Götz von Berlichingen: the legendary German Knight of the Iron Hand
Götz von Berlichingen was born in Germany around 1480, around the time that even those belonging to families of the small nobility with few means, like him, very often became soldiers of fortune, in the pay of the highest bidder. Before his 17 th birthday, von Berlichingen it seems that to have enlisted in the army of Brandenburg-Ansbach, and was in the service of the Holy Roman Empire for the two following years. At the age of 20, von Berlichingen is said to have stopped serving the Emperor, and assembled his own mercenary band. In 1500 he was already head of a company of mercenaries, which sold its services to several Dukes, Barons and Margraves. In 1504, von Berlichingen was in the service of Albert IV, the Duke of Bavaria, and found himself involved in the War of the Succession of Landshut. In 1508 he participated in the war of succession of Bavaria, fighting for Albert IV, and during the siege of the city of Landshut he was hit by the ball of an enemy cannon, which made him lose a hand.
According to one story, it was a cannonball fired by the defenders of the town that caused the loss of von Berlichingen’s hand. According to another version, the cannonball hit the knight’s sword, moving it with such force that it sliced off its wielder’s hand.
In any event Von Berlichingen remained crippled, but this did not stop him from continuing to fight: even if is said to have been in a state of despair over what had happened to him, It seems that whilst he was still recovering from his injuries, he remembered seeing a one-armed servant of his fighting on the field of battle. This thought comforted von Berlichingen, and helped him regain his self-confidence and inspired him to have a prosthesis hand made out of iron, so that he could return to the field of battle.
In fact, shortly after the incident, the valiant knight sported an iron hand. This first prosthesis was a simple device that consisted of a glove with a thumb and fingers attached to it, and it seems that to have been made by a village blacksmith and saddle maker. The fingers could be brought inward, hence allowing von Berlichingen to grip his sword.
Berlichingen continued to lead his band of mercenaries, who did not limit themselves to fighting during the many wars of those years, but raided the rich cities of Germany, assaulted caravans of merchants, and sometimes kidnapped small local squires to get a ransom.
After a few years from the accident, Berlichingen replaced the iron hand with what can be considered a rare example of a 16th century prosthetic limb, still preserved in the museum of his native castle, in Jagsthausen. The new prosthesis extended to the end of his forearm, and was held in place with a leather strap. Unlike his old prosthesis, von Berlichingen’s new one had joints on its fingers, which offered him a better grip of his weapon. Furthermore, spring-loaded mechanisms were placed within the hand, which allowed the fingers to be locked into place. With this new hand, the knight was able not only to wield a weapon in battle, but also to hold the reins of his horse, and even pick up a goose quill to write.
For having led the rebels during the “peasant war” of 1525, and for the numerous acts of violence against the aristocracy, which made him particularly inept to princes and nobles, he was also compared to a sort of Robin Hood, with a ferocious but sensitive soul. In reality it was neither sensitivity nor its adherence to the “people” cause to guide its actions, but the attempt to limit the scope of the revolt and to make the rebels do the least harm possible.
Götz of the Iron Hand continued his activity as a mercenary until the age of 64, also fighting against the Turkish armies of Suleiman the Magnificent. When he died, in 1562, at the age of 82, he left a manuscript autobiography, published in 1731, which inspired Johann Wolfgang von Goethe for a drama loosely based on his adventurous life.
The writer reports a phrase, which later became famous as the “Swabian greeting”, which the commander actually said to have pronounced, when he was ordered to surrender, while under siege in the Castle of Jagsthausen: “Er aber, sag’s ihm, er kann mich im Arsche lecken! “, Which translated may sound like” Tell him he can lick my ass!”.
Götz von Berlichingen was featured in several German TV films, the last of which was broadcast in 2014 and the trailer is below: