Gateway to the Classics: Historical Tales: German by Charles Morris
Historical Tales: German by  Charles Morris

The Career of Bishop Hatto

We have now to deal with a personage whose story is largely legendary, particularly that of his death, a highly original termination to his career having arisen among the people, who had grown to detest him. But Bishop Hatto played his part in the history as well as in the legend of Germany, and the curious stories concerning him may have been based on the deeds of his actual life. It was in the beginning of the tenth century that this notable churchman flourished as Archbishop of Mayence, and the emperor-maker of his times. In connection with Otho, Duke of Saxony, he placed Louis, surnamed the Child,—for he was but seven years of age,—on the imperial throne, and governed Germany in his name. Louis died in 911, while still a boy, and with him ended the race of Charlemagne in Germany. Conrad, Duke of Franconia, was chosen king to succeed him, but the astute churchman still remained the power behind the throne.

In truth, the influence and authority of the church at that time was enormous, and many of its potentates troubled themselves more about the affairs of the earth than those of heaven. Hatto, while a zealous churchman, was a bold, energetic, and unscrupulous statesman, and raised himself to an almost unlimited power in France and Southern Germany by his arts and influence, Otho of Saxony aiding him in his progress to power. Two of his opponents, Henry and Adelhart, of Babenberg, took up arms against him, and came to their deaths in consequence. Adalbert, the opponent of the Norsemen, was his next antagonist, and Hatto, through his influence in the diet, had him put under the ban of the empire.

Adalbert, however, vigorously resisted this decree, taking up arms in his own defence, and defeating his opponent in the field. But soon, being closely pressed, he retired to his fortress of Bamberg, which was quickly invested and besieged. Here he defended himself with such energy that Hatto, finding that the outlawed noble was not to be easily subdued by force, adopted against him those spiritual weapons, as he probably considered them, in which he was so trained an adept.

Historians tell us that the priest, with a pretence of friendly purpose, offered to mediate between Adalbert and his enemies, promising him, if he would leave his stronghold to appear before the assembled nobles of the diet, that he should have a free and safe return. Adalbert accepted the terms, deeming that he could safely trust the pledged word of a high dignitary of the church. Leaving the gates of his castle, he was met at a short distance beyond by the bishop, who accosted him in his friendliest tone, and proposed that, as their journey would be somewhat long, they should breakfast together within the castle before starting.

Adalbert assented and returned to the fortress with his smooth-tongued companion, took breakfast with him, and then set out with him for the diet. Here he was sternly called to answer for his acts of opposition to the decree of the ruling body of Germany, and finding that the tide of feeling was running strongly against him, proposed to return to his fortress in conformity with the plighted faith of Bishop Hatto. Hatto, with an aspect of supreme honesty, declared that he had already fulfilled his promise. He had agreed that Adalbert should have a free and safe return to his castle. This had been granted him. He had returned there to breakfast without opposition of any sort. The word of the bishop had been fully kept, and now, as a member of the diet, he felt free to act as he deemed proper, all his obligations to the accused having been fulfilled. Just how far this story accords with the actual facts we are unable to say, but Adalbert, despite his indignant protest, was sentenced to death and beheaded.

Hatto had reached his dignity in the church by secular instead of ecclesiastic influence, and is credited with employing his power in this and other instances with such lack of honor and probity that he became an object of the deepest popular contempt and execration. His name was derided in the popular ballads, and he came to be looked upon as the scapegoat of the avarice and licentiousness of the church in that irreligious mediæval age. Among the legends concerning him is one relating to Henry, the son of his ally, Otho of Saxony, who died in 912. Henry had long quarrelled with the bishop, and the fabulous story goes that, to get rid of his high-spirited enemy, the cunning churchman sent him a gold chain, so skilfully contrived that it would strangle its wearer.


The Mouse-tower on the Rhine.

The most famous legend about Hatto, however, is that which tells the manner of his death. The story has been enshrined in poetry by Longfellow, but we must be content to give it in plain prose. It tells us that a famine occurred in the land, and that a number of peasants came to the avaricious bishop to beg for bread. By his order they were shut up in a great barn, which then was set on fire, and its miserable occupants burned to death.

And now the cup of Hatto's infamy was filled, and heaven sent him retribution. From the ruins of the barn issued a myriad of mice, which pursued the remorseless bishop, ceaselessly following him in his every effort to escape their avenging teeth. At length the wretched sinner, driven to despair, fled for safety to a strong tower standing in the middle of the Rhine, near Bingen, with the belief that the water would protect him from his swarming foes. But the mice swam the stream, invaded the tower, and devoured the miserable fugitive. As evidence of the truth of this story we are shown the tower, still standing, and still known as the Mäeusethurm, or Mouse Tower. It must be said, however, that this tradition probably refers to another Bishop Hatto, of somewhat later date. Its utterly fabulous character, of course, will be recognisable by all.

So much for Bishop Hatto and his fate. It may be said, in conclusion, that his period was one of terror and excitement in Germany, sufficient perhaps to excuse the overturning of ideas, and the replacement of conceptions of truth and honor by their opposites. The wild Magyars had invaded and taken Hungary, and were making savage inroads into Germany from every quarter. The resistance was obstinate, the Magyars were defeated in several severe battles, yet still their multitudes swarmed over the borders, and carried terror and ruin wherever they came. These invaders were as ferocious in disposition, as fierce in their onsets, as invincible through contempt of death, and as formidable through their skilful horsemanship, as the Huns had been before them. So rapid were their movements, and so startling the suddenness with which they would appear in and vanish from the heart of the country, that the terrified people came to look upon them as possessed of supernatural powers. Their inhuman love of slaughter and their destructive habits added to the terror with which they were viewed. They are said to have been so bloodthirsty, that in their savage feasts after victory they used as tables the corpses of their enemies slain in battle. It is further said that it was their custom to bind the captured women and maidens with their own long hair as fetters, and drive them, thus bound, in flocks to Hungary.

We may conclude with a touching story told of these unquiet and misery-haunted times. Ulrich, Count of Linzgau, was, so the story goes, taken prisoner by the Magyars, and long held captive in their hands. Wendelgarde, his beautiful wife, after waiting long in sorrow for his return, believed him to be dead, and resolved to devote the remainder of her life to charity and devotion. Crowds of beggars came to her castle gates, to whom she daily distributed alms. One day, while she was thus engaged, one of the beggars suddenly threw his arms around her neck and kissed her. Her attendants angrily interposed, but the stranger waved them aside with a smile, and said,—

"Forbear, I have endured blows and misery enough during my imprisonment without needing more from you; I am Ulrich, your lord."

Truly, in this instance, charity brought its reward.

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