‘To Fight As Well As Anyone Else’
Medieval Knights and Mechanised Prostheses
This article was originally published in EPOCH magazine, March 1 2021. Please click here to access the original article.
In the year 1504, Gottfried ‘Götz’ von Berlichingen turned twenty-four years old. Despite his young age, he was well on his way to establishing a reputation as a fearsome knight and an accomplished leader of a company of mercenaries. However, alongside his professional achievements, he was also famed for his short temper and propensity for mischief. In the winter of c. 1498, when visiting his family in Jagsthausen, he ‘accidentally’ dishevelled the hair of a Polish nobleman at a dinner party, resulting in a battle with bread knives. Then, in September of 1502, he was said to have thrown an entire crossbow at the head of a servant who had insulted him because (as Götz later explained) he had no arrows to hand. However, during the summer of 1504, Götz was about to find his boisterous behaviour temporarily halted after sustaining a debilitating injury at the Siege of Landshut.
During this siege, Götz and his company of mercenary soldiers were employed to fight on behalf of Albert IV (Duke of Bavaria), against the heirs of George the Rich (Duke of Bavaria-Landshut). Living up to his chivalric reputation, Götz threw himself into the battle and rode out towards his adversaries, sword in hand. As he approached, he raised his sword high above his head, ready to rain deadly blows upon the enemy forces. However, just as he lifted his arm into the air, it was hit by a cannon ball fired by a field culverin (a large gunpowder-powered cannon that fired a ball of iron weighing approximately 3-4.5 kilograms). On top of this, and much to Götz’s embarrassment, this shot had been fired by his own men! Unfortunately for Götz, this friendly fire was anything but amicable. The shot ripped through his armour and flesh, lodging metal shards from his armour so deeply into his forearm that he later recounted that the injury left his lower arm ‘dangling from a strip of skin’. Nevertheless, Götz remained calm. Arm barely attached, he turned his horse around and rode back to his encampment, where he later underwent an amputation.
Initially, Götz was terrified that the loss of his arm would end his career. In his autobiography, Mein Fehd und Handlungen (My Feuds and Actions), he recounts feeling so miserable about the loss of his hand, that he asked God to put him out of his misery. Surviving his accident, but being unable to fight as a knight, he reasoned, was worse than death itself. However, God did not see fit to let him die. Instead, Götz had a sudden (and perhaps divinely granted) recollection. He remembered that he had once seen another injured knight wearing a prosthetic hand and using it ‘to fight as well as anyone else’. Feeling inspired and once again hopeful about his future as a knight and mercenary, he quickly seized upon this idea and commissioned a prosthesis of his own.
Now, when most people imagine a ‘medieval prosthesis’ their minds often jump to the kind of hook-hands and peg-legs worn by storybook pirates or, more recently, to the golden hand worn by Jamie Lannister in George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. However, while simpler prostheses such as these certainly existed, the later medieval period also saw the development of more complex, mechanised prosthetic arms. The inner workings of these ‘robotic arms’ were developed using similar mechanical techniques to those found in the manufacture of contemporary clocks and automata, and would likely have been constructed by a locksmith or clockmaker. These mechanisms were then encased in an outer shell of iron (shaped like a human hand), which would have been crafted by a blacksmith or armourer. The cost of materials, coupled with the collaborative nature of their production, meant that these items would have been very expensive to purchase. Fortunately for Götz, as a knight and member of a minor noble family, he had the economic resources to purchase at least two of these mechanised prosthetic arms and, fortunately for us, the von Berlichingen family has carefully preserved and maintained these devices, offering a brilliant insight into the construction of these limbs.
The arm you see in the cover image is the one of Götz’s prosthetic limbs, commissioned and produced c. 1530. This is the second of two surviving prostheses which are known to have belonged to the knight and is undoubtedly the more mechanically complex of the two. For example, this hand features individually moving fingers with multiple points of articulation, enabling Götz to ‘set’ the hand into a range of poses and positions. The wrist was also capable of nuanced movement – it could be angled up and down by approximately fifteen degrees, as well as rotating from left to right. However, despite its intricacy and the range of movement that it offered, this prosthesis shows very few signs of wear. As a result, it seems that Götz saved this hand for ‘best’, using it only for social occasions (perhaps disguised with a glove) or for tasks that required higher levels of manual dexterity.
