Sometime in the tenth century, so the story goes, a great famine hit the Rhine valley. The summer and fall seasons had been so wet that the grain rotted in the fields before the farmers could harvest. As winter hit, they ran out their food stores; they were starving. Desperate, they turned to Hatto, the wealthy Archbishop of Mainz, whose granaries were filled to overflowing.
Some stories say that Hatto charged the people such a steep price for the grain that they began to rebel. Some stories say he was just sick of their begging. Either way, Hatto finally announced that everyone without food should come to his barn on a certain day, and he would give them grain.
On that day, people came from all over the countryside, and filled the bishop’s barn until it couldn’t hold a single more person. Then Hatto ordered the barn doors locked and set fire to the barn, burning all the peasants to death.
‘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.’
Then Hatto went home to a good dinner, retired to bed, and slept like a baby.
The next morning, the servants ran to the Bishop and reported that ten thousand rats had eaten all the corn in the granaries, and were now converging on the Bishop’s palace. Terrified,
the Bishop had himself rowed out to his stronghold, a tower on an island in the middle of the Rhine. The rats dove into the river, swam to the island, swarmed the tower, and ate the bishop alive.
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!
The poem that tells this tale is called God’s Judgment on a Wicked Bishop, by English poet Robert Southey. The legend itself is an old one.
There really was a Hatto, Archbishop of Mainz — two of them, in fact. Hatto I was archbishop from 891 to 913. Southey, in his preface to the poem, quotes an account that places the famine in 914, which would be near Hatto I’s reign. This Hatto was quite the political schemer; he was a close councillor of King Arnulf of Germany, a supporter of the Conradines against the Babenbergs in their struggle for political supremacy in Franconia, and the power behind the German throne from 890 until his death. He was supposedly involved in an assassination attempt on Henry, Duke of Saxony, who eventually became King Henry I of Germany in 919. Hatto actually died in 913, and in fact there are other legends about his death, including one that he was thrown into Mt. Etna by the devil. I’m guessing he was a pretty bad man, but probably not responsible for burning a barn full of people to death.
The legend is actually more closely associated with Hatto II, former abbot of Fulda monastery, who was Archbishop of Mainz from 968 to 970. Hatto II sounds like a fairly benign guy, patron to the abbeys of Fulda and Reichenau, and a patron of the arts. He was responsible for the restoration of an old Roman tower on an island in the middle of the Rhine. It’s called The Mouse Tower (Mäuseturm), because, of course, that’s where he allegedly got devoured alive for his sins. The tower was actually used for collecting tolls from ships passing down the river.
from Historical Tales, The Romance of Reality, Vol. 5 by Charles Morris. 1893)
And there are other stories of evil men devoured by rats, and even other Mouse Towers. Sabine Baring-Gould lists a number of versions of the legend in his book, Curious Myths of the Middle Ages.
One of the more interesting variations is the story of Prince Popiel of Poland. Popiel was apparently a very bad ruler, more interested in hedonism than good government. Some of the noblemen (one story says they were his twelve uncles) schemed to have him deposed. Popiel invited them all to a banquet and poisoned them. Mice and rats began to swarm out of the dead bodies, right there at the banquet, and attacked Popiel and his wife. The two of them fled to a castle on Lake Goplo (there is a Mouse Tower there in Kruszwica, too), but the rodents pursued, with the inevitable consequences.
Supposedly, mice are the manifestations of souls in many Northern European mythologies, so it makes sense that rodents would be an instrument of revenge for wrongful death — the ghosts of the victims coming back to take revenge on their murderer. Baring-Gould also theorized that these rat-revenge legends are the vestiges of old Nordic corn-king style practices: in times of famine, rulers are sacrificed to appease the gods (sacrificed by being left out to be eaten by vermin? Ick). Once the sacrificial aspect is forgotten, then the story morphs into a punishment fable.
Whether or not Baring-Gould was correct, it’s quite a gory little tale.