Renaissance Germany was a violent place. A patchwork of different kingdoms, principalities, and baronies with constantly changing allegiances, the land was wracked with near-constant warfare.
The people in charge were some pretty rough characters. By far the roughest was Götz von Berlichingen, also known as Götz of the Iron Hand. You can also spell it “Goetz” if your browser hiccups at the sight of an umlaut.
His last name, Berlichingen, was for many years used as a popular euphemism for the phrase er kann mich am Arsche lecken, which translates as “he can lick my ass.” This gives some insight into his character.
Götz was born around 1480 in Württemberg. As a nobleman, he was part of the vicious power play that was part of daily life for the rich and influential in Germany. He set off to war while still in his teens and fought in various conflicts, eventually forming his own band of mercenaries.
In 1504, while besieging the city of Landshut, a cannonball hit his sword, swung it around, and caused poor Götz to cut off his own forearm. Not one to be deterred by minor setbacks, Götz had a prosthetic arm made so that he could continue campaigning.
The arm was a masterpiece of Renaissance design, as you can see from this old manuscript drawing reproduced on Wikimedia Commons. It was strong enough to hold a weapon and precise enough to hold a quill pen. Various buttons and levers worked springs so that it had much of the range of motion of a real hand. You can see some images of it at work here, and a detailed look at the mechanics in the gallery. It was so advanced that it served as the inspiration for prosthetic arms for German physicians after World War I, more than 400 years after it was made.
%Gallery-177598%We know a lot about Götz’s exploits thanks to an autobiography he wrote. In it he estimates that he took part in 15 feuds on the behalf of himself and his family, and numerous others for allies. Goethe was so inspired by Götz’s violent story that he wrote a play about him. The one-armed warrior remained an icon of German manliness and during World War II the SS named a division after him.
You can still see some of the places Götz lived and fought. Hornberg Castle, in Baden-Württemberg, was his home from the time he bought it in 1517 until his death in 1562. The castle, shown below, has a museum containing his armor. The castle itself is now a hotel and restaurant that offers a “knight’s feast” with the hint that Götz himself may make an appearance and have a drink with you.
To see his famous hand, you need to go to Burg Jagsthausen, another castle-turned hotel and restaurant.
[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]