Reenactor shot with medieval cannon

A woman was hit by a cannon ball during rehearsals for a historical battle reenactment commemorating the 500th anniversary of the death of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I in Mindelheim, Swabia, southern Germany. The 23-year-old woman was loading a medieval cannon when the weapon fired unexpectedly, hitting her directly on the arm.

Police have confirmed that the woman had the necessary licence for handling cannons. They also have indicated that they do not believe the injuries were the result of deliberate action on the part of another individual.

The injury was severe. She had to be flown by helicopter to a hospital in Munich where surgeons immediately operated to save her arm from amputation. It appears they were successful, although some news accounts report she lost a finger.

She was one of 350 reenactors from the Confederation of Upper Swabian Landsknechts (named after a famed corps of mercenaries ) engaged in the group’s yearly “Spring Drill Weekend.” I’m not sure why an event commemorating the death of Maximilian I on January 2nd, 1519, would require a battle reenactment completely with medieval cannon fire beyond the fact that people just dig firing cannons. Maximilian didn’t die on the battlefield or of a wartime injury or illness. He was traveling from the royal palace in Innsbruck to attend parliament in Linz, a long, arduous journey for a man who had already been sick for a long time at this point. From the description of his symptoms, it was probably colon cancer that claimed his life. He was 60 years old.

In his younger days he had name for himself as an outstanding jouster and military leader, however. His nickname was “the Last Knight,” because he embraced the idealized virtues of chivalry and was an avid student of the “seven knightly responsibilities” (riding, climbing, shooting, swimming, wrestling, dancing & courting, jousting). At the same time, influenced by humanist philosophy, Maximilian was a great patron of the arts, spoke and read multiple languages and introduced modern concepts and technologies to the field of battle.

One example of of his novel approach was his founding of the first Landsknecht army in 1488. He wanted a reliable, well-trained, organized force that could be called up whenever necessary instead of a mishmash of feudal lords with troops loyal to them, assorted mercenaries and infantry that had to be levied and dissolved before and after every conflict. The Landsknechts were highly successful, developing a reputation for skill that saw them fight all over Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Maximilian’s successor as Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, sent them to fight the French in Italy in 1527. When they didn’t get paid in a timely fashion, they mutinied. The 14,000 Landsknecht soldiers formed the majority of the troops who decided to get paid via pillage and infamously sacked Rome. Some of them made themselves at home in very grand style indeed. In the Hall of Perspectives in the Villa Farnesina, the room where Agostino Chigi had held his lavish wedding banquet just nine years earlier, restorers found this written on the wall close to the marital bedroom: “1528 –  “Why should I who write not laugh – the Landsknechts have set the Pope on the run.”

I almost wrote about that episode in the post on the restoration of The Wedding of Alexander and Roxanne, but decided it was a bit too tangential. It goes to show just how extra of a nerd I am that I was pleased to have a pretext to bring it up now courtesy of the reenactment group even though the news story it pivots off of is so grim.

Maximilian has made his presence felt on this here long blog before now, btw.  The Triumphal Procession, a gouache 117 feet long painted by Albrecht Altdorfer in praise of the Emperor’s military accomplishments, ancestors mythical and real, pagentry and wealth, went on display for the first time since 1959 in 2012 at the Albertina Museum in Vienna. A complete print of another of the works in that series, The Arch of Honour of Maximilian I, a monumental woodcut engraved by Albrecht Dürer, was displayed in 2015 after an incredible restoration by conservators at the National Gallery of Denmark’s Statens Museum for Kunst. The British Museum’s print was conserved around the same time and the process was so excellently documented I had to post about it to share the videos and images. Last but certainly not least, Maximilian was the first husband of adolescent duchess and all-around hardass Anne of Brittany.

8 thoughts on “Reenactor shot with medieval cannon

  1. In the heat of battle, it was common for canon to go off early, if the barrel was not wet down enough, from the previous charge. They did not want to get it too wet or the next shot might misfire and they would be stuck digging a hot charge out in the middle of a hail of small arms fire but you did want the fire from the last charge to be out.

  2. Friends,

    This very interesting post fills in some facts on the life of Maximilian I, a ruler I should have learned more about because of his first marriage to Mary of Burgundy. I have a great fascination for the House of Burgundy Valois.

    Mary of Burgundy (aka “Mary the Rich”) was the daughter and sole heir of the last House Valois Duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold (known by his detractors as “Charles the Rash”). Burgundy had reached the pinnacle of greatness under Charles’ father Philip the Good, and in addition to the Duchy of Burgundy and other French territories, the Dukes controlled most of the Low Countries including Flanders, where the real money was. Flanders was the heart of the wool trade, and it was wool that made the Dukes of Burgundy some of the richest men in Europe. Charles rather stupidly got himself killed and his army wiped out at the Battle of Nancy in 1477. The French king Louis XI quickly sucked up Mary’s territories within France, leaving her with most of what is now Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg, plus a lot of cash. She was still a great marriage prize.

    Mary’s wedding to Archduke Maximilian of Austria, House of Habsburg, on 19 August 1477 began a brief but very happy marriage. She produced two children. Then in 1482 Mary was severely injured in a riding accident while hawking. She died on 27 March 1482. Mary’s marriage into the Habsburg family gave them control of the Low Countries. Eventually those territories passed to the Spanish Habsburg line, leading to years of suffering and war between Protestants and Catholics.

