Holy gunpowder™ purchased from the Pope for the Solothurner master gunner in 1444

Buried in the lines of the accounting books of the City of Solothurn lies a mention of the purchase of saltpetre from the pope himself in 1444 (fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Item dem fürmann der den salpeter von unsern heiligen vatter dem bapst bracht 2 gulden (For the wagoner which brought the saltpetre from our holy father the pope. 2 gulden). Solothurn, Staatsarchiv, BB25, vol. 4 (1444), p. 105. Transcribed and photographed by the author.

The Pope in Basel… dealing saltpetre?

Pope Eugene IV (1383-1447, see fig. 2) was indeed present in Basel, several times during the longest Ecumenical Council (1431-1449) in history.[1] This council assisted in the city’s great economic expansion and cultural development. Even the Medici opened a banking agency there between 1433 and 1444. Emperor Sigismund was responsible for the safety of the council and expected the Swiss Confederates (with the assistance of the allied towns of Fribourg and Solothurn) to ensure peace during the assemblies. This explains why the city of Solothurn was heavily involved in discussions about matters regarding defences – especially about artillery – between Basel, Bern and Fribourg. It does not explain, however, why the Pope would deal in saltpetre.

Fig. 2: Portrait of Pope Eugenius IV after Jean Fouquet (in the miscellany of Onofrio Panvinio, Rome, 1568). Wikimedia Commons.

 Saltpetre in the recipe… with vinegar or urine?

Gunpowder was used in Europe from the fourteenth century onwards. Its basic components are: saltpetre (potassium nitrate), sulphur and coal, but a lot of additional elements found their way into the early recipes, such as wood shavings, urine, wine, vinegar, a variety of salts, camphor or salammoniac. The anonymous author or compiler of the Firework book (Feuerwerksbuch) of ca. 1420 explains how to corn gunpowder into “lumps” (Knollen) to deal with the problem of dampness:

Moisten a mixture of saltpetre, sulphur, and charcoal with “good wine vinegar. And grind the mixture together with a wooden mortar and make it so moist with the vinegar that it will clump together, and then roll the lumps as large as you want them to be. Then take a glazed round deep saucepan or a pot or a copper bowl and press the lumps in wet just as you would force a cheese into a pot; then knock it out onto a board – it will come out easily.”.[2]

This process is illustrated in another Firework book kept in Zürich (Fig. 3) where one can see the air-drying process in the sun. These Knollen are then prepared by the master gunner to ready the gunpowder to fire. The process of producing gunpowder in Europe is not well documented before the second part of the fifteenth century, and remains somehow obscure or even ‘magical’, mostly because its production remained to a large extent experimental.

Fig. 3: Making of Knollen (corning gunpowder) illustrated in anonymous, s.t. [War Technology], Upper Rhine, around 1420-40 (Zürich, Zentralbibliothek,
Ms. Rh. Hist. 33b, fol. 36v). E-codices,

The least stable element in the mixture is the saltpetre because the potassium nitrate is obtained through a process that involves bacterial action (discovered, in the 19th century, by the microbiologist Serge Winogradsky). Saltpetre was indeed produced in Europe, for example in Frankfurt.[3] However, better-quality saltpetre arrived at the time from the Orient, [4] with northern Italy being one of its most important commercial gateway int Europe. In the same year saltpetre was purchased from the pope, the Solothurn accounting book also registers a greater amount of saltpetre bought at the fairs in Geneva, without, however, giving an indication of its original provenance.[5]

Guns on the wall and master gunners at service

Already in the last quarter of the fourteenth century, several master gunners were hired by towns or princes for their well-needed services.[6] In Solothurn, the first documented master gunner appears in the sources in 1442.[7] By 1444, the accounting books mention at least two master gunners: Master Berchtold and Master Heinrich.[8] Several lines in the accounting books of these years show these masters traveling to Bern and Basel and buying gunpowder, portable firearms and cannons to equip the town’s defences and fighting forces. Portable guns were also produced locally by the skilled metalworkers (here by the armour maker in 1444)[9]. The security of the Council of Basel was not the only concern of Solothurn. East of the town, war was waging in fits and starts (the so-called Old Zürich War of 1436-1450), and in the West, conflict arose with the “Armagnacs”, French mercenaries under the command of the daupin, the future Louis XI (Battle of Saint-Jacques sur la Birse, 1444, see fig. 4). The city of Fribourg, and old ally of Solothurn, follows the same timeline, with the first master gunners in service of the town in 1443/4. But just like in Solothurn, firearms were already in use earlier.[10]

Fig. 4: Battle between Armagnacs and Swiss forces in front of Basel (Saint-Jacques sur la Birse, 1444), illustrated in Benedikt Tschachtlan Bern chronicle, 1470 (Zürich, Zentralbibliothek, Ms A120, p. 861). E-manuscripta, Zentralbibliothek Zürich, https://doi.org/10.7891/e-manuscripta-85723

 Papal gunners and holy gunpowder

The use of gunpowder advanced in the fifteenth century, and so did the manufacturing technology of guns and canons, gunpowder circulation and the master gunner’s trade. However, it remained unpopular in discourses and depictions, where gunners are easily associated with diabolic figures. The first printed edition of Saint Augustinus’ De Civitate Dei (printed in Basel by Johann Amerbach in 1489) for example depicts a devil shooting a gun (fig. 5). Despite this widespread association, the papacy had fully embraced the progress of the artillery since early on.[11] Pius II (1458-1464), the third Pope in succession to Eugene VI, owned 13 guns, which he named after the 12 apostles and his mother, Vitoria[12].

