16th Century Prosthetic Iron Hand: The Story of Gotz von Berlichingen


Gotz von Berlichingen was a German mercenary knight who lived during the 16 th century. This knight was known also as Götz of the Iron Hand, due to the fact that after his right hand was severed during a siege, he had it replaced with a prosthetic one made of iron. Von Berlichingen’s iron prostheses (both the first and second ones) may be considered basic by today’s standards. However, it allowed the knight to continue his career as a warrior, as these devices enabled him to wield a sword. The second one, which was more sophisticated, even allowed him to hold the reins of his horse, and hold a quill.

Early Life

Götz von Berlichingen is recorded to have been born in 1480 into a wealthy family in what is today Württemberg, in the southwestern part of modern Germany. Before his 17 th birthday, von Berlichingen is said 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.

Portrait of Götz von Berlichingen, copper engraving, City Museum of Cologne. ( Public Domain )

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 that year, von Berlichingen was part of the army besieging the town of Landshut, located in Bavaria, southeastern Germany. It was during this time that von Berlichingen lost his right hand. According to one account, it was a cannonball fired by the defenders of the town that caused the loss of von Berlichingen’s hand. According to another count, the cannonball hit the knight’s sword, moving it with such force that it sliced off its wielder’s hand.

In any event, the knight lost his right hand, and is said to have been in a state of despair over what had happened to him. It has been claimed that whilst he was still recovering from his injuries, von Berlichingen 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.

Prosthetic Hands

This first of these was a simple device that consisted of a glove with a thumb and fingers attached to it, and is said 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. It may also be added that some aesthetic attention was paid during the creation of this prosthetic hand, as certain life-like details may be found on it. For instance, sculpted fingernails and wrinkles at the knuckles can be seen on it.

The original armor worn by Götz von Berlichingen, on exhibit in the Hornberg museum.

The original armor worn by Götz von Berlichingen, on exhibit in the Hornberg museum. ( Public Domain )

This prosthesis did the job for von Berlichingen, though it must have been somewhat inflexible. Several years later, the knight decided that he would like to have a better model, and had a more complex prosthesis made. This second device extended to the end of the knight’s 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 quill to write.

The second iron prosthetic hand worn by Götz von Berlichingen.

The second iron prosthetic hand worn by Götz von Berlichingen. ( Public Domain )

Von Berlichingen is said to have been an active soldier until the age of 64. He fought in numerous battles and campaigns, including that of the Holy Roman Emperor’s war against the Ottoman Empire, and his invasion of France, as well as (on the side of the peasants) in the German Peasants’ War. Von Berlichingen died in 1562 at the age of 82. Von Berlichingen’s prostheses are said to be still kept in the Jagsthausen Castle.

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