“In the year of 1284, on the day of Saints John and Paul, the 26th of June, 130 children born in Hamelin were seduced by a piper, dressed in all kinds of colours, and lost at the calvary near the koppen.” The town of Hamelin hasn’t forgotten this loss. The street where, supposedly, the children were last seen is called Bungelosenstrasse: street without drums”. Even so many years after the event, no one is allowed to play music or dance there.
Oral tradition preserved and enriched the story until the Brothers Grimm included it in their compilation of German legends, Deutsche Sagen (1816–18). In the Grimms’ version, mediæval Hamelin is hit by a plague of rats. A seemingly hero-like figure appears, in the shape of a mysterious stranger dressed in red and yellow clothes. He promises to rid the town of the vermin, and the townsmen promise him money in exchange. The rat-catcher has a strange, almost supernatural gift: he plays a tune on his pipe that lures the rats into the river Weser, where they all drown. But, blinded by their greed, the townsmen refuse to honour their promise and pay the Piper his fee. The Piper leaves the town, plotting his revenge. When he returns to Hamelin, he wears the attire of a hunter. He plays a melody that hypnotises the children, who follow him to the mountains, never to be seen again. The cruelty of the denouément strikes us doubly, because it surpasses our expectations. What initially looks like a classic ‘Overcoming the Monster’ plot turns into a nightmarish tale of disproportionate revenge.
The main difficulty when trying to trace the roots of the legend is the lack of primary sources. The earliest surviving reference to the tragedy of Hamelin is a note in a manuscript copy of the Catena Aurea of Heinrich von Herford (c.1370), generally referred to as the Lüneburg Manuscript. According to both this manuscript and the inscription found in the Rattenfängerhaus, the events took place on 26 June 1284. There are, however, reports of scholars who accessed earlier documents that are now lost. Dutch physician and demonologist Johann Weyer mentioned in the fourth edition of his Delusions of the Devil (1577) some of the historical sources that contained multiple references to the tragedy of Hamelin: “These facts are thus written in the annals of Hammel and are religiously guarded in the archives. They are to be read also in the sacred books of the Church, and to be seen in the painted panes of the same; of which fact I am an eyewitness. Besides, as confirmation of the story, the older magistracy was accustomed to write together on its public documents: ‘in the year of Christ and in that of the going out of the children’, etc.”  Weyer was probably referring to the book of statutes of Hamelin, Der Donat, (c.1351), or to a collection of local historical documents called the Brade.
The Market Church in Hamelin exhibited another piece of the puzzle, a glass window dating from the 1300s depicting the stranger dressed in multicoloured clothes taking away a crowd of children dressed in white. The window was destroyed in 1660, but it inspired a 1592 watercolour by Augustin Von Moersperg that preserves its essence and represents the main geographical elements of the legend – the town, the river Weser, and the mountain, with a dark entrance to a cave.
The Black Death
Although neither the Lüneburg Manuscript nor the glass window suggest that rats played an important part in the Hamelin events, folklore has assimilated the figure of the Pied Piper with that of a rat-catcher. The first surviving reference to rodents appears in the 16th-century Zimmern Chronicle (c.1559–65), followed by Weyer’s aforementioned Delusions of the Devil, both written almost three centuries after the tragedy. If the rats were most likely a later addition rather than an original element of the Hamelin episode, they gave depth to the tale and resonated in the popular imagination thanks to a play of macabre symbolic associations. The image of a rat-infested mediæval town instantly brings to mind thoughts of the plague. Plagues and epidemics have had a continuous impact on the collective imagination, taking us back to the Ten Plagues of Egypt in Exodus: biblical plagues were a punishment from God. The Piper, able to defy the curse with the power of his music, is thus invested with supernatural abilities.
In mediæval representations, Death presented himself as a skeleton wearing a colourful pied attire, a jester who always laughs last (perhaps the reportedly widespread fear of clowns – see FT226:34–41 – might even derive from this image). The Pied Piper thus becomes the lord of the rats, the Black Death (known at the time as the Great Death or simply the Pestilence) personified, and the one responsible for taking the lives of the 130 children of Hamelin.
Associations of the Piper with the Black Death aren’t limited to the subtext of the tale. The plague has also been used to contextualise the story; Jacques Demy’s 1972 film, featuring singer/songwriter Donovan as the Piper, is a good example. However, the peak of Black Death in Europe was between 1348 and 1350, that is, more than 64 years after the date of the children’s disappearance if we follow the Lüneburg Manuscript’s chronology.
