Abuse of Arms and Trigger Words in a 16th Century Fechtschule

On the 23rd of July 1546, the city council of Solothurn received a special request from local furrier Hans Tägenscher. An avid fencer, Tägenscher petitioned to hold a so-called fächtschule, or Fechtschule, where he would teach the lobliche manßzucht [laudable masculine virtue] of fighting to those interested and willing to pay.[i] Such an event required the blessing of local authorities, who might fear for disorder. Getting this blessing then depended on Tägenscher’s ability to convince the council his school would be a trouble-free exercise in martial virtue.

            The survival of the Ordnunge des Fächtens halb [Ordinance for the benefit of fencing] in the Kanton Archives of Solothurn is a stroke of fortune. While sources related to Fechtschulen become more common from the sixteenth century onwards, documented viewpoints from their would-be-organisers are rare. Tägenscher indicated which techniques he was to teach, for what price, and at what intervals the schools were to be held.[ii] More than that, however, he listed punishments for a selection of bad behaviour. While ranging from the mundane to the curious, it is reasonable to assume that all these rules were included for good reason. Whether they targeted real risks of disorder or merely disarmed stigmas surrounding martial contests, the rules would have helped Tägenscher to put the council’s mind at ease. To find out how exactly, this post compares a few of his articles with other documents from Solothurn and a set of similar Fechtschulen-regulations from Augsburg. They reveal careful manoeuvres along the complex martial culture of a town like Solothurn, from simply dictating responsible weapons’ usage to preventing lethal conflict.

Fig.1: “Ordnunge des Fächtens halb” (photograph by the author).

First on Tägenscher’s list is a ban on swearing with God’s name (Gottes namen in zornes wyse), for which perpetrators would be fined one Fribourg shilling.[iii] Such a concern with keeping language civilised was not unique for this particular Fechtschule. The late fifteenth-century Fechter Ordnung from Augsburg, for example, mentions how inappropriate words (ungepürliche Reden) would be met with a stern warning from officials.[iv] Nor did Tägenscher’s rule stand isolated from council policies in Solothurn itself. Between 1525 and 1545, the town issued no less than nine ordinances featuring bans on swearing, often also targeting recreational activities such as drinking and games.[v]

Personal insults were granted their own special rule set apart from swearing, although the rule in question only covers one particular example. Those who denounced someone as a liar (den andern heiß liegen) were to pay a fine of one Fribourg shilling.[vi] Again, such a rule was not unique for Solothurn, as the Augsburg document also distinguishes between mere ungepürliche reden and insults. Attendees there were expressly forbidden from calling their fellows rogues (schelm), thieves (dieb) or using similar outrageous attacks (frvuenlichen antaschen).[vii] Failure to respect this rule would not be met with a warning, but would result in the immediate fine of one Rhenish guilder.

At first glance such bans seem oddly specific. The identical fines for both language-based offences in Solothurn raise the question why Tägenscher bothered to list them in two distinct articles. The drastically increasing severity shown to denunciations in Augsburg is equally remarkable. That these insults merited such serious attention was because they held a special significance in urban culture, however. They were fighting words. Being willing to shame an adversary as a rogue, a thief, or a liar was a standard element in early modern masculinity, as was the physical response that often followed.[viii]

Solothurn appears to have been no exception to this rule. The violent culture of shaming that lurked underneath Tägenscher’s regulations is revealed by an ordinance passed about a year before, on 13 October 1545. The council was concerned by the fights and strife (stoß und span) caused by people using force to seek satisfaction for insults (mitt der hande […] vil rechtens zehaben).[ix] This could escalate fast, and slander is mentioned as causing major injury and even cases of manslaughter (zu zytten groß schaden unnd todtschlage vollgen mogen).[x]

While Solothurn had already reconfirmed its law on breaching the peace (Trostungsbruch) in 1491, the city council considered a new law to be necessary.[xi] The old law punished a breach of the peace through a system of progressive fines, depending on whether the incident involved mere words, fists and blades, bloodshed, or manslaughter. The specific insults listed in 1545 were deemed so shameful, however, that the council understood people could turn to violence to satisfy their honour.[xii] As a result, the council would always hold the insulting party liable for the incident whenever such words were used.

Such a rule has also been presented for other German towns. Its justification was that a breach of honour effectively constituted an attack on one’s person, making any response justifiable as self-defence.[xiii] It is telling that the one insult Tägenscher explicitly forbids (den andern heiß liegen) was also first on the list in the ordinance of 1545 (den andern fräffenlich heist liegen). Maybe calling someone a liar was indeed the most common form of sedition in sixteenth-century Solothurn, necessitating a special treatment. Maybe Tägenscher merely used its perceived prominence to represent insults in general. Whatever the case, it was a rule with which he accounted for the potentially volatile combination of aggressive masculine values and weapons’ practice.

