Updated: Jul 25, 2022
These days losing a limb is a traumatic experience, but can be survivable. With the help of modern prosthetics, amputees can even live normal lives and get back much of their lost function. Back in the darkness of history, this was not the case. Most serious injuries were likely to get infected and lead to the death of the afflicted. Losing a hand in battle would be the end of most warriors, but not Götz von Berlichingen.
Chivalry is Dead - Long Live Chivalry
The word Chivalry was co-opted in the modern era as a synonym for male manners. Things like holding the door open for women, opening car doors for women, and several other door-related actions. Obsessive door behavior aside, Chivalry was never about any of those modern notions. The code of chivalry existed as a way to organize knights in the Feudal era.
What is a knight, you didn't ask? Well, a knight is a fully armored warrior mounted on horseback. Knights were expected to swear fealty to a lord and protect their lands. An element of courtesy is connected to the code, as it dictates the behavior of knights. They were expected to be well-mannered and honorable as representatives of their lord.
Knighthood was at its height in the 12th and 13th centuries during the crusades. Several orders of knights sprang up to ensure safe passage for pilgrims to reach the holy land. You see, people at the time all desperately wanted to visit the middle east. They lived in a desperately rigid religious society that dictated their every action and thought. This ultimate truth that dominated their existence came from a far-off land to that they felt entitled. So for several centuries, European armies invaded the Middle East to conquer Jerusalem. The city would inevitably be taken by Muslim armies of the era, from whom the Europeans would take it back in a bloody dance. Knights played a pivotal role in these wars, and through their involvement, they grew fabulously wealthy.
War is a complex thing. There are so many elements other than the mass killing of your enemies, like looting. So much looting was done by the knights that their orders became rich enough to outsource the killing. Chivalry died slowly through the 14th and 15th centuries as the title of knight became less of a military position and more of an aristocratic one.
Early life - Educated in a Dead Art
The Berlichingens were an aristocratic family that lived in Germany during the Medieval Period. Gottfried von Berlichingen was born in 1480 CE, at the tail end of the change from classic Chivalry to knighthood becoming more of an aristocratic title. He was cool from the start, so he rejected his full name and went as Götz. He was the tenth son of Lord Kilian von Berlichingen, who at the time was married to his third wife (Götz's mother) Margaretha von Thüngen. Being this low down on the inheritance scale meant that Götz would stand to get nothing of his family's wealth. Götz, like most redundant sons of the time, devoted himself to a military career.
When Götz was old enough, his father sent him away from the family's castle Jagthausen, to be educated. First, he went to a monastery called Niedernhall, where the monks soon grew tired of the headstrong and willful child. Realizing that Götz was unfit for life in court, his father sent him to train under an experienced military commander, Veit von Lentersheim. He trained in the ways of Chivalry until 1497 CE when he turned 17. Götz was now a free knight, and a free knight could choose who to serve.
He pledged himself to the service of Frederick I, of Brandenburg-Ansbach. While in the Margrave's service, he fought in the armies of the Holy Roman Empire. He fought in several battles, including the brutal Swabian War. After three years of service, he left the Margrave and set off on his own, a grizzled 20-year-old ready to start an exciting career as a mercenary.
Mercenary Man - How He Lost the Hand
Götz von Berlichingen started his own military company in 1500 CE. His mercenary knights served whichever lord could pay their price. They fought in the lord's battles and executed his feud, after which they would return to being free agents. This practice was quite common during this era. Feuds were more than arguments in those days. Declaring a feud meant that you had the legal right to go to war on the target of your feud until you felt that reparations had been made. Götz von Berlichingen was an expert at feuding.
His mercenary company accepted a contract in 1504 from the Bavarian Duke Albert IV, the Count of Habsburg. They were to lay siege on the city of Landshut as part of the War of Succession of Landshut. Götz was no stranger to sieges, and this one seemed to be going according to plan. That is until an enemy cannonball struck Götz's sword, sent it spinning, and as a result cut deep into his right arm. As previously stated, he was a knight in a time when knights were becoming obsolete. Plate armor was no match for cannon fire.
The field surgeon was able to save his life by amputating the arm. Most soldiers would see the loss of their sword arm as the end of their military days. Götz didn't entertain the idea of early retirement for long. Once he recovered from the amputation, he went to a local blacksmith for a solution. The crafty smith constructed an iron hand for him, complete with moving parts and engraved fingernails.
The first hand lacked the ability to hold a shield or a horse's reins, both of which are essential for a knight. It was still a marvel of Medieval Prosthetics and engineering. The hand could be manipulated by moving the pairs of fingers, which in turn would move the thumb as well. Inside the hand was a complex series of locks and levers that were delicate enough for the hand to be used functionally.
Götz von Berlichingen's second iron hand, which is by far the more famous, would be constructed in 1530. This one was far more intricate. Each finger had several articulating joints and could be manipulated independently of the others. Each finger could be locked into place using a system of ratchets similar to modern handcuffs, with a button to release all of the fingers. The wrist could rotate and be angled up to 15°. With this second hand, Götz could wield his sword, but the most impressive part was that he could actually write with it.
