many secondary sources. But if I meet a messer fencer at an event and I like their technical style, I will check out their club’s YouTube videos. If there’s something I like particularly, I try it out with my club mates at home.
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 had a pretty significant lightbulb moment when I was practicing the Wecker, which is somewhat similar to the Krumphau with the longsword. After a while of not getting it quite to work comfortably, I realised that I needed to change the way I hold the messer, so that there is a bit more space between the messer’s grip and my palm, so that I can rotate the messer more easily. This has actually changed the way I hold any weapon!
Another moment was when I did some solo technical training where I alternated between messer and longsword. My dominant arm was getting tired from the messer, and that made me realise how much acceleration actually comes from your non-dominant hand when working with the longsword. This has changed my approach to force generation with the longsword a lot.
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?
Hmmm… okay, maybe this one: What’s your advice for people whose dominant arm gets tired quickly during messer training? I recommend practicing every technique with both your dominant and your non-dominant hand. I think it’s good for your brain and trains your body more evenly.
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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.