Curious Myths of the Middle Ages/Bishop Hatto

OF the many who yearly visit the Rhine, and bring away with them reminiscences of tottering castles and desecrated convents, whether they take interest or not in the legends inseparably attached to these ruins, none, probably, have failed to learn and remember the famous story of God’s judgment on the wicked Bishop Hatto, in the quaint Mäusethurm, erected on a little rock in midstream.

At the close of the tenth century lived Hatto, once abbot of Fulda, where he ruled the monks with great prudence for twelve years, and afterwards Bishop of Mayence.

In the year 970, Germany suffered from famine.

“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 corn 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.”

Wearied by the cries of the famishing people, the Bishop appointed a day, whereon he undertook to quiet them. He bade all who were without bread, and the means to purchase it at its then high rate repair to his great barn. From all quarters, far and near, the poor hungry folk flocked into Kaub, and were admitted into the barn, till it was as full of people as it could be made to contain.

“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.”

Then there came a man to him from his farm, with a countenance pale with fear, to tell him that the rats had devoured all the corn in his granaries. And presently there came another servant, to inform him that a legion of rats was on its way to his palace. The Bishop looked from his window, and saw the road and fields dark with the moving multitude; neither hedge nor wall impeded their progress, as they made straight for his mansion. Then, full of terror, the prelate fled by his postern, and, taking a boat, was rowed out to his tower in the river,

            “——— and barr’d
 All the gates secure and hard.

“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;
 But 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 now by thousands up they crawl
 To the holes and windows in the wall.

“Down on his knees the Bishop fell,
 And faster and faster his beads did tell,
 As louder and louder, drawing near,
 The saw of their teeth without he could hear

“And in at the windows, and in at the door,
 And through the walls by thousands 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 bone;
 They gnaw’d the flesh from every limb,
 For they were sent to do judgment on him.”

It is satisfactory to know that popular fiction has maligned poor Bishop Hatto, who was not by any means a hard-hearted and wicked prelate. Wolfius[1], who tells the story on the authority of Honorius Augustodunensis (d. 1152), Marianus Scotus (d. 1086), and Grithemius (d. 1516), accompanying it with the curious picture which is reproduced on the opposite page, says, “This is regarded by many as a fable, yet the tower, taking its name from the mice, exists to this day in the river Rhine.” But this is no evidence, as there is documentary proof that the tower was erected as a station for collecting tolls on the vessels which passed up and down the river.

The same story is told of other persons and places. Indeed, Wolfius reproduces his picture of


From Job. Wolfli Lect. Memorab. Lavingæ (1600).

Hatto in the mouse-tower, to do service as an illustration of the dreadful death of Widerolf, Bishop of Strasburg (997), who, in the seventeenth year of his episcopate, on July 17th, in punishment for having suppressed the convent of Seltzen on the Rhine, was attacked and devoured by mice or rats[2]. The same fate is also attributed to Bishop Adolf of Cologne, who died in 1112[3].

The story comes to us from Switzerland. A Freiherr von Giittingen possessed three castles between Constance and Arbon, in the Canton of Thurgau, namely, Güttingen, Moosburg, and Oberburg. During a famine, he collected the poor of his territory into a great barn, and there consumed them, mocking their cries by exclamations of “Hark! how the rats and mice are squeaking.” Shortly after, he was attacked by an army of mice, and fled to his castle of Güttingen in the waters of the Lake of Constance; but the vermin pursued him to his retreat, and devoured him. The castle then sank into the lake, and its ruins are distinguishable when the water is clear and unruffled[4]. In Austria, a similar legend is related of the mouse tower at Holzölster, with this difference only, that the hard-hearted nobleman casts the poor people into a dungeon and starves them to death, instead of burning them[5].

Between Inning and Seefeld in Bavaria is Wörthsee, called also the Mouse-lake. There was once a Count of Seefeld, who in time of famine put all his starving poor in a dungeon, jested at their cries, which he called the squeaking of mice, and was devoured by these animals in his tower in the lake, to which he fled from them, although he suspended his bed by iron chains from the roof[6].

