A bishop eaten alive by mice

I bet that got your attention.

Over at the Lion and the Cardinal I found a great image of the cruel bishop of Mainz, Hatto II.

I was intrigued.  I hate mice a lot, but I hate cruel 10th century bishops too.

So.. here’s the story, with the help of wikipedia.

The Mouse Tower (Mäuseturm) is a stone tower on a small island in the Rhine, outside Bingen. The Romans were the first to build a structure on this site. It later became part of Franconia, and it fell and had to be rebuilt many times.

Hatto II, the Archbishop of Mainz, restored the tower in 968. The story of how it came to be called the "Mouse Tower" comes from a folk tale. [I think it must be true… because I want it to be.] This popular legend goes as follows: Hatto II was a cruel ruler who oppressed and exploited the peasants in his domain. He used the tower as a platform for crossbowmen and demanded tribute from passing ships, shooting their crews if they did not comply. During a famine in 974 the poor people were without food, and Hatto, having all the grain stored up in his barns, used his monopoly to sell it at such a high price that most could not afford any.

The peasants were getting angry and organizing to rebel, so Hatto devised a cruel trick. He promised to feed the hungry people and told them to go to an empty barn and wait for him to come with food. The peasants were overjoyed and praised Hatto heartily, and all of them journeyed to the barn to await his coming.

When he showed up with his servants he ordered the barn’s doors shut and locked, then set the barn on fire and burned the peasants to death, saying "They are like mice, only good for eating up the grain." When Hatto retired to his castle, he was besieged by an army of mice. He fled the swarm and took a boat across the river to his tower, hoping that the mice could not swim. The mice followed him and rushed into the river by the thousands. Many of them drowned, but even more crawled onto the island. There, they ate through the tower’s doors and crawled up to the top floor, where they found Hatto and ate him alive.

The "Mouse Tower" story about a cruel ruler has been told about numerous rulers, but this is the most famous version. An allusion to this tale can be found in the poem "The Children’s Hour" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

    They almost devour me with kisses,
    Their arms about me entwine,
    Till I think of the Bishop of Bingen
    In his Mouse-Tower on the Rhine!


I wonder if the modern version of mice isn’t e-mail spam… or hate mail.  It eats your life away.  Hmmm….

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Prospero says:

    Here is Robert Southey’s poem about Bishop Hatto.

    God’s Judgment on a Wicked Bishop

    The summer and autumn had been so wet,
    That in winter the corn was growing yet,
    ‘Twas a piteous sight to see all around
    The grain lie rotting on the ground.

    Every day the starving poor
    Crowded around Bishop Hatto’s door,
    For he had a plentiful last-year’s store,
    And all the neighbourhood could tell
    His granaries were furnish’d well.

    At last Bishop Hatto appointed a day
    To quiet the poor without delay;
    He bade them to his great Barn repair,
    And they should have food for the winter there.

    Rejoiced such tidings good to hear,
    The poor folk flock’d from far and near;
    The great barn was full as it could hold
    Of women and children, and young and old.

    Then when he saw it could hold no more,
    Bishop Hatto he made fast the door;
    And while for mercy on Christ they call,
    He set fire to the Barn and burnt them all.

    “I’faith ’tis an excellent bonfire!” quoth he,
    “And the country is greatly obliged to me,
    For ridding it in these times forlorn
    Of Rats that only consume the corn.”

    So then to his palace returned he,
    And he sat down to supper merrily,
    And he slept that night like an innocent man;
    But Bishop Hatto never slept again.

    In the morning as he enter’d the hall
    Where his picture hung against the wall,
    A sweat like death all over him came,
    For the Rats had eaten it out of the frame.

    As he look’d there came a man from his farm–
    He had a countenance white with alarm;
    “My Lord, I open’d your granaries this morn,
    And the Rats had eaten all your corn.”

    Another came running presently,
    And he was pale as pale could be,
    “Fly! my Lord Bishop, fly,” quoth he,
    “Ten thousand Rats are coming this way,…
    The Lord forgive you for yesterday!”

    “I’ll go to my tower on the Rhine,” replied he,
    “‘Tis the safest place in Germany;
    The walls are high and the shores are steep,
    And the stream is strong and the water deep.”

    Bishop Hatto fearfully hasten’d away,
    And he crost the Rhine without delay,
    And reach’d his tower, and barr’d with care
    All the windows, doors, and loop-holes there.

    He laid him down and closed his eyes;…
    But soon a scream made him arise,
    He started and saw two eyes of flame
    On his pillow from whence the screaming came.

    He listen’d and look’d;… it was only the Cat;
    And the Bishop he grew more fearful for that,
    For she sat screaming, mad with fear
    At the Army of Rats that were drawing near.

    For they have swum over the river so deep,
    And they have climb’d the shores so steep,
    And up the Tower their way is bent,
    To do the work for which they were sent.

    They are not to be told by the dozen or score,
    By thousands they come, and by myriads and more,
    Such numbers had never been heard of before,
    Such a judgment had never been witness’d of yore.

