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The Legend of Bingen’s Mouse Tower

On a small island in the Rhine river, outside Bingen am Rhein, in Germany, stands a 10th century stone tower with a macabre legend associated with it.

The story goes that in the year 970, there was a terrible famine in Germany, so severe that people devoured cats and dogs just to stay alive, yet thousands died of starvation. At this time, the archbishop of Mainz was a cruel and wicked ruler named Hatto II, a despicable miser, whose dominant idea in life was to increase his treasures by fair means or foul.

Mouse Tower

Photo credit: Arcalino/Wikimedia

Hatto II had his barn full, but he did not spare a single grain for the starving poor, instead tried to sell them at such inflated prices that most could not afford it. The peasants became angry and were planning to rebel, so Hatto II devised a cruel trick. He promised to feed the hungry people and told them to assemble at an empty barn and wait for him to come with food. The peasants were overjoyed and made their way to the barn to await his coming. Once the barn was full, Hatto II ordered the barn's doors shut and locked, and then set the barn on fire.

When Hatto II returned to his castle, he was immediately besieged by an army of mice. 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.

Mouse Tower

The apocryphal story that has maligned the poor Bishop has no historical evidence. Bishop Hatto II was by no means a hard-hearted and wicked ruler. While in office, he built the church of St George on the island of Reichenau, donated heavily to the abbeys of Fulda and Reichenau, and was a patron of the chronicler Regino of Prüm.

It was Hatto I, a Benedictine monk from a noble family in Swabia, who was ruthless in his political ambitions, using his influence over the East Frankish king to further his position. When Hatto died in 913, many improbable stories tried to pin his death to punishment for his evil deeds, such as getting killed by lightning strike or being thrown into the crater of Mount Etna by the Devil. The weirdest tale was that he was overwhelmed and eaten alive by an army of mice, because of his cruel treatment of the poor during a famine—the same story that was later told of Hatto II, presumably because they had the same name.

Mouse Tower

Photo credit: travis nobles/Flickr

The tower’s name, Mäuseturm, however, could be traced to a different origin. Since the mid-13th century, the archbishops of Mainz has used the tower as a station for collecting tolls from vessels which passed up and down the river. “Maut” in German means toll and “Mautturm” is German for “toll tower”. The name “Mouse Tower” is actually a corruption of “Musenturm”, where “musen” is another German word meaning “to lie in wait”, indicating its function as a guard tower. The Mouse Tower was used as a signal tower in the narrow waterway of the Bingen Hole until the waterway was enlarged in the 1970s.

During the Middle Ages, getting devoured by mice alive was seen as a brutal punishment that one deserved for their cruelties. Such legends have been associated with countless rulers, the one with Hatto II being the most famous version.

Mouse Tower

Photo credit: Frank Kehren/Flickr

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