A similar story is told of the Mäuseschloss in the Hirschberger lake. A Polish version occurs in old historical writers.

Martinus Gallus, who wrote in 1110, says that King Popiel, having been driven from his kingdom, was so tormented by mice, that he fled to an island whereon was a wooden tower, in which he took refuge; but the host of mice and rats swam over and ate him up. The story is told more fully by Majolus[7]. When the Poles murmured at the bad government of the king, and sought redress, Popiel summoned the chief murmurers to his palace, where he pretended that he was ill, and then poisoned them. After this the corpses were flung by his orders into the lake Gopolo. Then the king held a banquet of rejoicing at having freed himself from these troublesome complainers. But during the feast, by a strange metamorphosis (mira quadam metamorphosi), an enormous number of mice issued from the bodies of his poisoned subjects, and rushing on the palace, attacked the king and his family. Popiel took refuge within a circle of fire, but the mice broke through the flaming ring; then he fled with his wife and child to a castle in the sea, but was followed by the animals and devoured.

A Scandinavian legend is to this effect[8]. King Knut the Saint was murdered by the Earl Asbjorn, in the church of S. Alban, in Odense, during an insurrection of the Jutes, in 1086. Next year the country suffered severely from famine, and this was attributed to Divine vengeance for the murder of the king. Asbjorn was fallen upon by rats, and eaten up.

William of Malmesbury tells this story[9]: “I have heard a person of the utmost veracity relate, that one of the adversaries of Henry IV. (of Germany), a weak and factious man, while reclining at a banquet, was on a sudden so completely surrounded by mice as to be unable to escape. So great was the number of these little animals, that there could scarcely be imagined more in a whole province. It was in vain that they were attacked with clubs and fragments of the benches which were at hand; and though they were for a long time assailed by all, yet they wreaked their deputed curse on no one else; pursuing him only with their teeth, and with a kind of dreadful squeaking. And although he was carried out to sea about a javelin’s cast by the servants, yet he could not by these means escape their violence; for immediately so great a multitude of mice took to the water, that you would have sworn the sea was strewed with chaff. But when they began to gnaw the planks of the ship, and the water, rushing through the chinks, threatened inevitable shipwreck, the servants turned the vessel to the shore. The animals, then also swimming close to the ship, landed first. Thus the wretch, set on shore, and soon after entirely gnawed in pieces, satiated the dreadful hunger of the mice.

“I deem this the less wonderful, because it is well known that in Asia, if a leopard bite any person, a party of mice approach directly. . . . . . . But if, by the care of servants driving them off, the destruction can be avoided during nine days, then medical assistance, if called in, may be of service. My informant had seen a person wounded after this manner, who, despairing of safety on shore, proceeded to sea, and lay at anchor; when, immediately, more than a thousand mice swam out, wonderful to relate, in the rinds of pomegranates, the insides of which they had eaten; but they were drowned through the loud shouting of the sailors.”

Albertus Trium-Fontium tells the same story under the year 1083, quoting probably from William of Malmesbury.

Giraldus Cambrensis (d. 1220), in his “Itinerary,” relates a curious story of a youth named Siscillus Esceir-hir, or Long-shanks, who was attacked in his bed by multitudes of toads, and who fled from them to the top of a tree, but was pursued by the reptiles, and his flesh picked from his bones. “And in like manner,” he adds, “we read of how by the secret, but never unjust, counsel of God a certain man was persecuted by the larger sort of mice which are commonly called rati[10].”

And Thietmar of Merseburg (b. 976, d. 1018) says, that there was once a certain knight who, having appropriated the goods of S. Clement, and refused to make restitution, was one day attacked by an innumerable host of mice, as he lay in bed. At first he defended himself with a club, then with his sword, and, as he found himself unable to cope with the multitude, he ordered his servants to put him in a box, and suspend this by a rope from the ceiling, and as soon as the mice were gone, to liberate him. But the animals pursued him even thus, and when he was taken down, it was found that they had eaten the flesh and skin off his bones. And it became manifest to all how obnoxious to God is the sin of sacrilege[11].

