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.
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 messers come in all shapes and sizes. The selection used to be rather limited, but over the last few years, a lot of manufacturers started making really good messer trainers. There’s a lot of variety though. Length, weight, point of balance, pivot point, flex and grip length all determine how any sword-like weapon handles and while longsword feders are quite similar, different messer simulators are often worlds apart. The choice of weapon will then also determine how you can train. My biggest recommendation would therefore be to get something similar to what people at your club and local scene are using.
Now this will not always be helpful of course. If there’s no local scene for instance, you will still have pick something. Ideally, you will want to have three types of messer simulators: an actual messer, a waster and a tournament messer. Not everyone can buy three weapons though, so I’ve listed them in order of importance.
The ‘actual messer’ is going to be a simulator that will help you learn. It needs to largely handle like originals to do that, so usually they are either heavy, or have somewhat thin edges. That makes them unsuited for training at really high intensity, like hard sparring, but otherwise you can do drills, work through plays and do controlled free play. In the beginning, this is really all you will need. Landsknecht Emporium will be my most obvious recommendation for this, as they are second to none in this regard.
Your ‘waster’ is the messer you pick up when stuff gets thrown around. Practicing wrestling plays and disarms with any intent means there will be knives flying through the hall, so you want them to be light and utterly safe. It doesn’t matter what you use here really, as long as it’s affordable, you’re not emotionally attached to it and it won’t damage your partners or the gym floor. Use a stick? Great! A Purpleheart or Blackfencer synthetic? Perfect! Avoid messers made of steel if possible. Disarming your partner and dropping their weapon on your foot is painful and embarrassing in equal measure. For similar reasons, side-rings are preferable to parrying-nails.
Finally, you will be using the ‘tournament messer’ only if you want to get into hard sparring or even tournaments. It’s hard to stop a messer in motion, since you handle it in one hand. It needs to be light and the edges need to be thick. It will also need to be flexible in the thrust. The parrying nail is really important here. It needs to either accommodate a rubber tip, be very wide and rounded, or be a side-ring. Handling characteristics are less important than safety features here. Some groups use the Walter Neubauer aluminium wasters for instance and they work quite well. For steel trainers, I’ve used or sparred extensively against Kvetun, Bloss, Krieger and of course Landsknecht Emporium messers. Those will all work well for this purpose.
OR, approach your sparring completely differently and use dussacks for it. The Allen Karlsson dussacks are really great and allow to go quite hard without only light gear. I think they are currently sold by Black Armoury and Jester of Blades.
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?
This is a tricky question. There’s a reason messer was, and maybe is still, known as a hipster-weapon and it lies in the difficult source material. Messer sources are either comically huge or so limited in scope that you can’t easily reconstruct a system from them. As an example of the latter, Codex Wallerstein offers eight very simple plays, all of which are against a right Obenhau. Paurenfeyndt and Kölner Fechtbuch are difficult without previous experience and ms2337a even more so, as all it offers are a few general fencing rules that don’t give much guidance if read in isolation.
Hans Lecküchner’s Kunst und Zedel ym Messer poses other problems. While I really like this source a lot, its scope is so broad and all-encompassing, that working from it can be a daunting task. Worse, it will often lead to discouragement when people realise just how many plays you need to work through to do it all. I started a project to make a video of every play, back in 2016, and posting on average about two to three every week on Instagram, I still haven’t completed it. As Robert Brooks often says, it is like doing a PhD in messer and I fully agree with that. That said, I would still recommend Lecküchner in the long run.
Getting started with the Glasgow Fechtbuch would be a really good idea. I don’t think Lecküchner necessarily taught a radically different system from other fencing masters, but he definitely was a completionist. A lot of plays from other masters, also feature in his work. The plays from the Glasgow Fechtbuch give you a lot of the basics that Lecküchner seems to be building on.
There are several ways of unlocking the system that’s described in this Fechtbuch. The first is of course to seek out an experienced instructor. There are plenty of really great messer fencers out there who can teach Lecküchner well. If you live anywhere close to the Netherlands or France, I can also really recommend attending one of the Messer Meetings. If self-study is your way to go, I would recommend working through the manuscript multiple times, keeping it as simple as possible in the beginning. The book is structured in ‘Hauptstücken’ or chapters and generally at first you might want to stick to just the first two techniques for each chapter. This will give you a complete system already. After that, you can start building on your understanding by adding counters, continuations and variations. While going through this process of constant refinement, strive to make it simpler at the same time.
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?
Ah. This is really one of the reasons why I like Lecküchner’s manual so much. The plays are nice of course, but there’s other ways to read the manuscript that help you quickly get a better understanding of fencing. Casper van Dijk, my fellow messer instructor, came up with the idea to read Lecküchner through the lens of plays, techniques and principles. The plays (or Stücken in German) are scripted sequences of movement, with attack, defence, counter and continuation usually leading to a hit. Lecküchner being a cleric who was still following the scholastic method, each play serves to teach students about a different facet of the techniques and principles.
