OK, calling Goethe one of my favorite authors is admittedly a bit of a stretch. I did read Elective Affinities in college, however, and I remember thinking it wasn’t terrible. I even wrote a paper about it. In fact, now that I’ve refreshed my memory with the quickie book description on Amazon, I kind of want to pick Elective Affinities up again.
Regardless, I learned something fascinating quite by accident this week about Goethe, and I couldn’t resist sharing it with you.
In 1773, Goethe wrote a play called Götz von Berlichingen about a German mercenary knight who got his start fighting for the highest-paying members of the Bavarian aristocracy. After losing his right hand to Albert IV’s siege of Landshut in 1504, Götz von Berlichingen’s career evolved a bit.
He still led his merry mercenaries into battle, but increasingly the battles became ones in which his band kidnapped nobles and looted merchant caravans. Berlichingen donated at least some of the profits from these escapades to the less fortunate among his neighbors, making him just like Robin Hood, but you know, German. And real.
The story caught my attention, not because it turned out that the hero of Goethe’s play was actually a real person. Let’s be honest, I’ve never read that particular play. It’s not like I’d know to care.
No, this story fascinates me for two completely different reasons.
First, Berlichingen did all this fighting with a prosthetic iron hand, possibly one of the first prosthetics in history. It was an astoundingly complex affair for the 16th century, complete with working knuckles and spring-loaded mechanisms that Berlichingen could use to lock the fingers in place around his horse’s reins, his sword, and even his writing quill.
Second, even though Goethe took some poetic license with Berlichingen’s life (spoiler alert: in the play Berlichingen dies at a tragically young age), Goethe did get something else right. Apparently while under siege at Jagsthausen Castle, Berlichingen responded to an order to surrender with the now classic brush-off “Er aber, sag’s ihm, er kann mich im Arsche lecken,” which translates roughly to “Tell him he can kiss my a**.”
Who knew that phrase originated with the German Robin Hood? And who could have predicted that this particular salute, today a classic feature of “Keep Calm And…” posters and coffee mugs worldwide, would actually turn out to be one of the most famous lines ever penned by Goethe?
This, my friends, is why I read Atlas Obscura.
By the way, if you’re in the area and curious, you can see one of Berlichingen’s iron hands (apparently he went through at least two iterations of it) at the castle museum in Berlichingen’s home town, Jagsthausen, Germany. The town is still quite proud of its errant knight, and has incorporated his iron hand into the official town coat of arms.
- Object of Intrigue: the Prosthetic Iron Hand of a 16th C Knight (Atlas Obscura)
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