Cæsarius of Heisterbach (Dist. ii. c. 31) tells a tale of a usurer in Cologne, who, moved with compunction for his sins, confessed to a priest, who bade him fill a chest with bread, as alms for the poor attached to the church of S. Gereon. Next morning the loaves were found transformed into toads and frogs. “Behold,” said the priest, “the value of your alms in the sight of God!” To which the terrified usurer replied, “Lord, what shall I do?” And the priest answered, “If you wish to be saved, lie this night naked amidst these reptiles.” Wondrous contrition. He, though he recoiled from such a couch, preferred to lie among worms which perish, rather than those which are eternal; and he cast himself nude upon the creatures. Then the priest went to the box, shut it, and departed; which, when he opened it on the following day, he found to contain nothing save human bones.

It will be seen from these versions of the Hatto myth, how prevalent among the Northern nations was the idea of men being devoured by vermin. The manner of accounting for their death differs, but all the stories agree in regarding that death as mysterious.

I believe the origin of these stories to be a heathen human sacrifice made in times of famine. That such sacrifice took place among the Scandinavian and Teutonic peoples is certain. Tacitus tells us that the Germans sacrificed men. Snorro Sturlesson (d. 1241) gives us an instance of the Swedes offering their king to obtain abundant crops[12].

“Donald took the heritage after his father Visbur, and ruled over the land. As in his time there was a great famine and distress, the Swedes made great offerings of sacrifice at Upsala. The first autumn they sacrificed oxen, but the succeeding season was not improved by it. The following autumn they sacrificed men, but the succeeding year was rather worse. The third autumn, when the offer of sacrifices should begin, a great multitude of Swedes came to Upsala; and now the chiefs held consultations with each other, and all agreed that the times of scarcity were on account of their king Donald, and they resolved to offer him for good seasons, and to assault and kill him, and sprinkle the altar of the gods with his blood. And they did so.” So again with Olaf the Tree-feller: “There came dear times and famine, which they ascribed to their king, as the Swedes used always to reckon good or bad crops for or against their kings. The Swedes took it amiss that Olaf was sparing in his sacrifices, and believed the dear times must proceed from this cause. The Swedes therefore gathered together troops, made an expedition against King Olaf, surrounded his house, and burnt him in it, giving him to Odin as a sacrifice for good crops.”

Saxo Grammaticus says that in the reign of King Snio of Denmark there was a famine. The “Chronicon Regum Danicorum” tells a curious story about this Snio being devoured by vermin, sent to destroy him by his former master the giant Lae. Probably Snio was sacrificed, like Donald and Olaf, to obtain good harvests.

The manner in which human sacrifices were made was very different. Sometimes the victims were precipitated off a rock, sometimes hung, at other times they were sunk in a bog. It seems probable to me that the manner in which an offering was made for plenty, was by exposure to rats, just as M. Du Chaillu tells us, an African tribe place their criminals in the way of ants to be devoured by them. The peculiar death of Ragnar Lodbrog, who was sentenced by Ella of Northumberland to be stung to death by serpents in a dungeon, was somewhat similar. Offerings to rats and mice are still prevalent among the peasantry in certain parts of Germany, if we may credit Grimm and Wolf; and this can only be a relic of heathenism, for the significance of the act is lost.

In Mark it is said that the Elves appear in Yuletide as mice, and cakes are laid out for them. In Bohemia, on Christmas eve, the remainder of t supper is given them with the words, “Mice! e of these crumbs, and leave the wheat.”

