Learn more about the weapons and their use

24/09/2018 23:29

Messer or Dussack, a fencer’s perspective:

the weapons

by Oskar ter Mors

Over the years, much (virtual) ink has been used to convince the HEMA community that the dussack is in fact its own type of steel weapon that deserves more love than it currently gets. Thankfully, ever fewer people seem to think that the dussack only refers to wooden or leather practice versions of the Messer (or heavens forbid, of the sabre). Rather than focus on the typological differences between the Messer and the dussack, this series of short articles will have a look at what fencing masters of the day thought of the distinction between the two weapons.

For this first instalment though, it might be useful to quickly recap what the two different types of weapons look like. Messers are notoriously hard to pin down. Quite often, we can identify a long knife instinctively, but putting a finger on the defining characteristics is nigh impossible. In general, Messers tend to have a combination of the following characteristics: a single-edged blade, a Nagel (nail), a scale tang and a riveted grip. All the standard Messer types of Landsknecht Emporium have all these features, but it is important to remember that there are also plenty of originals that have a slightly different construction.

A dussack is then often defined as the 16th century evolution of the Messer, sporting a complex hilt as its most defining feature. The grips also tend to be constructed differently, and many originals seem to have a thumb ring as well, like the Dorothea dussack.

Dorothea Dussack, designed by Landsknecht Emporium

There are many possible explanations for this change. A lot of the scholarly work on steel dussacks is based on originals in Norwegian museums, as the weapon appears to have been exceedingly popular among its peasantry during the late 16th century. However, the word ‘dussack’, or ‘tessack’ shows up in Austrian and Southern German sources way before this time, and the aforementioned Norwegian examples seem to have mostly been bought in Germany. Many scholars have suggested that the change from Messer to dussack first took place in Middle Europe, as a consequence of the experiences of the contemporary Ottoman Wars. The Czech origin of the word might lend some credence to this theory. Another argument for this connection seems to be that in later sources, dussacks are sometimes shown in the hands of Turkish fencers. In this example however, we see that the weapons described as ‘tashack’ look more like Messers!

Turkish fencer from the Dutch manuscript Schermkunst (VAULT Case MS Fol.U.423.792)

This begs the question: was the difference between our two related weapons truly as pronounced in the minds of fencing masters of the time? We’ll be exploring this question in the next instalments of this series.