Both the regulations that policed language in the Fechtschule therefore seem to represent something more than just a punishment for using certain words. They represent a careful dissociation from the troublesome discourses surrounding pastimes and martial identity in the sixteenth century. Play in general was the subject of recurring legislation, mainly aimed against its blasphemous character. Fechtschulen were not exempt from this suspicion towards recreational gatherings of men, with a sixteenth century Luzern ordinance only allowing them if they involved no form of play whatsoever.[xiv] Moreover, the martial cultures that merited the existence of a Fechtschule also constituted a risk, as men were expected to not only defend their city but their own honour as well.[xv] Rules policing language must then have helped Tägenscher to present his Fechtschule as a serious martial event, rather than a potential source of unrest.

Regulations covering weapons-discipline would also have contributed to such an image. Tägenscher forbade the throwing down or otherwise improper placement of a weapon (gwer), with offenders having to pay the common fine of one shilling. A rule against throwing weapons also features in the 1555 ordinance for the shooting guild in Solothurn.[xvi] While they thus seem related, bans on carelessly throwing and misplacing missile weapons in German towns commonly resulted from a fear for accidental shootings.[xvii] The melee weapons used in the Fechtschule were obviously free from such concerns, and the rule also fails to account for more obvious causes for injuries, such as careless swings. Punishing the abuse of arms in the Fechtschule may then not have been out of concerns for the safety of participants, but rather for the well-being of the equipment itself.

Whether participants were required to bring this equipment themselves or whether it would be supplied by the town is impossible to say for certain. Like any autonomous Swiss or German town, Solothurn expected its citizens to be armed and ready. At the same time, it is unlikely that the weapons mentioned in the numerous Harnischschau-inspections were intended for use in Fechtschulen, for which specialised training swords were used from the late fifteenth century onwards.[xviii] Moreover, references to collective stores of training weapons have been found for other towns, with Strasbourg supplying swords and staves to a fencing tournament in 1470 for example.[xix] In a similar fashion, the Fechtschulen in Augsburg were organised by the local fencing fraternity that possessed its own arms collection for that purpose. The text describing this initially even referred to the town, yet this was struck through later.[xx] As such, it is not impossible altogether that the weapons for the Solothurn Fechtschule were to be supplied by the town’s armoury. The necessity of bringing the equipment back in one piece would then explain Tägenscher’s concern with careful handling.

            The second arms-related rule by Tägenscher seems very vague at first sight. It instructs participants who stopped using a ‘weapon’ (gwer) to let the others be, at least until Tägenscher had finished teaching, after which they could begin with another one.[xxi] Elsewhere, the term gwer refers to weapons in general, individual objects that should be treated with care. This cannot be the case here, however, as it does not explain the sudden difference between one weapon and the others. The term gwer could also be used to describe types of arms and martial disciplines, however. In Augsburg, prospective organizers of Fechtschulen were required to pass a test in at least three disciplines (wöhren); stave, sword and dussack, to demonstrate their merit.[xxii] The same document also uses wöhr to describe ‘any weapon’, with raising or lowering one being the ritual marker for the beginning and end of a match or lesson.[xxiii]

If we accept that the term gwer had a similar dual meaning for Tägenscher, the second arms-related rule starts making sense. If the Fechtschule in Solothurn was to cover multiple arms disciplines, it would have made sense for Tägenscher to emphasise how pupils would only use those weapons pertaining to the lesson taught at a particular point in time. Taken together, both rules on weapons usage then also contributed to representing the Fechtschule as a disciplined martial event, where (the town’s?) equipment would be handled with care and not without proper supervision.

            It is well established that the martial cultures of late medieval and early modern towns possessed many facets that would not always align and would sometimes even clash. What is interesting to see is how competing elements were effectively woven into a small sixteenth century petition. Hidden within vague or odd regulations is a complex martial discourse, revealing the ideals, biases and logistical challenges surrounding a Fechtschule. To uncover more would require careful comparison of other ordinances with related source material on Fechtschulen. This could then trigger a greater understanding of these complex events that combined self-defence, civic duty and recreational fun.


This research was carried out as part of an overarching project on Tägenscher’s Ordnunge des Fächtens halb, involving Dr. Daniel Jaquet (University of Bern), Maciej Talaga (University of Warsaw), and Miente Pietersma (University of Bern – University of Groningen). More results will be published in upcoming scientific events, including a special panel in the 2021 (postponed to 2022) ‘Martial Arts, Tradition and Globalisation’ Conference in Lausanne. The project relates to a planned exhibition on the late medieval martial culture of Solothurn in the latter’s Old Arsenal Museum (Museum altes Zeughaus), an exhibition organised by the Martial Culture in Medieval Towns Research Project at the University of Bern.