If I am correct in supposing that the Hatto myth points to sacrifices of chieftains and princes in times of famine, and that the manner of offering the sacrifice was the exposure of the victim to rats, then it is not to be wondered at, that, when the reason of such a sacrifice was forgotten, the death should be accounted as a judgment of God for some crime committed by the sufferer, as hard-heartedness, murder, or sacrilege. Both Giraldus Cambrensis and William of Malmesbury are, however, sadly troubled to find a cause.

Rats and mice have generally been considered sacred animals. Among the Scandinavian and Teutonic peoples they were regarded as the soul of the dead.

In the article on the Piper of Hameln, I mentioned that Prætorius gives a story of a woman’s soul leaving her body in the shape of a red mouse. According to Bohemian belief, one must not go to sleep thirsty, or the soul will leave the body in search of drink. Three labourers once lost their way in a wood. Parched with thirst, they sought, but in vain, for a spring of water. At last one of them lay down and fell asleep, but the others continuing their search, discovered a fountain. They drank, and then returned to their comrade. He still slept, and they observed a little white mouse run out of his mouth, go to the spring, drink, and return to his mouth. They woke him and said, “You are such an idle fellow, that instead of going yourself after water, you send your soul. We will have nothing more to do with you.”

A miller in the Black Forest, after having cut wood, lay down and slept. A servant saw a mouse run out of him. He and his companions went in pursuit. They scared the little creature away, little thinking it was the soul of the miller, and they were never able to rouse him again. Paulus Diaconus relates of King Gunthram that his soul left his body in the shape of a serpent; and Hugh Miller, in his “Schools and Schoolmasters,” tells a Scottish story of two companions, one of whom slept whilst the other watched. He who was awake saw a bee come out of the mouth of the sleeper, cross a stream of water on a straw, run into a hole, and then return and disappear into the mouth of his friend. These are similar stories, but the bee and the serpent have taken the place of the mouse. The idea that the soul is like a mouse, lies at the root of several grotesque stories, as that told by Luther, in his “Table-Talk,” of a woman giving birth to a rat, and that of a mother harassed by the clamour of her children, wishing they were mice, and finding this inconsiderate wish literally fulfilled.

The same idea has passed into Christian iconography. According to the popular German belief, the souls of the dead spend the first night after they leave the body with S. Gertrude, the second with S. Michael, and the third in their destined habitation. S. Gertrude is regarded as the patroness of fleeting souls, the saint who is the first to shelter the spirits when they begin their wandering. As the patroness of souls, her symbol is a mouse. Various stories have been invented to account for this symbol. Some relate that a maiden span on her festival, and the mice ate through her clew as a punishment. A prettier story is that, when she prayed, she was so absorbed that the mice ran about her, and up her pastoral staff, without attracting her attention. Another explanation is that the mouse is a symbol of the evil spirit, which S. Gertrude overcame[13].

But S. Gertrude occupies the place of the ancient Teutonic goddess Holda or Perchta, who was the receiver of the souls of maidens and children, and who still exists as the White Lady, not unfrequently, in German legends, transforming herself, or those whom she decoys into her home, into white mice.

It is not unlikely that the saying, “Rats desert a falling house,” applied originally to the crumbling ruin of the body from which the soul fled.

In the Hatto and Popiel legends it is evident that the rats are the souls of those whom the Bishop and the King murdered.

The rats of Bingen issue from the flames in which the poor people are being consumed. The same is said of the rats which devoured the Freiherr of Güttingen. The rats mira metamorphosi come from the corpses of those poisoned by Popiel.

There is a curious Icelandic story, written in the twelfth century, which bears a striking resemblance to those of Hatto, Widerolf, &c., but in which the rats make no appearance.

In the tenth century Iceland suffered severely from a bad year, so that there was a large amount of destitution throughout the country; and, unless something were done by the wealthy bonders to relieve it, there was a certainty of many poor householders perishing during the approaching winter. Then Svathi, a heathen chief, stepped forward and undertook to provide for a considerable number of sufferers. Accordingly, the poor starving wretches assembled at his door, and were ordered by him to dig a large pit in his tun, 0r home meadow. They complied with alacrity, and in the evening they were gathered into a barn, the door was locked upon them, and it was explained to them that on the following morning they were to be buried alive in the pit of their own digging.

