Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, October 28, 2023

Bishop Hatto and the mice

To round out our week of looking at odd and creepy tales, today we're going to consider one of the most famous: the story of the evil Bishop Hatto.

Hatto was a real person, and was Archbishop of Mainz in the late tenth century C. E.  He had a reputation for being a dreadful human being, grasping, greedy, and cruel, and in fact had a tower built on a small island in the Rhine (near present day Bingen am Rhein) to control shipping traffic.  The top of the tower had a platform for crossbowmen, and ships were forced to pay tolls to pass the island -- or risk having his bowmen pick off the sailors from their high vantage point.

So Bishop Hatto got richer and the poor got poorer (as they are wont to do).  Things reached a peak in the mid-970s, when a famine struck central Europe.  Rather than use his considerable wealth to ease the suffering of the peasants, he took this as another opportunity to fatten his own coffers, storing up what grain there was and jacking up the prices to wring as much cash as he could from the desperate.  Finally, the peasants had had enough, and according to the best-known version of the legend, plotted to rebel against and depose Bishop Hatto.  But they didn't take into account the bishop's cunning, nor the fact that he had paid informants to keep him apprised of what was going on.  Well aware of what was being planned, he put forth a proclamation that he'd relented and would give away the grain to anyone who needed it.

Relieved, the peasants showed up at Hatto's massive grain storage barn -- only to find that it was empty.

And the doors were barred behind them.

Hatto then had his soldiers set fire to the barn, and as the peasants died screaming, the bishop laughed and said, "Listen to the mice squeak."

Hearing his words, one of the poor unfortunates in the burning barn came to a gap in the wood and shouted, "Mice?  You'll rue your words, Hatto... before this night is over, the mice will come to take their vengeance on you!"

Undaunted, Hatto returned to his residence, and what the legend says happened next is hardly a surprise.  He was settling down for the night, and heard rustling and squeaking -- hordes of rats and mice, swarming up the stairs.  He fled, but they followed him, and eventually he made his way across the Rhine to his tower.  But the mice swam after him... and there was nowhere for him to go.  He was cornered and eaten alive.  And ever since then, the tower on the little island has been called the Mäuseturm -- "Mouse Tower," in German.

Bishop Hatto about to meet his fate (from The Nuremberg Chronicles, 1493) [Image is in the Public Domain]

There are four problems with this legend.

The first is that there's no contemporaneous historical record indicating that Hatto was nibbled to death by mice.  However, given the dearth of any records at all from the tenth century, perhaps we can set that one aside.

A more troubling issue is that the original name of the tower wasn't Mäuseturm -- it was Mautturm (which, more prosaically, means "toll tower").  The renaming of the tower to Mäuseturm seems to have happened much later, and as a sort of play on words that works way better in German than it does in English.

Third, there is no historically credible source documenting Hatto being all that much worse than any other medieval religious or secular leader.  After all, this was a time when being nasty to peasants was right up there with fox hunting and falconry as the favorite sport of the nobility.  There had been an earlier Archbishop of Mainz -- also, confusingly, named Hatto -- whose reputation for being an unmitigated asshole was much better documented.  (Among many other things, he promised Count Adalbert of Babenburg safe passage through his lands, then captured him and had him beheaded, and later plotted unsuccessfully to murder Henry, Duke of Saxony.)  This Hatto's nasty reputation may have besmirched the later Hatto's -- and for what it's worth, Hatto I is also reputed to have come to a bad end, having died after being struck by lightning.

Fourth, the whole eaten-by-mice thing is the punchline of the stories of two other allegedly nasty medieval rulers -- Popiel of Gopło and the Count of Wörthschlössl, each of whom has his own "Mouse Tower" (still standing to this day) where he allegedly met his grisly fate.  To judge by the legends, German mice did nothing but run around all the time looking for cruel peasant-abusers to eat:

Mouse 1: Hey, bro, we gotta get going.  We're supposed to go eat the Count von Wienerschnitzel tonight.

Mouse 2: Seriously?  I've still got indigestion from the archbishop we ate last night.  Can't we find, like, a nice salad bar or something?

Mouse 1: Dude.  Get your ass up.  We're mice, and we eat evil German magnates.  I don't make the rules.

Mouse 2 (*sighs heavily*): Fine.  But I'm fucking well taking tomorrow off.

So for those of you who like tales of divine and/or rodent-mediated vengeance, the whole Bishop Hatto story is kind of a non-starter.  Kind of a shame, really.  It'd be nice if evil people got such a swift comeuppance.  I can think of a few who would be good candidates, if any modern mice who read Skeptophilia are casting about for victims to devour.


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