Fig. 5: Devil shooting a gun, details, illustrated in the De Civitate Dei of Aurelius Augustinus (woodcut from Meister des Haintz Narr), printed by Johann Amerbach (Basel, 1489), detail. Münchener Digitalisierungszentrum (BSB – Ink A-863 – GW 2888) urn:nbn:de:bvb:12-bsb00025317-8

The papacy hired a master gunner in 1450, Jörg of Nuremberg. He was captured by the Turks when casting guns in Bosnia for the Duke Stephen the Great of Moldavia in 1456. He then served the Turks until 1480 when he was sent to Alexandria from where he escaped and returned to papal services.[13]

But what about the pope as dealer of saltpetre in 1444? It remains unclear if this was a regular papal side-business or if some cunning sellers of gunpowder benefited from the presence and fame of the pope in Basel to sell their product to the Solothurn master gunner. With Basel being at the centre of widespread trade at the time, and in view of the fact that a good-quality product from the Orient might have easily found its way to the upper Rhine region, one call well imagine how a “trademark” of holy gunpowder could have impressed a town involved in war at the time.

Cite this article as: Daniel Jaquet, "Holy gunpowder™ purchased from the Pope for the Solothurner master gunner in 1444," in Martial Culture in Medieval Town, 08/06/2020, https://martcult.hypotheses.org/961.

Credit for the main image:  Frontpiece of the De Civitate Dei of Aurelius Augustinus (woodcut from Meister des Haintz Narr), printed by Johann Amerbach (Basel, 1489), detail. Münchener Digitalisierungszentrum (BSB – Ink A-863 – GW 2888) urn:nbn:de:bvb:12-bsb00025317-8

[1] The 17th Council had 25 sessions in Basel, Florence and Ferrara between the year 1431 and 1449.

[2] Translation of Bert S. Hall, Weapons and Warfare in Renaissance Europe (Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press, 1997), p. 71. The digitized manuscript and bibliographical information about it are available at the University Library of Heidelberg (online: https://digi.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/diglit/cpg585, accessed 20.05.2020).

[3] Bert S. Hall, Weapons and Warfare in Renaissance Europe (Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press, 1997), p. 58.

[4] Wilfried Tittmann, ‘China, Europa und die Entwicklung der Feuerwaffen’ in Europaïsche Technick im Mittelalter: 800-1400. Tradition und Innovation, edited by Uta Lindgreen (Berlin: Gebr. Mann, 1996), pp. 317-32.

[5] Item fazin hatt bracht von Ienf Salpetter und zentner 18lib Ienf gewicht tut an Solott’ gewicht 10 zentner 61lib da hort ein zentner nach Ienfer 12 guld und 12gross. tut in einer / summa 29 gulden und 1gross SS. Solothurn, Staatsarchiv, BB25, vol. 4 (1444), p. 82. Transcribed by the author.

[6] Leng, Rainer, ‘Zum Verhältnis von Kunst und Krieg in den illustrierten Kriegslehren des 15. und 16. Jahrunderts’, in ‘Mars und die Musen’: das Wechselspiel von Militär, Krieg und Kunst in der Frühen Neuzeit, ed. by Jutta Nowosadtko and Matthias Rogg, Herrschaft und soziale Systeme in der frühen Neuzeit, 5 (Berlin: Lit-Verl, 2008), pp. 33–58, here p. 40.

[7] Item ein Büchsenmeister der die büchsen beschiessen sollte verzart an Clewin lopsinger 10SS. Staatsarchiv, BB25, vol. 2 (1442). Transcribed by the author.

[8] Louis Jäggi (500 Jahre Schützengesellschaft Der Stadt Solothurn, 1462-1962 : Die Entwicklung Des Schützenwesens Der Stadt Solothurn von Ihren Anfängen Bis Zur Gegenwart (Solothurn: Union Druck, 1962)) mentions the two masters in 1444, but ommitted the master mentioned in 1442.

[9] Item dem Harnascher im Hensli peters hus vmb siben handbüchsen 7guldn. Staatsarchiv, BB25, vol. 4 (1444). Transcribed by the author.

[10] In a document of 1431, large and medium cannons equiped already the fortification walls. For references and details about the master gunner, see Willy Schulze, ‘Freiburgs Krieg Gegen Savoyen 1447-1448 : Kann Sich Eine Mittelalterliche Stadt Überhaupt Noch Einen Krieg Leisten?’, Freiburger Geschichtsblätter, 79 (2002), 7–54 <https://doi.org/10.5169/SEALS-391870>.

[11] Bernard Rathgen, ‘Feuer- und fernwaffen beim päpstlichen Heere im 14. Jahrhundert’, Zeitschrift für historisches Waffenkunde 7 (1915-17), 1-15.

[12] According to the writings of Enea Silvio Piccolomini (1405-1464). I would like to thank Kelly DeVries for this reference.

[13] Based on the master gunner own account (printed in the 1480s), see A. Vasiliev, ‘Jörg of Nurember: a writer contemporary with the fall of Constantinople’, Byzantion, 10 (1935), 205-9, quoted and commented in Peter Purton, The Medieval Military Engineer (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2018), p. 260.

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.


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).