Legend of The Mouse Tower

The Mouse Tower (Mäuseturm) is a stone tower on a small island in the Rhine, outside Bingen am Rhein, Germany. According local legend, Hatto II was a cruel ruler who oppressed and exploited the peasants in his domain. He used the tower as a platform for archers and crossbowmen and demanded tribute from passing ships, firing on their crews if they did not comply. During a famine in 974 the poor had run out of food, but Hatto II, having all the grain stored up in his barns, used his monopoly to sell it at such high prices that most could not afford it.

When famine struck Germany, the townspeople found themselves starving, and they plead with the Archbishop to give them more food from the storehouse. Finding themselves on the point of starvation, the villagers went to implore his aid.

"Take pity, good Bishop, on our hungry wives and little children," they entreated. "They die with hunger while your granaries are full of wheat."

But Bishop Hatto only laughed.

"I cannot help that," he said. "You must look after yourselves." And day after day he made them the same answer.

"My wheat is far too precious," he said at last, "for me to bestow it on hungry rats!"

The Mouse Tower
The peasants became angry and were planning to rebel, so Hatto II devised a cruel trick. In response, he invited them all to come into the storehouse, and they may take all the food they could carry. But once the townsfolk were inside the storehouse, he barricaded the doors, and set the place ablaze, remarking to his conspirators that their screams of anguish were comparable to the squeals of rats.

That night his sleep was broken by queer little sounds, as if rats and mice were scampering over the floor, and nibbling at something they had found. Next morning he was annoyed to find that the splendid portrait of himself in his Bishop's robes, which had been painted by a famous artist at great expense, was lying on the ground, gnawed to shreds. He could see the mark of the rats' sharp teeth on that part of the canvas where his face had been, and in spite of himself he shuddered at the sight.

A few minutes later one of his servants burst in to tell him that a vast number of mice and rats were approaching his palace from the ruins of the granary.

"They are coming in this direction with all speed, my lord!" he said with bated breath, and a panic of terror seized the man who had committed so evil a crime. Mounting his horse, he went off at full gallop; but though the brute was fleet, and he spurred him on unmercifully, the Bishop found that the army of rats was gaining upon him.

To escape the rodents, the bishop fled his castle and sought refuge in the tower that stands on an island on the Rhine, hoping that the mice could not swim. But the mice followed him, pouring into the river by the thousands, and while many drowned even more reached the island. The swarm ate through the tower’s doors and crawled up to the top floor, where they found Hatto II and ate him alive.

Since then, the tower has been known as the “Mouse Tower” or Mäuseturm.

In reality, the Mouse Tower, in German: “Mäuseturm”, is one of many Rhine River toll stations, built in the middle ages as one part local taxation, one part of an elaborate extortion scheme. The name “Mäuseturm” is a corruption of the original name “Mausheturm”, meaning “toll tower”. Those in control of the towers were widely reviled for abusing their positions of authority and extracting unsanctioned fees from passing boats, and were even accused of outright piracy, kidnapping, and even of stealing entire ships.

Although there does not appear to be any literal truth to the legend, Archbishop Hatto II was a real man who by all accounts has had his name drug through the mud undeservedly. Truth aside, over time the legend became firmly attached to the tower. The story became well known with the publication of the Curious Myths of the Middle Ages compiled by Sabine Baring-Gould, a Victorian scholar.


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