Götz’s earlier hand (commissioned after the Siege of Landshut) operates on much simpler mechanical principles. Its fingers do not have articulated joints and cannot be moved independently of each other. Instead, the first and middle finger move together as a single ‘unit’, and the ring and little finger move together as a single ‘unit’. While this enables a little movement, it is not nearly as diverse as the second hand. Nevertheless, endoscopic investigations into the internal mechanisms of this hand have revealed large amounts of wear, suggesting that it was used a great deal during Götz’s lifetime. Taken at face value, this information might seem a little odd – why would Götz have chosen to use the less sophisticated hand more than the prosthesis that offered greater mobility? Well, the mechanisms in the first hand were less intricate, requiring fewer moving parts. As a result, the hand would have been very hard wearing, and could have been used for heavy-duty activities without fear of it being damaged. The elaborate mechanisms on display in the second hand, coupled with the range of moving parts, would have made the whole prosthesis quite fragile. It therefore seems that, on a day-to-day basis, Götz valued durability over nuanced movement.
However, although they are arguably the most famous, Götz’s arms are not the only prosthetic limbs to have survived from the later medieval period. In fact, there are approximately thirty mechanised arms surviving in both public and private collections across Europe. Considering how complex these items were to manufacture and how expensive they were to purchase, their prevalence within the archaeological record throws up the question – who was using these mechanised prosthetic hands?
On the whole, it appears that these mechanised prosthetic hands were largely being used by individuals of elite male and often knightly status. Of the thirty surviving artefacts, six of these have confirmed ownership (these are Ulrich Wyss’s Eiserne Hand; Hans von Mittelhausen’s Balbronner Hand; Götz von Berlichingen’s hands; an unnamed knight’s Alt-Ruppiner Hand; and the Skokloster Hand which has been attributed to Olof Sverkersson Elfkarl). Unfortunately, there is neither the time nor space to discuss each of these examples in greater detail here. However, it is important to note that each of these men (confirmed by alternative historical sources as having used a mechanised prosthetic hand) are high status knights or soldiers. Therefore, while it is possible that the remaining twenty-four artefacts did not belong to high-status military men, the fact that these limbs demonstrate so many shared features and are constructed of the same materials suggests that mechanised prosthetic technology was almost exclusively used by this user group. If, then, we are to accept this to be true, why were later medieval knights and high-status fighting men more likely to have owned mechanised prostheses than their lower status or female counterparts?
There are three main factors that influence this.
First of all, mechanised prostheses would have been very expensive to buy. We only have one surviving receipt for a prosthesis in the historical record, which records a payment of 11 florins for the purchase of a simple mechanised hand – that is the equivalent of around £2300 in today’s money. As such, a person would have needed a significant amount of expendable income to commission and buy one of these items.
Secondly (although this may be stating the obvious) a person would need to lose a limb to necessitate using a prosthesis. While there were certainly workplace accidents in the Middle Ages, as well as people born with congenital limb defects, it is fair to say that engaging in later-medieval combat puts one at a significantly increased likelihood of losing a limb. Advances in gunpowder technology in the fifteenth century Europe led to the use of new and dangerous weaponry on the contemporary battlefield (such as the culverin that shot Götz). While a knight’s armour might have proven effective against the slashing effect of swords, it did not hold up to the impact of cannon shots.
However, perhaps most important, is not the fact that these men received injuries, but that they survived them. Even though limb-loss was still relatively rare when compared to other later-medieval injuries, when it did happen, there was a greater chance of the wounded man surviving due to the development of innovative new surgical techniques. The first known written account of artillery injuries in a medical context can be found in Heinrich von Pfolspeundt’s Buch der Bündth-Ertznei (1460) in which the author offers advice on the removal of gunpowder from wounds. However, it was not until Hans von Gersdorff’s Feldbuch der Wundartzney (1517) that amputations were first discussed in relation to battlefield surgery – suggesting that, by this point, amputation had become a more viable (and survivable) method of treatment for severe artillery wounds.
Therefore, the fact that elite men not only faced an increased risk of receiving artillery injuries which necessitated amputation, but also had an increased likelihood of surviving these injuries, meant that (although limb-loss was not widespread by any stretch) there would have been more high-status men who, after being wounded on the battlefield, found themselves alive, rehabilitated, and in need of prosthetic technology. Of course, knights were not the only people to use prosthetic limbs in the Middle Ages, and the kinds of mechanised prostheses discussed in this article were not the only assistive technologies available to medieval people. People in this period used a vast array of crutches, carts, wheeled-chairs, and animals to cope with their disabilities and society’s response to them – but that is a discussion for another day!