Friday, January 16, 2015

Bishop Hatto and the Mouse-Tower

For a good year now, I've been enjoying (and occasionally using) the wealth of public-domain images that the British Library has generously shared via its Flickr account. The best thing about browsing images and text in the public domain is when you come across a forgotten gem. I found one of these today: the folk tale of Hatto II, Archbishop of Mainz, and his Mäuseturm (Mouse Tower) on the Rhine. In the tale, Hatto was a cruel despot who used his power as both bishop and prince to mistreat the common people of his area; during a famine in 974, when the grain had run out, the people went to the bishop looking for food. What he did to them, and what happened next, was immortalized in the following poem by Robert Southey (with illustrations by V. H. Darwin -- who seems to be a distant cousin of Charles Darwin).

Warning to musophobes: you might want to skip this one.

Bishop Hatto: a legend of the Mouse-Tower on the Rhine

The Summer and Autumn had been so wet,
That in Winter the corn was growing yet,
'Twas a piteous sight to see all round
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 at such tidings good to hear,
The poor folk flocked 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, when he entered 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 looked, there came a man from his farm,
And he had a countenance white with alarm,
"My Lord, I opened 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 hastened away,
And he crossed the Rhine without delay,
And reached his tower, and barred with care
All the windows, doors, and loopholes 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 listened and looked: 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 was drawing near.

For they have swum over the river so deep,
And they have climbed the shore 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 he 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 through 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 gnawed the flesh from every limb,
For they were sent to do judgment on him.

So isn't that fun? Not as jolly as being nibbled to death by ducks, but it makes for a good story. (Completely without historical basis, mind you, but as Jan Harold Brunvand might say, that's never stopped people from repeating a good story before.)

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