1. Fighting with the Messer [Plate 223, page 113r]

On plate Plate 223, page 113r of the Munich Cod. icon. 394a made for Duke Eberhard im Barte (see 1467 The price of a fencing master and 1492 The “Pergament Fencingbook” of Eberhard I, Duke of Württemberg) Hans Talhoffer displays the art of fencing with a weapon called “Langes Messer”. The Langes Messer is a updated Weapon from the former Falchion mixed the a simple big knife of the countryfolk. The Langes Messer became very popular in the 15th and 16th century, due to the fact that it was no sword and so some law restrictions did not apply. Later on they changed the law and the Langes Messer had to became shorter and shorter due to the law. It is not Talhoffer’s first displayed usage of that weapon. Approximately in 1459 in the Berlin manuscript HS 78 A 15 he uses thBerlin manuscripte Messer in connection with the buckler. And he does that again in the Munich manuscript. Not only because of this, but because of the use similar techniques for Messer with and without buckler, and because of the same aproach in other contemporary fencing books, we can assume that the art of fencing with the Messer includes the fencing with sword and buckler. Following this assumption we can see in the manuscript of the Kongelige Bibliotek (Thott 290 2°) actually two schools of sword and buckler: one according to the so called I.33 manuscript and one as part of the Messer thott munichteaching. Talhoffer resamples those schools to one that is seen in the Messer and Messer and Buckler plates of the Munich manuscript.

The Munich manuscript is a high valued book that was created by Talhoffer in his old age. It was illustrated by several artists one of them was Stefan Schreiber (see  1467 Artist: Stefan Schreiber). The quality of the images is extraordinary good. As we know from the records that Talhoffer was present when the book was created, we can assume that it was done according to his will.

To our surprise we see very simple techniques displayed in this books. In comparison to the techniques displayed by Hans Lecküchner it is more a beginners book. This is more and more unbelieveable thinking about the biography of his customer Duke Eberhard, who had been a experienced and educated knight, and had been traveling to the Holy Land already.

It is obvious that the book was a training instruction, so we can find some plated dedicated to exercices. But the majority is displaying fencing situation with matching techniques. There is an obvious solution to each of the plates. On each plate there are some details that do not match the obvious solution. This could be an error of production – modern speaking a bug. Or it could be something else?

The “something else” could be the “hidden speach” (“Verborgene Sprache”). Since Liechtenauer the fencing knowledged of the masters had been memorized in a secret language, that could easily decrypted by the knowing but would present a lot of riddles to the unteached. Without the glosses most of the Liechtenauer verses would be useless to us today. Talhoffer was a fencing masters for free men and nobles fighting in duels for their life. He insisted of teaching his art secretely as he wrote in his manuscripts (e.g. “das sein haimlichait niemen erfar” Hs. XIX, 17–3, Königseggwald). He was using a secret language himself and some of his verses are a riddle still. In his manuscripts there is a destinction between the things he copies and the things he sells as his own findings. The latter is not glossed and if displayed as an mage with little or no text at all. So displaying simple techniques, easy to understand, is something one would not expect of Hans Talhoffer.

To see if there is some kind of hidden meaning in the Messser plates the following series of blog posts does an analysis of the images following the thesis that there is not only an obvious solution but something else hidden too, visible for the ones knowing the teaching.

The Messer plates

Talhoffer started the Messer part in his book of 1467 with an attacking situation. It is the first plate on the Messer. His intention was probably to show the Oberhau (hew from above) and the Unterhau (hew from below) in the first plate, like he did with the longsword.

Talhoffer had restructured his teaching in comparison to his other books. He wanted the lessons well structured from the start. So he explained the Oberhau and the Unterhau at the first plates. But we should notice the footwork. They are a strong indication for the way the hews should be done.

But he did not put the lines “Oberhau” and “Unterhau” again in his book at this page would be nonsense. So he started lecturing. “Der wyl howen von Tach” – “This one wants to hew from the Tag/Dach (high guard over the shoulder)”. The hew from the shoulder is just a simple hew but very effective. And he wrote “So wyl der Im den how versetzen mit macht” – “And so this one wants to displace this hew with might”. Any hew from below is weaker then the ones from the top. So he needs to hew with might and main.

It is to see that the attacker knows how to fence. His body is twisted like a spring. He first moves his right leg. This seems usually stupid but not like this. He puts his the tip of foot twisted outside with his weight and his body on the back leg. this keeps the knee well out of reach but gains measure. He is always on guard to slip the leg back again. then with the hew he will release the the twisted hip, straight his back leg and will get a enormous power from the hip without the typical stomping.this way to move will give power to the hew without directing the hew by the movement of youre feet. So he is free to put the Oberhau where he wants. a very dangerous opponent. His carefully movement of his footwork keeps him on guard for  “lehmhäue” as Lecküchner would call it. He is not hewing “free” like one in anger.

A hew from Tag with the messer is just free as it can be. You can never predict it. It can come steep from above, in a flat angle from every side and it can reach any part of youre shoulders, arms and head with just a small rotation of the shoulder. If your only protection – youre own messer – is just showing to the earth you are really in trouble.

 The other guy is really in trouble, look at his face. he had his right side completly exposed, his right knee is near the center line of the opponents messer. he is in no position to attack anybody. but there is one thing he can do: he can displace, parry any hew from above. for this he must turn his hip, lean back his spine and put weight on his bended left leg behind him a little bit like sitting on a chair. with the Unterhau he has now any option. stand wher he is and just release the hip, draw the front leg in or back or even cross to his left. the position of his right leg will be adjusted to the attackers right shoulder position. it can do this adjustment in any moment of the hew without altering the movement of the hew itself. this will reduce the danger of “Zucken” where the movement arm tries to catch the opponents hew. the hew is done with full power, so adjustment had best to be made by the rest of the body.

And remember: the crouching tiger is not only hiding, he is gathering his strength for the leap. So he crouches and hides from the hew above. And gets ready to leap into the victims face, to which his thrust must be aimed.

There are a lot of possible endings. They all result in a kind of displacement of the Oberhau. This one is the result from drawing the right knee a little bit out of reach, get the right shoulder and arm inside and the weight balanced for attack out of the hanging guard. The right flank is save by the crossguard and the langort thrust if the left guy is stupid enough to try the lower openings. The right guy got himself out of trouble and in a far better tactical position feeling now what his opponent might plan. and remember the words of master lutgerus “Nota quod hoc idem potest facere aduersarius licet obsessessor ad hoc prius sit paratus”: the one who displaces is probably the first one to act.

>> Continue with the next plate.


Note: The speculative interpretation here was created to inspire an open minded martial artist to have a second and deeper look on the plates of that manual. The author of this article has the opinion that during the creation of the book the illustrator and the author had some misunderstanding. It seems that some of the illustrations had been created and afterwards commented for whatever reasons with a different matching story than the original planned one.


3 thoughts on “1. Fighting with the Messer [Plate 223, page 113r]

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