The Bellifortis (Strong in War)


Many high- and late-medieval manuscripts about technology exist. Most, however, present only the texts without any illustrations. The Bellifortis (Strong in war), in contrast, is the first fully illustrated manual of military technology, dating from the start of the 15th century. It was produced by a person whose name has been passed down to us: Konrad, or Conradus, Kyeser, a native of Eichstätt (Bavaria, Germany). He wrote his treatise between 1402 and 1405, when he was exiled from Prague. At first glance, its content, written in Latin and amounting to a total of nearly 180 images, seems to belong to a clearly-defined topic: warfare. Among the military devices discussed are, not surprisingly, trebuchets, battering rams, movable portable bridges, cannons, rockets, chariots, ships, mills, scaling ladders, incendiary devices, crossbows, and instruments of torture―some rather modern at the time and others that had been well-known since antiquity. But the treatise also describes a sauna, an air mattress, and a chastity belt, items that really do not fit the warlike image. This variety of content makes the Bellifortis so interesting. Kyeser's texts are somewhat difficult to understand and to translate, as the technical terms and his astrological allusions cannot always be deciphered. The Bellifortis is also relevant as a monument of the history of science, for it contains the first-known medieval depiction of the Archimedes screw and the earliest drawing of the above-mentioned chastity belt. Because of its manifest importance, this manuscript copy, produced around 1430, was acquired by the Bavarian State Library in 1998 with generous financial assistance of both Bavarian and German cultural institutions.

Last updated: July 28, 2017