City of lost children
In the earliest accounts of the Hamelin events, we are told that the children were “lost”, but not necessarily dead. The Brothers Grimm, at the end of their version, add that “some say that the children were led into a cave, and that they came out again in Transylvania,” a conclusion retained by Robert Browning in his 1842 poem The Pied Piper of Hamelin. The terms from the Lüneburg Manuscript used to describe the place of the children’s disappearance (Calvary, Koppen), have been interpreted in different ways. Historian Hans Dobbertin assimilated the word Calvary, place of the skull, to the word Koppen, meaning head. In the Bible, Calvary or Golgotha was the place of the execution of Jesus – a mountain or a hill. This might suggest that the children of Hamelin were executed, or perhaps the word Calvary is merely used to describe the skull-like shape of a hill, like the biblical Golgotha.
Scholars such as Heinrich Spanuth, Jürgen Udolph and Dobbertin have suggested that the Piper could have been an emissary sent by the ruling nobility to promote a campaign for the colonisation of Moravia, East Prussia, Pomerania or the Teutonic Lands to the East. The expression “children of Hamelin” could have been a general term for all the inhabitants of the town who listened to this brightly dressed “recruiting sergeant”, and their exodus a response to politico-economical factors.
In this light, the story of the Pied Piper might be seen to bear certain similarities to that of the Children’s Crusade, an extraordinary series of events that purportedly took place in 1212. In both episodes, the border between history and myth is a porous one. The Children’s Crusade appears in mediæval sources, but historians now question its authenticity. The crusade was said to have been led by a child shepherd named Nicholas, from Cologne, Germany, who preached that the purity of children would allow them to conquer the Holy Land; the legend says that they starved and died along the way.
The piper as a trickster
The scarce and enigmatic reports of the loss of an entire generation in Hamelin reverberated down the centuries. Literal interpretations of the story present the Piper as a kidnapper or a psychopathic pederast. This vision has endured in popular culture (even the 2010 remake ofNightmare on Elm Street suggests that there are some similarities between the characters of Freddy Krueger and the Piper), but its underlying idea was first expressed five centuries ago, in the work of German physicist and Humanist Jobus Fincelius (De miraculis sui Temporis, 1556), who believed that the Piper was the Devil in disguise: “Of the Devil’s power and wickedness will I here tell a true history. About 180 years ago, on S. Mary Magdalene’s Day, it came to pass at Hammel on the Weser in Saxony, that the Devil went about the streets visibly in human form, piped and allured many children, boys and girls, and led them through the town-gate towards a mountain”.  This idea is repeated in Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), where the Piper turns up as an example in episode two, A Digression of the nature of Spirits, bad Angels, or Devils, and how they cause Melancholy.
The 19th century romanticised the figure of the Pied Piper, just as it did other outsiders –the pirate, the gypsy, the bandit. Goethe’s 1802 poem Der Rattenfänger, clearly inspired by the Hamelin legend, presents the rat-catcher of the title as “the bard known far and wide, / The travell’d rat-catcher beside; / A man most needful to this town”. Along similar lines, the most popular retelling of all is Robert Browning’s 1849 poem, where the children of Hamelin are happy to leave a town governed by greedy, dishonourable adults. The Piper, the “travell’d rat catcher” of Goethe’s lines, arrives in Hamelin offering a fresh start for a new generation.
Appropriately setting the figure of the Piper to music (and why so late?), Goethe’s poem would, in turn, be adapted by Romantic composer Schubert and, later, Hugo Wolf. The Romantic take on the Piper contains an idea that has proved unsurprisingly appealing to musicians: the transformation of youth by a mysterious outsider who has inherited the musical skills of Orpheus or Pan – a theme that’s been revisited by the likes of Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, Megadeth and even ABBA.
Over more than 700 years, the Pied-Piper of Hamelin has become an archetypal Trickster figure (see FT175:40–41; 185:53–55). The Trickster is known for challenging the establishment, breaking the rules and spreading anarchy. In his dual nature, he can be seen as malignant or mischievous, but he is also a messenger of the gods and an agent and symbol of transformation. The Pied Piper, like the Trickster, is a shape-shifter who wears a number of different masks – the psychopath, the hero, the rebel… even Death himself. Like Shakespeare’s Puck or Barrie’s Peter Pan, he spreads a net of enchantment, leading our children to the Otherworld. Whether this Otherworld was a new land to colonise, an altered state of consciousness or the realm of the dead remains a mystery.
[note: this is an abridged version of the original article – please follwo the link for the full article]
[note too! I can’t find a credit for this image of the Pied Piper, but I love his cloak here! If anyone knows the source of the image, please let me know and I’ll add it – Jaq]