Invincible Blades and Unerring Bullets

Looking to improve your shooting? Consider following the example of carpenter Georg Schott of Augusburg, who mixed the intestines of a suicide victim, burned to ash, into his gunpowder. Want to make yourself invincible in a duel? Take the advice of Hans Hellinger and hide a thunder-stone beneath a church altar so a Mass is said over it. Then insert the stone in the pommel of your sword. Your enemy’s sword will always break. Or, if you feel like you might need a variety of tools to up your game, you could follow the example of mercenary Job Körnlein, who was arrested in Nuremberg with strips of skin, the finger of a dead Turk, and a piece of hangman’s rope – all talismans to improve one’s aim.

As B. Ann Tlusty shows in a recent article in the European Review of History, “weapons magic” was rife across early modern Germany. Soldiers, mercenaries, town guards, and even townsmen (for whom wearing a sword was a symbol of civic freedom) all many reasons seek magics that might give them an edge in duels or battles. Some weapons magic was connected with the language of devils and demons – the witch Anna “Tempel Anneke” Roleffes confessed to selling confession wafers to men who wanted them as shooting charms. Other magic reflected the academic language of sympathy promulgated by learned doctors like Paracelsus, many of whom were also busy prescribing human flesh (recent or ancient Egyptian) for various ailments. Much was apparently common folk belief.

Why did weapons magic thrive in sixteenth and seventeenth-century Germany? Tlusty suggests it was “the convergence of scientific, religious, and magical beliefs about blades and bullets just when the sword was at the apex of its association with masculine identity.” Why did it disappear? Growing skepticism about magic, the professionalization of warfare, the decline of casual arms-carrying, and a change in what constituted honorable conduct in dueling or battle all meant that the spells and talismans fell in popularity in the eighteenth century.

Tlusty’s article is currently available online to anyone at the publisher’s website, although it looks like that access is temporary. Take a look before it goes behind the paywall.

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