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A Nobleman Lives for War, Plunder, and Adventure – Götz von Berlichingen (1480-1562)

Götz (= Gottfried) von Berlichingen zu Hornberg (ca. 1480-1562), called “the Knight with the Iron Hand” after a prosthesis he wore, is perhaps the most famous Imperial knight of the 16th century. His fame is largely attributable to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, whose drama Götz von Berlichingen is based on Berlichingen’s autobiography, which is excerpted below. Berlichingen’s rearing, like his values – honor, loyalty, and pride in family and in deeds – was entirely traditional. It involved family and kinsmen, service at a princely court, and participation in the Imperial Diet, wars, and feuds. The central event in his life was the German Peasants’ War of 1525, in which he was forced to serve the rebels against his will. Berlichingen commonly stands as a model of his class, a declining lesser nobility given to a traditional way of life based on feuds and wars. Berlichingen stemmed from the same milieu as Ulrich von Hutten, the author of the next text included in this section. Although the two men belonged to the same class, they adapted to 16th century developments in distinctly different ways.

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To Sir Hans Hoffmann, mayor of Heilbronn, and Steffan Feyerabent, licentiate in law and city attorney of Heilbronn.

My very dear sirs, patrons, and friends! You and many other good gentlemen and friends told me some years ago that, in order to honor and instruct my heirs, children, and descendants, I should relate and record the feuds and actions I took part in as a young, noble knight and as a poor cavalryman in wars against estates high and low. And how I and other good fellows and friends served under the Roman Imperial Majesty, also electors, princes, and others in both their interest and in my own.

Thereupon I concluded that, insofar as Almighty God grants me His grace, I would honor and please you, me, and my heirs and descendants – also other good gentlemen and friends – by responding to your request and writing a brief account of the affairs and actions I took part in, to the degree that I still remember them. I have done this as follows, to the best of my memory, not to seek or lay claim to any fame or to a great name, but solely because it has gotten back to me that some of my detractors, acting out of envy or hatred – or perhaps out of ignorance – have wished to put the things I have done during my lifetime in the harshest and worst light. My object is to refute them and bring the truth to light instead. In this work I wish to write or tell of nothing except all my actions and affairs since childhood, trusting entirely that no one will be offended thereby, but that everyone will understand and accept my intentions, disposition, and opinion in the best sense. I wish, for my part, to earn everyone’s friendly attention.

[Early Life]

I have often heard from my late father and mother, also from my elder brothers and sisters and from old servants and maids who served them, that I was a wondrous young lad, and that in my childhood I acted in such a way that many concluded that I would become a soldier or a cavalryman. It would take too long and is unnecessary to relate all this, and I myself wouldn’t have known about it, had it not been told and described to me as I have said. Yet I know that my late mother often prayed that someone should take me away into foreign parts, so that I could learn something. Which did happen to me, and, as the following recounts, in my youth I was taken on here and there.

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