An iron hand for a master gunner injured in the Burgundian wars

The 1479 accounting book of the town of Solothurn mentions, among a range of miscellaneous expenditures (like for broken tavern windows), an artillery accident. On June 22, 1476, near the small town of Morat, the allied forces of the old Swiss Confederation under the leadership of Fribourg and Bern defeated the army of the Duke of Burgundy, thus launching the international reputation of the Swiss warriors. During this battle, the master gunner of Fribourg was injured. He lost one of his hand and two ribs.

„Item. Dem büchsenmeister von Frÿburg 1 lib., so vor Murten ein hand und zweÿ  ripp usgeschossen sind“.

Staatsarchiv Solothurn, BB Seckelmeister Rechnungen, 1479, fol. 137 .

Accounting documents are always quite dry. However, this note contains two relevant indications that allow the identification of the master who is not named in this document. The first is that he was in the service of Fribourg, and the second, that he lost his hand. We do not know why the council of Solothurn paid this master 1 lib. in 1479, three years after the incident. We do know, however, that master gunners were highly desirable specialists who were hired in turn by different towns, or were passed on within established political or economic networks. Indeed, payments to master gunners in Solothurn date back to 1440.[1] The town established the office of master gunner officially in 1463, when Hans Zechender (or Zehnder) from Zürich entered the service of Solothurn.[2] During the time of the battle of Morat, the master gunner of Solothurn was Peter Müller. In the same period, the Fribourg documents actually mention two masters – who both lost their hands! Ulrich Wyss[3] lost one hand and master Gabriel Tucher lost both hands.[4]

The Solothurn entry has to refer, therefore, to Ulrich Wyss. His unfortunate case can be connected to a curious object kept in the Museum of Art and History of Fribourg: a mechanical hand. The hand was made shortly after the accident by Ulrich Wagner, a locksmith and watchmaker, who received the sum of 11 pounds from Fribourg’s city council.[5] The object is 14 cm long and 9,5 cm wide, and weights around 340 grams. The hand was equipped with two mechanisms; one to open and close the hand, and another to place the fingers in at least two positions. As it was a passive prosthesis, it had to be operated by the other hand to change the fingers’ position (operating like pliers). It also received some attention to aesthetic details, such as engraved fingernails.

View of the hand’s palm and back. ©MAHF, Primula Bosshard.

Activities related to the artillery were not only dangerous in times of war, but also when weapons and ammunition had to be stored, handled or even produced. The archives relate a number of incidents. The rare surviving example of a fifteenth century iron hand, connected to archival documentation, is an interesting case study showing not only a very early mechanical prosthesis, but probably also the master gunner’s importance for the town, as the Council paid for this sophisticated creation. Other similar hands are known in the 16th century. At that time, they can be connected to technical literature about prostheses, and to the rapidly evolving field of war surgery that on its part reflected the now widespread use and efficiency on firearms on the battlefield.

Acknowledgement:

We would like to thank Stéphane Gasser, curator at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire de Fribourg, for his support and the documentation provided.

Cite this article as: Mathijs Roelofsen, "An iron hand for a master gunner injured in the Burgundian wars," in Martial Culture in Medieval Town, 01/08/2019, https://martcult.hypotheses.org/331.


[1] Louis Jäggi, 500 Jahre Schützengesellschaft der Stadt Solothurn (Solothurn: Union Druck, 1962), pp. 37-38.

[2] Amt des Büchsenmeisters (des büchsenmeisters überkomnusbrieff), edited by Charles Studer in SSRQ, vol. X/2 (1987), pp. 52-54.

[3] The city authorities of Fribourg hired Ulrich Wanner in April 1475, for three years of service: “Per messeigneurs l’avoyer, conseillers et banderets fust receu per maistre des boetes Ulrich Wannere, per 3 ans, chascun an per 3 lib. et une robe chascun an.” Archives de l’État de Fribourg, RM 5, 1471-1479, fol. 129v.

[4] Wyss is first mentioned in 1475 and received the right of citizenship in the same year. His successor is Ulrich Wanner : “Item pour la robe, que lon a schengua a meister Gabriel maister dez boistes, lequel persist les mains devant Morat. etc.”. Freiburger Seckelmeisterrechnungen, n°158, edited by Albert Büschi in « Freiburger Akten zur Geschichte der Burgunderkriege (1474-1481) », Freiburger Geschichtsblätter 16 (1909), p. 99. 

[5] « Item a maistre Ulrich Wagner maistre facteur dez reloges pour una main quil a fait a Ulrich maistre dez boitez ordonne par Messeigneurs ou luef de celle quil persist ou service de le ville en faisant les keygel 11fl. = 22 lib. » Quoted in Raoul Blanchard « Ulrich Wagner – Eiserne Kunsthand (1476) », Blätter des Museums für Kunst und Geschichte Freiburg (2000-2).