    Wikipedia offers a brief biography of Mary of Burgundy at . Included there is the lovely Michale Pacher portrait of Mary.

    Yours Aye,

    Mungo Napier, Laird of Mallard Lodge (SCA)

  3. She’ll have an interesting story to share later! “Ah yeah that’s where I was hit with a cannonball back in ’19”

  4. Apparently, it happened on Sunday in the afternoon. I had not heard anything about the incident, but according to an Augsburg newspaper, she “was severely harmed” and “presumably, lost a finger” (which I interpret as ‘the finger seems gone, but she otherwise is alright’).

    The ‘Confederation of Upper Swabian Landsknechts’, of which I also had not the slightest idea, is apparently referred to as “BOL” (‘Bund Oberschwäbischer Landsknechte’, in German), and –a bit to my concern– they reportedly were holding a “Spring Drill”, and in 2006 someone “already has lost two fingers in Mindelheim”. Hopefully, there were no cannonballs and –“only”– the load involved.

    Also, I can report that Albrecht Dürer not only depicted Landsknecht folk (in exotic costumes) in front of a Celtic hill fort, together with a posh ‘Feldschlange’ cannon, roughly 30km north of Nuremberg (cf. ‘Ehrenbürg’), he also did a business trip to visit Emperor Maximilian in Brussels (personally, I have been atop of that hill -as well- as in Brussels), in order to secure funding. Unfortunately, (I think) the Emperor had died, by the time Albrecht got there.

    He even kept a Diary on his trip, but the number of lost fingers in 1580 near ‘Ehrenbürg’ remains –at least so far– rather unclear.

  5. Machine-translated entry for the Dürer portrait of Maximilian:


    No other of the numerous portraits of Emperor Maximilian I (1459 – 1519) had a more lasting influence on the popular monarch’s appearance than this representative half-figure painting by Dürer, which dates from the year of the sitter’s death.

    The work was preceded by a meeting of the artist with Maximilian in June 1518 at the Reichstag in Augsburg, namely “hoch oben awff der pfaltz in seinem kleinen stüble”, as Dürer noted on a portrait study made on this occasion. This drawing (Vienna, Albertina) served Dürer not only as the basis for the present wooden panel, but also for a somewhat larger, undated canvas painting (Nuremberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum) as well as for a woodcut, which also bears no year. For these three works the artist paused the facial features from the drawing, which is why all heads are the same size. This feature is also evident in a portrait of Maximilian from one of Dürer’s successors from Vienna (GG 880), which is mostly regarded as a pasticcio after the two versions of the painting, but perhaps also a lost original of Dürer is preserved. It is unclear whether this pause procedure served only for economic purposes or whether Dürer wanted in this way to reproduce the features of the admired ruler, who was no longer alive at that time [!!!](Maximilian died already on 19 January 1519), with the greatest possible physiognomic fidelity. In any case, in the death of the emperor, the actual reason for these portraits, both for those painted and for those intended for reproduction, may be sought. The inscriptions on the paintings explicitly mention death; on the woodcut it is also mentioned in the title “Divus” (divine), which in ancient Rome was only given to deceased emperors. The Nuremberg version is mostly regarded as a “model” for the Viennese painting, as it is not signed, was executed on unprimed canvas and also bears a glued inscription. The inscription was written in German, but the almost identical one in our painting appears in Latin. Another important change, probably also demanded by the unknown client, concerns the chain of the Order of the Golden Fleece, which the Emperor wears on the Nuremberg version, but not on our painting. Obviously her double existence – she frames the imperial coat of arms with the double eagle a second time – was perceived as disturbing. All in all, such nobilitating elements recede in the Viennese picture, the rank of the sitter, who stands before us in bourgeois clothing, is expressed almost exclusively in the majestic appearance. In addition, in both paintings Maximilian holds a pomegranate instead of the Imperial Apple, the meaning of which seems to be multi-layered. According to an old tradition, the fruit is said to recall the conquest of Granada by Ferdinand of Aragon, the father-in-law of his son Philip, in 1492. On the other hand, as a symbol of the motto “To be more than to seem”, it fits perfectly into the context of the painting. Guido Messling [26.6.2017]

  6. Loading muzzle loading cannon can be dangerous if not done carefully and correctly. In particular, it is necessary to sponge out the barrel completely prior to inserting a charge and to plug the touch hole (usually with your thumb insulated with a leather thumb stall) to prevent the piston action of loading from fanning any embers. Most re-enactors these days use a cartridge of aluminum foil containing the powder which is insurance against premature discharges because the aluminum foil is a non-combustible layer between any spark and the powder. 16th century re-enactors may have been using the 16th century loading technique of ladling loose powder into the barrel which is pretty dangerous. Even a cloth cartridge bag would be safer than that.

    It would be unusual for them to be loading a cannon ball at a re-enactment. Most cannons at re-enactments only fire blanks because of safety reasons. When watching movies or videos you can distinguish a blank from a discharge with a projectile because the blank has little or no recoil. A cannon firing a projectile with a full military load will violently recoil 6-7 feet. Oddly, movies set in the period of muzzle loading artillery rarely depict recoil accurately for land battles but naval battles often have the guns properly recoiling.

    Finally, anyone loading a muzzle loading cannon should be wearing heavy leather gloves to help protect against accidental discharges.

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