- Education and Science
Mystery of Hamelin's Pied Piper
Hamelin, Germany still celebrates the anniversary of an event most know as a children’s fairytale called The Pied Piper of Hamelin (Pied: having patches of two or more colors.) But the town of Hamelin remembers the story a little differently. The one recorded on the walls of the Rattenfängerhaus, or “House of the Piper.”
Their version tells of the tragic disappearance of 130 Hamelin children on June 26, 1284, the day of Saints John and Paul. The children were supposedly last seen on a street, when translated, means “street without drums.” To this day, no one is allowed to dance or play music there. So, what initially looks like a classic, fanciful children’s story, now takes on more sinister overtones.
The Brothers Grimm, in their collection of German legends, as well as author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Robert Browning’s 1842 poem The Pied Piper of Hamelin, immortalized the tale of a colorful character that rids the town of a plague of rats. These versions, tells of a mysterious stranger who promises to do the job for a certain sum of money. The piper plays a magical tune on his pipe that lures the vermin into the river Weser, where they drown. But, the town reneges on their deal.
The story goes on to say the Piper leaves town, but returns later dressed in hunter green, with a plan for retribution. Once again he plays his pipe. However, this time it’s the children who hypnotically follow him into a cave in the mountains. The Grimm version ends with a landslide that blocks the cave entrance. Only a few escaped to tell the frantic parents what happened. Of course, there were other less frightening endings fabricated to temper the story. The most popular was the town learned its lesson and paid the piper…at which time the children were returned.
There was no mention of rats in the earliest documents. That fact appears suddenly three centuries later. Scholars have determined the introduction of rats to the story may have had symbolic connotations. Death was frequently portrayed as a skeleton, wearing colorful pied attire. Viewed from this perspective the Pied Piper becomes the lord of the rats, the Black Death, therefore the one who took the lives of 130 children.
But what really happened in 1284 and who was the mysterious “Pied Piper?” The oldest surviving reference mentioning the tragedy is a brief note in a copy of the Catena Aurea of Heinrich von Herford (c.1370), sometimes called the Lüneburg Manuscript. According to both this manuscript and the inscription found in the Rattenfängerhaus, the disappearance of the children did take place. This is what the Lüneburg Manuscript says:
“In the year of 1284, on the day of Saints John and Paul, on June 26 130 children born in Hamelin were seduced by a piper, dressed in all kinds of colours, and lost at the place of execution near the koppen.”
There are also reports of scholars who studied documents which no longer exist. Dutch physician and demonologist Johann Weyer referenced in his 1577 publication of Delusions of the Devil, other historical documents making multiple references to the tragedy.
Weyer wrote, “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.” He may have been talking about the book of statutes of Hamelin, Der Donat, (c.1351), or perhaps a collection of local historical documents called the Brade.
According to some of the records, in the 1300s the Market Church in Hamelin had a stained glass window showing a man dressed in multicolored clothes taking a large group of children dressed in white away. Unfortunately, the window was destroyed in 1660. However, artist Augustin Von Moersperg had previously painted a resplendent watercolor in 1592 that captured all essential elements of the legend.
In fact the earliest historical town records from1384 begins with the sentence “It is 100 years since our children left.” Despite centuries of research, an explanation for the children’s disappearance has never been agreed upon. The earliest accounts from the Lüneburg Manuscript say the children were “lost,” not necessarily dead and the terms used have been interpreted in different ways. Some reasonable suggestions are the children drowned in the river, were killed in a landslide or died during an epidemic. Other not so reasonable assumptions have also been postulated such as the piper was actually the devil who absconded with them.
Many have speculated as to what actually happened. Some have suggested the piper was a carnal minded psychopath. Others believe by the 13th century the area was suffering by over population. That was remedied by the Black Death plague which decimated their ranks. But, this scenario is questionable since the Black Death in Europe occurred between 1348 and 1350, more than 64 years after the date of the children’s disappearance, if one follows the Lüneburg Manuscript’s timeline.
In any case this theory assumes many children were left orphaned and the town was unable to care for them. Therefore, they were sold to a recruiter from the Baltic region of Eastern Europe, a practice not uncommon in that day. Investigators have found an inordinate number of Hamelin surnames from the village at that time in that region to support this hypothesis. That could account for the lack of records of the event in the town chronicles.
Some researchers believe the root of the common English phrase "pay the piper," may have originated from the account. Additionally, such a story makes excellent fodder for more farfetched ideas such as alien abductions to vanishing in a time portal. Do you know where your children are?