In the 15th century, there supposedly lived a man named Puncker (or Punker), who was renowned as a showman and a warrior in the Holy Roman Empire, an empire that consisted of Germany, Austria and other surrounding Central and Eastern European lands. The life of this legendary or semi-legendary person, interestingly enough, was recorded in the pages of the Malleus Maleficarum, a text on witchcraft and demonology that was published around 1486 or 1487.
According to the Malleus Maleficarum, Puncker lived in Rohrbach and served under a certain noble named Eberhard Longbeard. The text did not specify anything further on this lord, but the authors could be referring to Duke Eberhard I of Württemberg (c. 1445-1496), who was also known as Bearded Eberhard. Other tales and bits of folklore claim that Puncker also interacted with the Rhineland Palatinate ruler, Louis III (r. 1410-1436). In both versions, the story has the same basic core elements, despite some differences in chronology and reasoning as to why parts of the story came about.
In any case, Puncker was likely one of the greatest bowmen to have ever lived. In his most famous archery exhibition, spectators watched with nervously beating hearts as Puncker aimed his arrow at a small coin precariously placed on a hat worn by the archer’s own son. According to the Malleus Maleficarum, Puncker flawlessly hit the coin with his arrow, and did so without harming the boy or even scratching the hat.
Puncker, however, was not just a showman who liked to show off his archery skill on inanimate objects. He was also a warrior whose talents were greatly utilized by the aforementioned Eberhard. According to the Malleus Maleficarum, Puncker played a major role in Eberhard’s siege of a certain Lendenbrunnen Castle. Putting to good use his uncanny accuracy, Puncker quickly became the scourge of the castle’s defenders by sniping at least three enemies every day. The bow seemed to be an extension of Puncker’s eyes—if he could see a defender, he could hit the defender. At the end of the siege, when Eberhard finally seized the fortress, Puncker was rewarded with a ring from the castle’s gate as a trophy of war. The famed archer proudly hung the ring from the door of his home in Rohrbach.
By this point in the story, many readers may be wondering why the feats of Puncker were recorded in the Malleus Maleficarum, which is a text on witchcraft, and not in a military history. Well, the Malleus Maleficarum was interested in the marksman’s story because 15th-century gossips believed that Puncker’s archery prowess was not natural. In fact, the authors of the Malleus Maleficarum believed that Puncker was a bizarre kind of wizard that specialized in archery magic. According to them, Puncker’s miraculous accuracy was nothing more than a diabolical spell. They wrote that Puncker had prepared before every performance and battle by disrespectfully shooting arrows into a crucifix to infuse them with demonic power. According to the inquisitors’ theory, whenever these same diabolical arrows were shot for a second time from Puncker’s bow, demons would swoop in and ensure that the projectiles hit their targets. That is why, they explained, he would only hit three targets per day during the siege—he could supposedly only prepare three bewitched arrows on a daily basis.
Eventually, as Puncker’s renown grew, such accusations of magic began to gain momentum. In non-Malleus Maleficarum accounts of the story, the previously mentioned archery exhibition where Puncker shot a coin off the top of his son’s head was actually an attempt for the archer to clear his name of witchcraft allegations. In that version of the tale, Puncker claimed that if he was a wizard, God would punish him for his use of magic by making the arrow fall off course and hit the boy.
For whatever reasons, witchcraft or otherwise, Puncker eventually fell afoul of his neighbors and eventually suffered a painful end. According to the Malleus Maleficarum, Puncker was hunted down by a mob of peasants and beaten to death with shovels.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Image of archery practice by Geoffrey Luttrell, c. 1325, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).