    Down on his knees the Bishop fell,
    And faster and faster his beads did he tell,
    As louder and louder drawing near
    The gnawing of their teeth he could hear.

    And in at the windows and in at the door,
    And through the walls helter-skelter they pour,
    And down from the ceiling and up through the floor,
    From the right and the left, from behind and before,
    From within and without, from above and below,
    And all at once to the Bishop they go.

    They have whetted their teeth against the stones,
    And now they pick the Bishop’s bones:
    They gnaw’d the flesh from every limb,
    For they were sent to do judgment on him!

  2. Howard says:

    Father, if you ever get a chance to be in that area, not only visit the Dom (cathedral) in Mainz, but also take the boat tour down to Koblenz. Don’t stop for Bingen, which, St. Hildegard withstanding, is mostly just a tourist trap these days — unless you want to go up and see the statue of Germania looking threateningly across the Rhine towards France. This part of the Rhine is the most scenic part, and the Mouse Tower is just one of the many interesting castles you’ll see.

  3. Matt Q says:

    Father Z wrote:

    “I was intrigued. I hate mice a lot, but I hate cruel 10th century bishops too. ”


    …And a great majority of 21st Century bishops as well.

  4. I’d take a cruel bishop over a heterdox one any day…


  5. I remember from years ago in Henry Morton Robinsons’s book “The Cardinal”, someone said, “I feel like the bishop of Bingen in his mouse tower on the Rhine”. I couldn’t understand the reference but always remembered the line. This is fascinating. Now I only need to find the book and then find the sentence in it’s context. Don’t anyone hold your breath for that .

  6. Father Anonymous says:

    I’m on my way to the pet store!

  7. Hatto is pronounced the same as the word for rat: “rato” in Portuguese. Also, it’s somewhat similar to “rat”.

  8. Londiniensis says:

    The Polish “version” of this legend concerns Popiel II, a legendary IX Century king, who poisoned his uncles and was devoured by mice in a tower on an island in a lake near Gniezno, where he had fled – picture here: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4f/PopielBis1581.jpg

  9. Londiniensis says:

    An afterthought – we need some of those mice here in England. Nomina sunt odiosa, of course, but regular readers of Fr Z and of the “blood crazed ferret” will know who they are.

  10. Christopher: Go back to the 10th century and say that.

  11. JPG says:

    I wonder if one would find cruelty and heterodoxy in the same person?
    I doubt said bishop was orthodox if strictly questioned. Thomas Cramner comes to mind.

  12. Londiniensis: Perhaps swarms of “blood crazed ferrets” would make a faster job of it.

  13. Interesting. As it is his feast today, it might be worth noting that St. Francis of Assisi was also attacked by mice during his final illness. (Assisi Compilation, 83)

  14. Widukind says:

    Would the tower then be Bishop Hatto’s

  15. Fr. Augustine: Hmmm… this seems to have been a problem.

    BTW… can you recommend a good edition of the “Assisi Complication”?

  16. Maureen says:

    I find your belief that the orthodox believer is never cruel to be a touching one. But alas, “the demons in Hell believe… and shudder”, and my orthodoxy does me no good if I do not act on it.

  17. Prospero:

    Thank you for the poem – I have added it to my original post.

  18. Father Z,
    Sure, I’ll just hop in my time machine here… Unfortunately, I am only a mediocre scientist and such, so I fear I may only make it to 1895 or so. At my age, that means I should die around 1958. How fortuitous!! ;-)


  19. Tina in Ashburn says:

    Here kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty.

  20. Mark says:

    This is a popular folk tale from (central?) Europe and exists in many settings. The version I heard as a child involved a cruel King, the rest of the details being almost identical.

    Cruelty being punished by mice offers an interesting glimpse into our subconscious mind. Anyone who solves this riddle is worthy of a tower of their own. Any psych majors want to try?

  21. Paul says:

    I’m not a psychologist, but a historian, however I have had reason to study these kinds of traditions about a wicked person, usually a ruler, being eaten by mice, worms or some other kind of disgusting animals. These stories were fairly widely distributed in pre-modern times. The likely meaning of it is this: the gravity of wickedness of such a great, public evildoer was thought to require not only a horrific death, but a complete annihilation of their physical being by animals that were associated with death (vermin). This would also mean no funeral for their remains! Of course, God could contrive it that this might really happen to such a person, but basically the pattern is legendary.

  22. Mark says:

    Great comment, Paul. It seems to me that one layer of the subtext here is that evil will eventually consume itself, that it is cannibalistic (echoes of Hitler and Stalin). One manifestation of evil (cruel ruler) is eventually consumed by another (vermin, associated with disease and death, as you pointed out). Thus evil seems to be not self-sustaining, it needs ever fresh blood to continue its work (like a roaring lion prowling about).

    But I suspect we barely scratched the surface here. Why would evil spirits, being intelligent, not foresee this simple outcome? After all, a cruel ruler seems to be of little use to them once he’s killed by them. Unless fresh victims are easy to come by in this world? Also, what would happen to it if it could no longer get fresh victims?

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