A technique is then a way in which you move (part of) your body to achieve a certain goal. As an example: turn the hand inward to drop the point of the messer, and turn it back to bring the point to its original position. If done on its own, this technique will allow you to change through underneath your opponent’s weapon. When combined with a hip rotation and from a bind, this suddenly becomes Duplieren. The illustrations in the manuscript will really help you come to grips with these patterns of movement and I think they should be closely studied.
Finally, principles govern which techniques should be used at what time. The five words Before, After, Indes, Weak and Strong give you a framework to help determine how best to move at any point in a fight, while the Three Wounders are about how you hit your opponent and at what distance. Just looking at the plays will ultimately subconsciously teach you about technique and principle too. However, consciously looking for lessons on technique and principles will speed up the process considerably.
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?
That depends really. If you just want do fence with messers, anything goes really, as long as it works. Doing Filipino Martial Arts or Modern Olympic Fencing with a messer is not a bad idea. If your goal is to reconstruct the late-medieval art of fencing with the long knife however, this should be avoided in my opinion. If the latter is your goal, your worst false friend will be haste. You will encounter parts of the art that will be difficult to do well at first, because you need to work on good form, or because you need to tweak the timing and distance for certain techniques. It’s very tempting to try and push through with sheer physicality. Not knowing when and at what distance to present a Longpoint to your opponent to get a clean hit can well be remedied by making a very explosive forward lunge or even a fleche. Your recovery into a solid stance will take quite long and you certainly will not be able to easily change your longpoint into a solid winding if required. You then also rob yourself of the opportunity to try and learn to get the same result in the way that Lecküchner envisioned it.
Another thing to really be wary of, are some modern and quite common misconceptions about fencing. Context is really important when trying to make sense of any Fechtbuch. There’s this idea that medieval society was a constant free-for-all, with fights to the death in the streets being a daily occurrence. If you’re looking for ‘real combat’, the sources might be a bit disappointing.
As Kaja Sadowski explains in her book Fear is the Mindkiller, there are three variables that can be used to categorise violence: symmetric vs. asymmetric, social vs. asocial and play vs. earnest. Lecküchner shows only symmetric violence. It’s always a 1v1 and both fencers have the same weapon (so it’s not war or self-defense). There’s some asocial violence, but the overwhelming majority of plays are ways to fight in accordance with the law and social norms (intentionally killing your opponent was generally frowned upon). Finally, while most earnest plays can be used in a playful manner too, the plays that were meant for a Fechtschule will definitely not work in an impromptu duel with a neighbour.
As an exaggerated example: trying to make the ‘backgammon play’ work in a self-defence scenario, with multiple attackers with polearms, will end in disaster. Subsequently going online to complain that Lecküchner is bullshido is not helpful either. When interpreting the manuscript, it’s therefore really important to keep the context of the play in mind and to not assume that all combat was meant to be ‘real’.
5) Are there any modern or secondary resources that you think are worth consulting in addition to the original, primary sources?
Now, this may be tooting my own horn a bit here, but I’m currently making a series of videos about the Hauptstücken of Lecküchner’s manuscript, to serve as something of a reader’s companion. It can be found on YouTube and I’m considering setting up a patreon to make a full-blown study guide in the future.
When it comes to analysing and quantifying key elements of the manuscript, I should give a shout out to Casper van Dijk (‘For Pleasure, or Until Death’ Late Medieval Fight Books Contextualised (1350-1550); currently not yet available to read online) and Joeli Takala (Description of Lecküchner’s Kunst des Messerfechtens). Both did great work on taking some commonly held ideas on Lecküchner and researching them thoroughly.
For the historical context, I think reading anything remotely related to Southern Germany between 1450 and 1550 will help, but I would like to specifically recommend reading B. Ann Tlusty’s The Martial Ethic in Early Modern Germany. It does a marvellous job of answering the question why people would be fencing with the messer (and other weapons) and it is a really good read to boot.
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 have two indeed and both are related to trusting that the sources actually have something to offer.
The first one is related to longpoint. At some point I had this aha-moment that longpoint can (and should) be used whenever you are in range and the opponent is not (yet) committing to an attack. Even if it does not land, it often creates openings that lead to further interesting and cool exchanges.
The second one came at roughly the same time, when Casper and I were spending a class on experimenting with weird foot positions in Lecküchner. As it turned out, most of those positions made perfect sense and allow us to apply more pressure in the bind or allow greater mobility in the hips, which translates to more effective reach. As a bonus, this really allowed us to simplify footwork, as this meant that it rarely ever matters anymore which foot is in front.
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?
I think your questions certainly cover the most commonly asked questions and the most relevant ones as well. I would maybe add the following: how to get in touch with the rest of the messer-community?
Sometimes, as a knife-fencer you will be alone in a sea of longsworders and sabreurs, so getting in touch with the community beyond your local scene is important. The best place would be the HEMA Messer Guild on Facebook. Robert Brooks set it up a couple of years ago and we passed the 1482-members mark a while back. It’s a great place for finding information, showing your fencing and most of all getting in touch with fellow fencers.
Other than that, travelling to bigger events is to be recommended. There’s the Messer Meetings of course, but from the events I’ve been to, Dreynevent and HEMAC Dijon have a big messer presence too. It’s really great to get together with other enthusiasts and have the opportunity to fence with them.
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.