“You will at once perceive,” said Svathi, “that if a number of you be put out of your misery, the number of mouths wanting food will be reduced, and there will be more victuals for those who remain.”

There was truth in what Svathi said; but the poor wretches did not view the matter in the same light as he, nor appreciate the force of his argument; and they spent the night howling with despair. Thorwald of Asi, a Christian, who happened to be riding by towards dawn, heard the outcries, and went to the barn to inquire into their signification. When he learned the cause of their distress, he liberated the prisoners, and bade them follow him to Asi. Before long, Svathi became aware that his victims had escaped, and set off in pursuit. However, he was unable to recover them, as Thorwald’s men were armed, and the poor people were prepared to resist with the courage of despair. Thus the golden opportunity was lost, and he was obliged to return home, bewailing the failure of his scheme. As he dashed up to his house, blinded with rage, and regardless of what was before him, the horse fell with him into the pit which the poor folk had dug, and he was killed by the fall. He was buried in it next day, along with his horse and hound[14].

In all likelihood this Svathi was sacrificed in time of famine, and the legend may describe correctly the manner in which he was offered to the gods, viz. by burial alive.

In this story, as in Snorro’s account of Donald, we have a sacrifice of human beings, taken from a low rank, offered first, and then the chief himself sacrificed.

The god to whom these human oblations were made, seems to have been Odin. In the “Herverar Saga” is an account of a famine in Jutland, to obtain relief from which, the nobles and farmers consulted whom to sacrifice, and they decided that the king’s son was the most illustrious person they could present to Odin. But the king, to save his son, fought with another king, and slew him and his son, and with their blood smeared the altar of Odin, and thus appeased the god[15].

Now, Odin was the receiver of the souls of men, as Freya, or the German Holda, took charge of those of women. Odin appears as the wild huntsman, followed by a multitude of souls; or, as the Piper of Hameln, leading them into the mountain where he dwells.

Freya, or Holda, leads an army of mice, and Odin a multitude of rats.

As a rat or soul god, it is not unlikely that sacrifices to him may have been made by the placing of the victim on an island infested by water-rats, there to be devoured. The manner in which sacrifices were made have generally some relation to the nature of the god to whom they were made. Thus, as Odin was a wind-god, men were hung in his honour. Most of the legends we are considering point to islands as the place where the victim suffered, and islands, we know, were regarded with special sanctity by the Northern nations. Rügen and Heligoland in the sea were sacred from a remote antiquity, and probably lakes had as well their sacred islets, to which the victim was rowed out, his back broken, and on which he was left to become the prey of the rats.

We find rats and mice regarded as sacred animals in other Aryan mythologies. Thus the mouse was the beast of the Indian Rudra.

“This portion belongs to thee, O Rudra, with thy sister Ambika,” is the wording of a prayer in the Yajur-Veda; “may it please you. This portion belongs to thee, O Rudra, whose animal is the mouse[16].” In later mythology it became the attribute of Ganeça, who was represented as riding upon a rat; but Ganeça is simply an hypostasis for Rudra.

Apollo was called Smintheus, as has been stated already. On some of the coins of Argos, in place of the god, is figured his symbol, the mouse[17]. In the temple at Chrisa was a statue of Apollo, with a mouse at his feet[18]; and tame mice were kept as sacred to the god. In the Smintheion of Hamaxitus, white mice were fed as a solemn rite, and had their holes under the altar; and near the tripod of Apollo was a representation of one of these animals[19].

Among Semitic nations the mouse was also sacred.