Feuds Feuds Feuds
Götz von Berlichingen loved a good feud. He declared feuds as if they were going out of fashion, which they were. He conducted 15 feuds in his own name over his long mercenary career. These feuds were mostly made against cities instead of individuals, allowing him to lay siege to the entire city. Feuds could be extremely profitable and not just for all the looting a soldier gets to do. Kidnapping a noble for ransom was one of the likely outcomes of a feud. These events were part of normal life for Europeans of the time.
Feuds weren't without their limits though. There was still an emperor and some semblance of law and order in the land. Götz crossed the line during a feud with the city of Nuremberg in 1512. He raided merchants from Nuremberg who were making their way back from a fair that they had attended. The emperor issued an Imperial Ban against Götz von Berlichingen.
Having an Imperial Ban against you was serious. You weren't exiled but confined to your home under the pain of death. Unlike modern house arrest, leaving your home while under Imperial Ban could result in your immediate murder. You see the ban made it legal for anyone to kill you on sight should they catch you outside of your holdings.
Götz von Berlichingen overcame the ban after 2 years when he paid the 14,000 gold coin fine. What was the first thing he did upon his release from the ban? That's right, he got right back to feuding! Götz feuded freely for another 2 years. That is until he was banned for a second time. His second ban was the result of his actions during his feud with the city of Mainz and its Archbishop. During the feud, Götz did the natural thing and kidnapped a Count. He ransomed Count Philipp IV of Waldeck and once the business was concluded, he was hit with that second ban in 1518.
The man was many things, warmonger, mercenary, knight, aristocrat, and prosthesis pioneer, but his most famous contribution is something you'll have heard and possibly said. Götz von Berlichingen, the man with the iron hand, is most famous for a particular curse he uttered during the feud with Mainz.
While laying siege to a castle in Mainz the city's bailiff appeared on the ramparts to speak to Götz von Berlichingen. There was a minor altercation between the two, and Götz famously said the following as he rode away:
“Er kann mich im Arsche lecken!”
The phrase translates roughly to, "He can kiss my ass!" His words soon became famous as the Swabian salute. It remains a popular phrase in Germany, and around the world to this day.
Götz von Berlichingen was only banned for a year this time before he was back on the field in 1519. This time he fought against the Swabian League, and an alliance of several cities, for Ulrich, Duke of Württemberg. While defending a castle in Möckmühl, Götz was forced to surrender to the Swabian League. He was running out of food and ammunition, and without those, a siege was no fun.
The Swabian League imprisoned Götz for 3 years until his fellow knights raised the money to pay his ransom in 1522. He declared his retirement and moved back to Jagthausen castle to presumably take up birdwatching.
The Peasant's Revolt
Götz had taken up many of his feuds on the behalf of some jilted peasant. Because of his notoriety and reputation as a kind of German Robin Hood, the peasants of Germany looked up to him. When they set about revolting in 1524, they marched to Jagthausen castle in their thousands. They demanded that Götz von Berlichingen lead them in glorious revolution against their oppressors.
Götz was flattered and accepted to lead the peasants in their war against the elites. He soon realized that they were little more than an unruly mob that didn't take orders very well. Begrudgingly he led the peasants to Odenwald to face the Ecclesiastical Princes of the Holy Roman Empire. After a month in charge, he came to the conclusion that the peasants were unleadable, and thus he absconded from his position. Götz returned to Jagthausen to wait it out.
After the inevitable Imperial victory, Götz was called before the Diet of Speyer to account for his treasonous actions during the revolt. He plead not guilty on grounds that he had had no choice but to lead the peasants. There were thousands of them encamped around his castle before he even knew what was going on. Furthermore, he thought that he could keep the wanton destruction to a minimum if he directed the peasants' ire. Götz von Berlichingen was acquitted of all charges in 1526.
Götz von Berlichingen was making amends for his obsessive feuding. That's why, in 1528, when he was called to face charges against him made by the Swabian League, he departed to Augsburg. The Swabian League had promised him safe passage, but betrayed him on the road and imprisoned him until 1530. He was made to repeat his oath to isolate himself in his castle and never leave. He agreed and was sent home.
Surprisingly, Götz von Berlichingen his promise for 10 years. That is until the Ottoman empire started making preparations to invade Europe. Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, released him from his oath in 1540 to help fight off the invaders. He fought against the Ottoman Empire of Suleyman the Magnificent in Hungary in 1542. Following their defeat he went on to participate in the Imperial invasion of France under Francis I of France in 1544.
After the French campaign, Götz von Berlichingen returned to his castle to enjoy a peaceful retirement. Unlike his father, Götz only married twice. He had three daughters and seven sons. Before his death in 1562 he wrote his memoir, which is how we know so much about his life.
Immortalized by Goethe
Götz von Berlichingen's autobiography would go unpublished until 1731. This was a time of cultural reawakening for the German people. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote a play about Götz's life in 1773. The play was a runaway success, portraying Götz as a Robin Hood-style folk hero. Always ready to stick up for the peasants and the downtrodden. He was sure to include Götz's most famous line:
“Surrender! Throw myself on his mercy! Who are you talking to?! Am I a robber?! Tell your captain: For His Imperial Majesty, as ever, I have all due respect. As for him, however, tell him he can lick me in the ass!”