[CW: cannibalism, sexual assault]
This week’s theme is the folklore of villains and anti-heroes. The one I chose is from Alsace-Lorraine and it is SUPER interesting because we have the legend but we also have plenty of information on the historical figure from which the legend sprang. This story went from a man having a dispute with the Catholic Church to being a bogeyman who eats children. I fucking love human ingenuity, y’all.
Look, there comes Hans Trapp.“D’r Hans Trapp”, Le Nouveau Rhin Français
He has a nice pointed hat
And a beard white like a roan.
He comes from the beautiful starry sky
And brings children a rod
Who do not do singing and praying.
Look, Hans Trapp, we are so small
And good and obedient at home.
Shouldn’t come with your stick
Because we can sing and pray too.
There are multiple legends surrounding this particular figure. The milder version of the legend claims that he was a “Black Knight” that stalked the Palatinate region and that he was used as a threat to make children behave.
In the Legend of the Jungfernsprung, however, he gains a more sinister reputation as a man who stalks a maiden through the forest, causing her to fall from rock formation–known as Maiden’s Leap–which she miraculously survives:
Once a young maiden ventured into the Forest of Dahn to pick berries. When she was far away from home, a man suddenly burst out of the thicket, probably the robber baron, Hans Trapp from Berwartstein Castle. The man clearly intended to rob the virgin of her innocence. So the young maiden gathered up her skirts and took to flight, but the villain came ever closer to her. In her panic, the young lass failed to watch where she was going. All of a sudden she found herself, panting for breath, at the edge of the precipice with the houses of the town far below. Without stopping to think, the young maiden fell over the abyss. And now the miracle happened: because her skirts ballooned out and let her float down gently, she survived the leap entirely unhurt. And ever since, at the spot where her foot landed, a spring has flowedWestpfalz-Journal. “Sagenhafte Felsen – Der Jungfernsprung”. Archived from the original on 12 February 2013. Retrieved 1 December 2021.
After that, the story seemed to take a turn for the much, much worse. An article on the Ripley’s website describes Trapp as being the worst of the anti-Santas. It’s said that at one point he “stabbed a child, sliced him into tiny pieces, and cooked and ate his flesh!” but this is Ripley’s, y’all, and they don’t cite their sources.
A Patheos article delves into some medieval Satanic Panic and describes the legendary figure as being a “a cruel man of great wealth” who “acquired his wealth not through hard work but from acts of magick and pacts with demons, he himself being a man who worshipped Satan” (spelling magic with a “k” makes it scarier!). This led to great battles with the Church and the Pope. He was eventually excommunicated, everything he owned was taken, and he was shunned and banished.
He eventually secluded himself in the woods where he invested even more time in the black magic, which made him lose his mind, and caused a taste for human flesh(?). He then enacted a plan in which he dressed up as a scarecrow(?) so that he could snatch kids as they came through the fields. Using this ploy, he was indeed able to nab a young shepherd that he dragged back to his shack, where he set to butchering and roasting him. However! Before he could take that first bite of sweet, sweet shepherd flesh, God struck him with lightning and he died. Notice that God didn’t do this BEFORE he killed the kid but only when he was about to eat the kid so, yea…
Anyway, the article goes on to say that it was after this that Trapp became a hooded scarecrow that would abduct naughty children and carry them away into the forest, never to be seen again.
Hans von Trotha was a 15th century knight in the Palatinate region who was in possession of multiple castles and political positions. Sometime in the 1480s a dispute arose between von Trotha and the Abbot of Weissenburg Abbey over some contested property. At the peak of the dispute, von Trotha dammed a nearby river, which flooded fields and meadows. After complaints by the abbot, von Trotha ripped out the dam and flooded the town of Weissenburg as well as their economy. It’s believed that this was von Trotha’s plan the entire time.
The war between von Trotha and the abbot continued for YEARS before von Trotha was finally called before Pope Alexander VI but von Trotha, maverick that he was was, refused to go. He wrote a furious screed to the pope instead which eventually led to excommunication.
While the people directly in charge of von Trotha disavowed him in public, they still worked with him, even going so far as to send him to the French royal court during the Italian Wars. Apparently he was a very good diplomat, which seems at odds with his inability to find a compromise with the abbot but okay. While he was at the French court, he was even awarded a Chevalier d’Or knighthood by the king.
After all of this, he eventually died in 1503 at the age of 53. After his death all of the sanctions against him were lifted and he was given an appropriately Catholic burial.
Burial Place of Hans von Trotha, St. Anne’s Chapel in Niederschlettenbach
So, clearly this is a case of a man who went against the Catholic Church and ended up with a smeared name and a reputation as a child-eater. I’m still trying to figure out the path though. Apparently this guy was TALL, like 6’5 tall, so that could definitely have helped with the initial stories because, as a knight, I’m guessing he wasn’t a weedy fellow. He was probably MASSIVE. So a dour, combative knight stalking the Palatinate and engaging in open warfare with the freakin’ CATHOLIC CHURCH would have been enough to get the rumor mill going.
As to the stories about stalking a maiden in the forest… well, as far as the record shows, von Trotha only had one son and no mention is made of who the boy’s mother was, or even if von Trotha was married to her. And we know how urban legends and folklore work, right? These stories may seem completely bananas, but there’s usually a kernel of truth in there, somewhere. I am entirely willing to believe that von Trotha assaulted a local woman, got her pregnant, and then later claimed the child.
Of course, it is also entirely plausible that von Trotha was having an affair with a local woman that ended in the same result. It wasn’t necessarily non-consensual. I mean, despite what people think about this time period (I’m looking at you, GoT fans, who inexplicably keep confusing a fantasy world with the actual Middle Ages), it wasn’t all assault, all the time. The story may simply have been a way for the family of the woman in question to save face once they realized she was pregnant.
Having said all that, it’s still hard to fathom how he went from being a possible sex pest to a child-eater. But we know that folklore is a strange and uncanny beast. It may not have taken much for man with power and position, who went to war with the Catholic Church over property rights and didn’t back down–even in the face of Papal threats–to become the subject of speculation, especially given his possibly-out-of-wedlock child and excommunication. Even though he was posthumously absolved of his sins, the memory of what he did would have lived in the minds of the people in that area. And clearly he was an imposing figure who would have frightened children had they been threatened with his wrath.
My guess is that it was children who began this folkloric game of telephone, because it’s almost always the children. They hear a story, it begins to morph, they grow up, they repeat the story to their children, perhaps with a little spice added, and on it goes. Because children, then as now, seem to like to make any urban legend as gruesome as possible and one-up their friends, eventually we end up with a Christmas-themed scarecrow that eats kids.
So warn your kids that they should be careful, lest the Christmas Scarecrow come for them! And honestly, isn’t this a much better naughtiness deterrent than that cop we call Elf on a Shelf?