Literally translated, 'messer' is the Germanic word for 'knife'. In the context of historical European weaponry it usually refers to a single-edged fighting knife, ranging in size from a small dagger to a large two-handed sword. During the 15th century the messer was one of the primary fighting weapons of the Northern European peoples. Popular among the commoners, burghers, and even knights, the fighting messer was a staple of the martial culture of the Holy Roman Empire. For the purposes of this article we will divide this large spectrum of knives into three categories, the smaller, dagger-sized kleine messer, the sword sized langes messer, and the large two handed grosse messer.
The messer was one of the core weapons taught by many of the most prominent 15th century fencing masters including Hans Talhoffer and Johannes Lecküchner. Fighting with the messer was an energetic and powerful endeavor, and one that was fearfully effective. So effective in fact that Talhoffer famously starts his section on the use of this weapon with an entreaty to the divine, "Here begins the messer, God, please do not forget us." The two plates below, from that same text, illustrate some of the dangers of fencing with the messer.
Two plates from Talhoffer's fight book.
A plate from Lecküchner's fight book
Kleine "Small" Messer:
Our Köln Messer is an excellent example of a German fighting knife from the 14th century. A replica of an original piece in the Kölnisches Stadtmuseum, the piece is a touch over 17" in overall length with a single-edged blade nearly 12.5" long that tapers to a very fine point optimized for thrusting between plates of armor. The stout crossguard and steel pommel make it very effective when held in an overhand grip, while the 1/4" blade spine gives it plenty of heft for cuts to arms or face. Small messers ranged from utility or eating knives to dedicated fighting knives like this one.
These single-edged swords are the variety most commonly referenced in period fight books. These swords were pervasive in 15th century Northern Europe and the Holy Roman Empire. They ranged from the work-a-day weapons of burghers and peasants to intricate and ornate examples from the highest echelons of society. For example, the messer of Archduke Maximillian I below. This example has a particularly nice set of dagger, by-knife, and eating pick built into the scabbard.
Images of Bruegal's depictions of common messers
We do not currently offer a production model of a sharp messer, though one is our medium term plans. We do, however, make a lot of custom messers for clients, as well as our Messer Trainer, which we worked with many leading HEMA/WMA practitioners to refine. It is beautiful and bulletproof, and highly recommended for learning the venerable art of fighting people with a giant knife.
Two custom messers we made for clients
The Arms and Armor Messer Trainer
The Grosse Messer, or great knife, is a two handed version of those above. These were largely swords for war, due to their size and massive cutting ability. Rather than go on and on about this type of sword we have included below a half hour video review by Matthew Jensen of a custom piece that we made. In his review he explores the sword and ends in some pretty cool tatami cutting.
Arms & Armor custom made left handed grosse messer
Review of above messer.
Nathan Clough, Ph.D. is Vice President of Arms and Armor and a member of the governing board of The Oakeshott Institute. He is a historical martial artist and a former university professor of cultural geography. He has given presentations on historical arms at events including Longpoint and Combatcon, and presented scholarly papers at, among others, The International Congress on Medieval Studies.
Craig Johnson is the Production Manager of Arms and Armor and Secretary of The Oakeshott Institute. He has taught and published on the history of arms, armor and western martial arts for over 30 years. He has lectured at several schools and Universities, WMAW, HEMAC, 4W, and ICMS at Kalamazoo. His experiences include iron smelting, jousting, theatrical combat instruction and choreography, historical research, European martial arts and crafting weapons and armor since 1985.