The Iron Hand of a Mercenary: Made for a 16th century German knight …

David Goran
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Götz von Berlichingen, also known as Götz of the Iron Hand, was a famous German mercenary knight employed by the lords and kings of the time to do their bidding.

He was active in numerous campaigns during a period of 47 years (1498–1544), including the German Peasants’ War, besides numerous feuds; in his autobiography he estimates that he fought 15 feuds in his own name, besides many cases where he lent assistance to friends, including feuds against the cities of Cologne, Ulm, Augsburg and the Swabian League, as well as the Bishop of Bamberg.

Götz von Berlichingen, 17th-century engraving. source

In 1504, while fighting in the siege of the southeast German town of Landshut in the name of Albert IV, the Duke of Bavaria, the 23-year-old Berlichingen was hit by an enemy cannonball. He had two mechanical prosthetic iron replacements made, which are today on display at the Jagsthausen Castle.

Berlichingen’s first iron hand (circa 1504). source 

Most iron hands are based on the same constructive principles, although there are considerable differences in complexity. Fingers can be flexed passively (for example using the healthy hand) and are locked in place by a ratchet mechanism, similar to those of contemporary flintlocks. Extension of the fingers works by spring pressure.

The first hand had two hinges at the top of the palm allowed the four hook-like fingers to be brought inward for sword-holding purposes. source

The first hand was a basic affair. Two hinges at the top of the palm allowed the four hook-like fingers to be brought inward for sword-holding purposes, but that was the extent of its motion. There was some attention paid to aesthetic detail, though, including sculpted fingernails and wrinkles at the knuckles.

Mechanism of the second Iron Hand of Götz von Berlichingen. source

The second, more famous prosthetic hand was capable of holding objects from a shield or reins to a feather pen. The hand extended to the end of his forearm and was secured with a leather strap, was “a clumsy structure, but an ingenious one,” according to the American Journal of Surgery.

The second iron prosthetic hand, worn by Götz von Berlichingen. source

A 19th-century engraving shows the inner workings of the second iron hand. source


The second hand is a rare example of a 16th-century prosthetic limb. source


The second iron hand circa 1514. source


The second hand on display at the Jagsthausen Castle. source


The second hand was equipped with joints at each knuckle and spring-loaded mechanisms to lock fingers into place. source

In spite of this injury, “Götz of the Iron Hand” continued his military activities. In the subsequent years, he was involved in numerous battles, both of his own and in support of friends and employers.

Götz left an autobiography in manuscript form (Rossacher Handschrift). The text was published in 1731 as Lebens-Beschreibung des Herrn Gözens von Berlichingen and republished in 1843 as Ritterliche Thaten Götz von Berlichingen’s mit der eisernen Hand (ed. M. A. Gessert). A scholarly edition of the manuscript text was published in 1981 by Helgard Ulmschneider as Mein Fehd und Handlungen.