All in a Day’s Work: Götz von Berlichingen

Courtly manners, valiant jousting, noble sword fights?

Sissy stuff!

Götz von Berlichingen’s daily routine looked rather like Mike Rowe’s Dirty Jobs when compared to Parzival.

Götz von Berlichingen, who died on July 23, 1562, was a typical Raubritter, a petty aristocrat making a living serving somewhat less petty aristocrats in wars and feuds, and getting family finances in order by kidnapping and robbing merchants and burghers. After losing  his hand in combat in 1504 (a missile from a “field snake”, or small cannon, hit his sword hilt, which, along with his arm greaves, ripped his lower arm to shreds) he had a mechanical hand made for him, which resulted in his cognomen Mit der Eise[rne]n Hand—with the Iron Hand.

His memoir is aimed mainly at justifying his role during  the Peasant Wars of 1525, when, as he claims, he was coerced into leading a fraction of rebels. His brief stint among the Bundschuh, and his subsequent incarceration as a sympathizer of the abortive revolt made him somewhat of a folk hero, a reputation cemented by Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s in his Sturm und Drang drama Götz von Berlichingen.

One particular line from this drama’s third act to this day is the most popular quote of German literature and serves well as an invitation to former colleagues and assorted other fair-weather friends…

(From: Pistorius, Wilhelm Friedrich. Lebens-Beschreibung Herrn Gözens von Berlichingen, zugenannt mit der Eisern Hand, Eines zu Zeiten Kaysers Maximilian I und Caroli V kühnen und tapfern Reichs-Cavaliers, Nürnberg: Adam Jonathan Feßecker, 1731; p. 52f., in Leitzmann, Albert (ed.). Lebensbeschreibung Herrn Götzens von Berlichingen, nach  der Ausgabe von 1731, Halle an der Saale: Verlag von Max Niemeyer, 1916.)

The action and battle for Nuremberg having taken place on the Sunday after Valentine’s Day, it happened soon afterwards, around Michaelmas, that I rode down from Sodenberg with Neidhardt von Thüringen, under whom I was serving at the time. As we moved along, we became aware of two horsemen near a small patch of woods, in the vicinity of a village called Ober-Eschenbach, and these men were Endris von Gemünd, bailiff of Solleck, and his servant, whom people called The Ape.

Now, preceding these events, when I had joined up with Lord Neidhardt, there had been a meeting at Hammelburg, and Neidhardt was there with Count Wilhelm von Henneberg and Count Michael von Wertheim, who had lots of strife because of an enemy who was the aforementioned Count Michael’s enemy whom they had called to that meeting. And the proceedings were administered and arbitrated. But as I went to join Lord Neidhardt at the inn and walked over to his servants—who by now were drunk for the most part—the aforementioned Ape was so far gone and with so much wind in his nose that he launched into much odd talk. And he said to me: “So, Junker, are you come to join us?” and some such sarcastic nonsense with which he intended to provoke me. Peeved, I told him, “I can do without you calling me Junker, and without your derision and your gluttony. Because once we happen to meet out in the field, we’ll see who is the Junker and who is the serving man.”

When we were riding down from Sodenberg, I thought to myself that this must be him riding with his Junker. And I drove my horse up a high, steep mountain, bringing up my crossbow while moving. Next, I moved straight at them. But the Junker was fleeing toward the village, so that I feared he would start inciting the peasants. The Ape also was armed with a crossbow, and took to flight just like his master. As I closed in with him, he was forced to enter a deep hollow path. I let him and shot at him over his back. Now I wanted to draw the crossbow again, but thought it unlikely that he would wait around for me, since he, too, had a bolt on his crossbow.

And I had no-one with me, thus didn’t bother with my weapon. I followed him into the hollow path, and since he saw that I did not reload, he waited for me at the gate until I had closed in. Then he shot at me, and hit me right into my breastplate so that the bolt burst into splinters that flew up all over my head. I threw my crossbow at his neck (since I had no bolt on it anyway) and drew my sword. I ran him to the ground so that his nag hit its nose into the dirt. But he came up again, all the while yelling at the peasants they should come to his aid. And as I was running around with him inside the village, there was a peasant holding a crossbow, with a bolt already loaded.

I charged at him before he could shoot and knocked the bolt from the bow. And then, I remained with him, sheathing my sword, and identifying myself, saying that I was serving under Neidhardt von Thürigen and thus was a staunch member of the Bishop of Fulda’s party. Meanwhile, a whole gang of peasants had arrived and surrounded me, armed with boar spears, hand axes, throwing axes, wood axes, and rocks. If you don’t dare, you won’t win, if you don’t hit, you won’t score—so consequently the axes and rocks were flying past my head that I thought they’d dent my helmet, when a peasant was running at me with a boar spear. I launched myself at him, and as I was clearing my sword, the peasant struck at me, hitting my arm so that I thought he had broken it. And as I thrust at him, he fell under my horse, and I didn’t have enough space to lean over to get at him.

Finally, I broke through, but then a peasant was running after me who was wielding a wood cutting ax. Him I gave a blow that he fell next to the stockade. At that moment my horse gave out, since I had ridden him hard, and I became afraid that I might not be able to make it out of the gate. And as I was rushing toward it, someone immediately appeared who wanted to slam it shut. I made it out before he succeeded. A short distance from the gate, I again ran into the Ape, and he had a bolt on his crossbow and four peasants with him, yelling “Hither! Hither!” He shot at me so that I saw the bolt reflect off the soil. And again, I attacked them with my sword drawn and chased all five of them back into the village when the peasants rang storm over me.

I, however, rode off toward Lord Neidhardt who kept himself far out in the field. We looked back at the peasants, but nobody was about to follow me. As I came close to Neidhardt, a peasant, alerted by his compatriots ringing storm, came running along with his plow. I caught him and forced him to swear to bring my crossbow back out to me, which I had thrown at the Ape and failed to pick up again.


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