Götz von Berlichingen was a famous German mercenary knight employed by the lords and kings of the time to do their bidding. In 1503, when von Berlichingen was only 23, the knight lost one of his arms during the battle of Landshut. Considering this was the XVIth century, it would sensible to imagine that had the knight survived gangrene, a hook prosthetic would have been all he’d seen and his fighting days left behind him. He did survive gangrene and he did get a prosthetic, but far more out of the ordinary: a new iron hand with a great grip that allowed von Berlichingen to hack and slash at will for many years after.


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.

Berlichingen's first iron hand (circa 1504). Image: Wikimedia Commons

Berlichingen’s first iron hand (circa 1504). Image: Wikimedia Commons

Still, Berlichingen did not allow his newfound lack of manual dexterity to slow him down. He continued to lead his band of mercenaries in battle. His career, wrote Dr. Sharon Romm in an article on false arms in Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery, “consisted of fighting, gambling, and money lending,” for which he “gained a reputation as a Robin Hood who protected the peasants against their oppressors.” Kidnapping nobles for ransom and attacking merchants for their wares was just part of the gig.

The mercenary knight’s first iron hand was pretty basic. The fingers and palm could only be acted in two ways by the hinges: either the mechanism curled inward into a sword-holding grip, or it was loosened for a stale handshake. For all practical purposes, it was pretty good. Some attention was also given to aesthetics, and the craftsman who made it tried to make it look close to the real deal engraving fingernails and even wrinkles.

The mercenary knight's second iron hand, circa 1580. Image: F.W. Paul Collection, Berlin.

Another iron hand prosthetic, circa 1580. Image: F.W. Paul Collection, Berlin.

He may have not been as dexterous as he once was, but armed with his iron hand von Berlichingen was still a force to be reckoned with. He had his own band of mercenary thugs which he employed to fight, kidnap the rich for ransom, attack merchants for wares and enforce loan sharking. He also was known as a patron of the peasantry and destitute, as he would often hand out cash and supplies to the poor robbed from the rich. This lent him the reputation of a sort of Bavarian Robin Hood.  He led a group of rebels against the Holy Roman Empire in 1525 (he was outlawed in the kingdom twice!), fought the campaign against the Ottoman Empire of Suleyman the Magnificent under Emperor Charles V in 1542, and served under Francis I in the 1544 Imperial invasion of France.


Image: F.W. Paul Collection, Berlin

With some cash in his pocket after a couple of years in his career, von Berlichingen upgraded to a new iron arm. Version 2.0 was splendid, equipped with joints at each knuckles and spring-loaded mechanisms to lock fingers into place, in a manner similar to the ratchet-and-pawl system used in handcuffs. This allowed von Berlichingen not only to use his right arm prosthetic with unparalleled control in battle, but also hold the reins of the horse, play cards, write with a quil  or drink from a mug of ale. It must have also packed a hell of a punch. The new arm also looked much more authentic, as you can notice from the pictures.


The second iron hand circa 1514. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Remember, this revolutionary prosthetic was made in the XVIth century. Unfortunately, there is no record of the mastermind who designed and manufactured von Berlichingen’s right iron hand.

iron hand prosthetic

What the knight’s hand could do. Image: Karl of Germany

“Götz of the Iron Hand” fought until the venerable age of 64 when he retired. Oddly enough for a man such as him, he died in his sleep in 1562, aged 82. He left three daughters and seven sons to carry on the Berlichingen name. The knight is thought to have said about his iron hand that it “rendered more service in the fight than ever did the original flesh.” Before he passed away though, the Iron Hand penned an autobiography which inspired Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (yes, the Goethe) to write  Götz von Berlichingen, a dramatic play based on Berlichingen’s life published in 1773 . The play itself is romanticized, depicting a rough, but sensible Götz von Berlichingen who dies young. There is one hilarious line in the play which by all accounts seem to be based on a historical account. When a Bishop once demanded his surrender, Götz von Berlichingen thundered back: “Er kann mich im Arsche lecken!” which in rough translation means “Kiss my ass!” The phrase became somewhat popular, known among Germans to this day as the  Swabian Salute.

Götz von Berlichingen was definitely a larger-than-life figure, and his legacy lives on. For one, there’s the Swabian Salute. On the other hand (uhm…), his famous prosthetic is still preserved and on display in the museum of  his old Jagsthausen castle.

From a scientific perspective, the Iron Hand is a fantastic display of ingenuity. Thankfully, we’ve come a long way since. Today, we have prosthetic hands that actually relay back touch and  can be controlled with fantastic accuracy by the mind alone. Others a printing fully functional prosthetic hands for less than $100.

sources: MyArmouryEnglish Translation of the Goethe playJagsthausen Castle; CoilHouse

Enjoyed this article? Join 40,000+ subscribers to the ZME Science newsletter. Subscribe now!

Like us on Facebook

Your opinion matters -- voice it in the comments below!