Remember the old fairy tale about the Pied Piper who charmed away all the rats in town? When the faithless burghers refused to pay him what they had promised, he exacted his revenge by leading all the town’s children away as well. The story is wonderfully well told in Robert Browning’s 1842 poem, which ensured its enduring popularity in the culture of the English-speaking world. Browning’s snappy cadence and vivid imagery serves the legend well:
They fought the dogs and killed the cats,
And bit the babies in the cradles,
And ate the cheeses out of the vats,
And licked the soup from the cooks’ own ladles,
Split open the kegs of salted sprats,
Made nests inside men’s Sunday hats,
And even spoiled the women’s chats,
By drowning their speaking
With shrieking and squeaking
In fifty different sharps and flats.
In an 1816 collection of German legends, Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm recorded the tale, though it is not featured in their more famous “Fairy Tales.” Indeed, the brothers Grimm felt that the story merited status as a legend, a story founded in historical fact, rather than as a simple fairy tale fantasy. And the brothers Grimm had good reason for their judgement, for there is a considerable body of historical evidence behind the legend.
It was on this day, 26 June in the year 1284, according to the oldest extant documentation, that the 130 children of the German town of Hameln (usually rendered “Hamelin,” in English) were led out of town by a mysterious piper dressed in multi-colored motley. The children were recorded as disappearing, never to be seen again. The event left such a searing memory upon the inhabitants of Hameln that from that time forward they dated civic records according to “34 years since our children left,” or “113 years after the children disappeared.” A prominent stained glass window in the town’s primary church was created about the year 1300 to memorialize the tragedy, and many references to the window are documented between 1300 and the mid-1600s when the window was destroyed. Many versions of the story were set down, which, though differing in many specific details, all agree that a gaudily dressed piper led away the children of Hameln.
The earliest extant reference is from The Lueneburg Manuscript which is dated between 1430 and 1450, and this passage is also to be found carved on a beam in Hameln’s famous “Rattenfangerhaus” or “Pied Piper’s House.” The text, in medieval German with a sprinkling of Latin freely mixed in, is:
ANNO 1284 AM DAGE JOHANNIS ET PAULI
WAR DER 26. JUNII
DORCH EINEN PIPER MIT ALLERLEI FARVE BEKLEDET
GEWESEN CXXX KINDER VERLEDET BINNEN HAMELEN GEBO[RE]N
TO CALVARIE BI DEN KOPPEN VERLOREN
In the year 1284, on day of John and Paul
was the 26 June
By a piper with all kinds of colors clad
Had been 130 children led (who) within Hameln were born
To Calvary by the hills (were)lost
(Sorry for the clumsy rendering; I aim to follow the word order of the original as much as possible.)
As mentioned above, the strange tale is frequently referenced in a variety of sources from the later middle ages. And as is indicated by the fact that the event figures prominently in the civic records of medieval Hameln, it is clear that some sort of actual event must have taken place. It is noteworthy, however, that the rats do not make a documented appearance into the legend until the early 1500s, more than 250 years after the Piper himself appeared to steal the children.
So, what really happened?
Naturally, after more than 700 years, it is unlikely that we will ever know for certain. The records are too sparse, the sources too varied to give anything resembling a verifiable version of the facts. Yet some rational speculation has been attempted, some more persuasively than others.
One explanation is that the tale reflects a collective memory of the ill-fated Children’s Crusade of 1212, of which it is said thousands of children throughout France and Germany were inspired to hike to the Holy Land with the aim of peacefully converting Islamics to Christianity. Led by a charismatic child-preacher, the crusade ended in disaster when the hapless children were sold into slavery in the East.
This view seems highly unlikely for two reasons. First and foremost, the span between 1212 and 1284 seems an awfully long “delayed reaction.” In the hindsight from 2012, 72 years seems just a small slice of time out of 800 years, but 72 years is a long time in any human era, and in the medieval period represented at least three generations. Secondly, modern scholarship has shown that the “Children’s Crusade” is more misunderstanding and myth than reality. There was series of popular, grass-roots religious movements in the year 1212 throughout Western Europe, and these were especially prevalent among the landless peasantry.
The misunderstanding seems to stem from the terms with which contemporary chroniclers described the participants, the Latin “Pauperuli,” which means the little poor, or “Pueri,” which literally means “Boys.” But, much as we may speak of “Farm Boys,” or “Good Ol’ Boys,” or “Cowboys,” the term “pueri” was commonly applied to young, single men. As Peter Raedts has shown in his landmark paper on the “Children’s Crusade,” (cf: Journal of Medieval History, 3, 1977) it was only after the passage of almost a century that the events of 1212 began to be referred to as a “Children’s Crusade.” So, as I say, this possible explanation seems unconvincing.
More recently, it has been suggested that the Pied Piper was a sort of former-day Horace Greeley, encouraging youngsters to “Go East,” to settle the underpopulated lands to the east of the German heartland. Indeed, in the 13th century, great waves of immigration from central Germany did travel east to found new towns and open new land to agriculture and industry. One study of placenames around Hameln and in various eastern localities finds striking similarities. Such evidence is far from conclusive, but it does correspond with several versions of the tale in which the lost children were led away to settle in the East.
And what about the rats? How did they get mixed into the scene?
This seems to be a result of the fact that rats were a frequent and real problem in medieval Europe. In documented cases in more modern history, population explosions among rats are well known. Under such conditions, rats do indeed become aggressive. (cf: Robert Hendrickson’s More Cunning Than Man: A Social History of Rats and Man, Dorset; 1983) To deal with this scourge, the trade of “Ratcatcher” sprang up. Colorful characters with an incredible array of means for the extermination of rats parade through European history from the 13th century through the 19th. Among the techniques employed by some of these ratting professionals was indeed shrill, high-pitched piping. (This may have had some actual beneficial effect: rats are sensitive to high-pitched noises, including overtones too high for the human ear to register. Rats can be driven off by such uncomfortable sounds. Modern ratcatchers have even created electronic devices based upon just such a principle. Sadly, though, the trick does not work for long; the rats quickly acclimate to the noise and return in force.)
It seems that the tale of a piper in a multi-colored suit sorted well with the images of ratcatchers, and over time, the ratcatcher aspect was simply prepended upon the tale of Hameln’s tragedy. In this way the familiar, every-day image of the ratcatcher was grafted onto the horrific tale of child-stealing, and permitted a salutary moral lesson to be derived from the unpleasant account: when you promise to pay for a valuable service, even if the service seems slight in retrospect, PAY!
(The moral could have been created by a contemporary consultant!)
Flower Mound, Texas
Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
— Oscar Wilde