Herodotus gives a curious legend relating to the destruction of the host of Sennacherib before Jerusalem. Isaiah simply says, “Then the angel of the Lord went forth, and smote in the camp of the Assyrians a hundred and fourscore and five thousand: and when they arose early in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses[20].” How they were slain he does not specify, but as the army was threatened with a “hot blast,” and a “destroying wind,” it is rendered probable that they were destroyed by a hot wind. But the story of Herodotus is very different. He received it from the Egyptian priests, who claimed the miracle, of which they had but an imperfect knowledge, for one of their gods, and transferred the entire event to their own country. “After Amyrtæus reigned the priest of Vulcan, whose name was Sethon; he held in no account and despised the military caste of the Egyptians, as not having need of their services; and accordingly, among other indignities, he took away their lands; to each of whom, under former kings, twelve chosen acres had been assigned. After this, Sennacherib, king of the Arabians and Assyrians, marched a large army against Egypt; whereupon the Egyptian warriors refused to assist him; and the priest being reduced to a strait, entered the temple, and bewailed before the image the calamities he was in danger of suffering. While he was lamenting, sleep fell upon him; and it appeared to him in a vision that the god stood by and encouraged him, assuring him that he should suffer nothing disagreeable in meeting the Arabian army, for he would himself send assistants to him. Confiding in this vision, he took with him such of the Egyptians as were willing to follow him, and encamped in Pelusium, for there the entrance into Egypt is; but none of the military caste followed him, but tradesmen, mechanics, and sutlers. When they arrived there, a number of field-mice, pouring in upon their enemies, devoured their quivers and their bows, and, moreover, the handles of their shields; so that on the next day, when they fled bereft of their arms, many of them fell. And to this day, a stone statue of this king stands in the temple of Vulcan, with a mouse in his hand, and an inscription to the following effect: ‘Whoever looks on me, let him revere the gods[21].’”

Among the Babylonians the mouse was sacrificed and eaten as a religious rite, but in connexion with what god does not transpire[22]. And the Philistines, who, according to Hitzig, were a Pelasgic am therefore Aryan race, after having suffered from the retention of the ark, were told by their divines to ‘make images of your mice that mar the land; and ye shall give glory unto the God of Israel.” Therefore they made five golden mice as an offering to the Lord[23]. This indicates the mouse as having been the symbol among the Philistines of a deity whom they identified with the God of Israel.

Original footnotesEdit

  1. Wolfii Lect. Memorab. Centenarii xvi. Lavingæ, 1600, tom. i. p. 343.
  2. Id. tom. i. p. 270. See also Königshofen’s Chronik. Königshofen was priest of Strasbourg (b. 1360, d. 1420). His German Chronicle contains the story of Bishop Widerolf and the mice.
  3. San-Marte, Germania, viii. 77.
  4. Zeitschrift f. Deut. Myth. iii. p. 307.
  5. Vernaleken, Alpensagen, p. 328.
  6. Zeitschrift f. Deut. Myth. i. p. 452.
  7. Majolus, Dierum Came. p. 793.
  8. Afzelius, Sagohäfder (2nd ed.), ii. p. 132.
  9. William of Malmesbury, book iii., Bohn’s trans., p. 313.
  10. Girald. Cambr. Itin. Cambriæ, lib. xi. c. 2.
  11. Thietmar, Ep. Merseburg. Chronici libri viii., lib. vi; c. 30.
  12. Snorro Sturlesson, Heimskringla, Saga i. c. 18, 47.
  13. Die Attribute der Heiligen. Hanover, 1843, p. 114.
  14. Younger Olat’s Saga Trygvas., cap. 225.
  15. Herverar Saga, cap. xi
  16. Yajur-Veda, iii. 57.
  17. Otfr. Müller, Dorier, i. p. 285.
  18. Strabo, xiii. i.
  19. Ælian, Hist. Animal, xii. 15.
  20. Isa. xxxvii. 36.
  21. Herod. Euterpe, c. 141, Trans. Bohn.
  22. Movers, Phönizier, i. p. 219. Cf. Isa. Ixvi. 17.
  23. 1 Sam. vi. 4, 5.