Cite this article as: Miente Pietersma, "Abuse of Arms and Trigger Words in a 16th Century Fechtschule," in Martial Culture in Medieval Town, 24/05/2021, https://martcult.hypotheses.org/1282.

[i] “Ordnunge des Fächtens halb,” 23 July 1546, Mandatenbuch 1, pp. 358-359, l. 31. Staatsarchiv Kanton Solothurn. See also the text’s edition in Charles Studer, Rechtsquellen des Kantons Solothurn, Zweiter Band, Mandate, Verordnungen, Satzungen des Standes Solothurn von 1435 bis 1604 (Aarau: Verlag Sauerländer Aarau, 1987), pp. 332-333.

[ii] On these elements see Daniel Jaquet, “Fencing and shooting in the city of the Solothurn during the 15th and 16th century. A closer look into regulations for martial contest.” In Urban Contests of Renaissance Europe, eds. Christian Jaser, Jean-Dominique Delle Luche and Daniel Jaquet. Turnhout: Brepols (forthcoming).

[iii] “Ordnunge,” l. 19-20.

[iv] “Augsburger Fechter Ordnung,” 16th century, Cod.I.6.2º.5, fol. 4v, l. 3-4. Oettingen-Wallersteinische Bibliothek, Universitätsbibliothek Augsburg.

[v] See Mandates numbered 101, 105, 130, 140, 163, 181, 204, 224, and 236 in Stuber.

[vi] “Ordnunge,” l. 23.

[vii] “Augsburger Fechter Ordnung,” fol. 4r, l. 25-29.

[viii] B.A. Tlusty, The Martial Ethic in Early Modern Germany, Civic Duty and the Right of Arms (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 103.

[ix] Studer, p. 324.

[x] Idem.

[xi] Studer, p. 86-87.

[xii] [5] Aber wär sonst siner eren geschollten würde, der sol darum dhein gwalltige hande bruchen, sonders das rechte zü rettunge derselben siner siner eeren suchen und fürnämmen […] [7]Wan aber einer dem andern flüchtett, mit was flüchen oder schwüren das sin wurde, unnd der annder darüber schlüge, sol dasselb je nach ungeschicklickeytt unnd gestallte der schwüren gehallten und gestrafft werden. Studer, p. 325.

[xiii] Tlusty, p. 66.

[xiv] Walter Schaufelberger, Der Wettkampf in der Alten Eidgenossenschaft: Zur Kulturgeschichte des Sports vom 13. Bis ins 18. Jahrhundert (Bern: Paul Haupt Verlag, 1972), 143.

[xv] Tlusty, p. 63.

[xvi] Stuber, pp. 364-365.

[xvii] Tlusty, p. 80.

[xviii] Mandates numbered 143, 196, 198, 221 and 230 respectively in Stuber.

[xix] Tlusty, p. 214; Olivier Dupuis, “A fifteenth-century fencing tournament in Strasburg,” Acta Periodica Duellatorum 10 (2015): p. 72.

[xx] “Augsburger Fechter Ordnung,” fol. 5v, l. 5-18.

[xxi] Und so einer in einem gwer vffhörtt, sol er die andern ligen lassen, biß er vßgelertt hatt, alls dann mag er in einem andern wol anfachen. “Ordnunge,” l. 27-28.

[xxii] “Augsburger Fechter Ordnung,” fol. 2r, l. 24-28.

[xxiii] Idem, fol. 3v, l. 15-30.

[Museum talk] Armour: More than protective clothing. (Prof. Regula Schmid)

On the 24th of June, Prof. Dr. Regula Schmid Keeling was invited to participate to a museum talk at the Old Arsenal of Solothurn (Museum Altes Zeughaus). The museum has one of the largest collections of armour in Europe. The conversation was part of a series of lunch talks at the museum, with a Q&A format. Prof. Dr. Regula Schmid Keeling had the opportunity to present research finds of this current project, as well as of her own research to a broader audience. Through various questions the discussion addressed subjects such as: what are the different types of armour, who possessed it, what was the value of such objects, and when were they worn were addressed. She brought to light many examples of local history from research conducted on documents from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries kept in Swiss archives. The talk was recorded and you can listen to it following the link below. Beware, the ltalk was held in Swiss German dialect.

[click here to open the podcast]

Cite this article as: Daniel Jaquet, "[Museum talk] Armour: More than protective clothing. (Prof. Regula Schmid)," in Martial Culture in Medieval Town, 30/06/2020, https://martcult.hypotheses.org/996.

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).