Today is Rat Catcher’s Day in Hamelin, Northern Germany. It celebrates not only rat catchers, who do a nasty job and deserve to be recognised, but the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin for which the town is famous. There are actually two dates on which this event is commemorated. The other, July 22nd, was first put forward at the beginning of the seventeenth century. But my gut feeling is that it belongs here, between the wild celebrations of Saint John’s Eve and the legend behind ‘Seven Sleepers Day’ which I will tell you about tomorrow. Not everyone realises that it is not just a fairy tale. There is some truth in it.
According to the earliest sources, on this day in 1284, one hundred and thirty children from the town were led away by a mysterious piper and were never seen again. This is, of course, not a cause for celebration, it’s awful. But it’s a curious tale and its lack of explanation has made it the subject of much speculation. The story tells us that the town was plagued by rats. The piper was employed by the mayor of the town to lure the rats away. He achieved this by charming them with a tune from his pipe and led them all to the river, where they drowned. The mayor then refused to pay the agreed sum and the piper left promising revenge. He returned on June 26th, the feast day of John and Paul and this time he played a different tune. The adults were all in church as he led the children away. Up to three children were left behind to explain what had happened. One was lame and couldn’t keep up, One deaf, who could not hear the tune. The other was blind and could not see where he was going. In one version the children disappear into a mountain, in another they are drowned in the river like the rats.
We know there is some truth in this story because the earliest written records from the town of Hamelin dating from 1384 begin ‘ It is a hundred years since our children left.’ also there was a stained glass window in the church commemorating the event which dates from around 1300. Unfortunately, it was destroyed in 1660 but the above illustration is a drawing of it dating from 1592.
The earliest written accounts do not mention rats at all, this part of the story didn’t appear until the sixteenth century. So what we have is a tale of how the children of the town were lured away by a man in a multi-coloured (pied) costume who played them a strangely irresistible tune. Some think that the children were the victims of a plague and that the piper symbolises death. Others think that the piper was a member of some odd religious sect who lured the children away. It is true that some of the features of the Pied Piper, the trance inducing music and the colourful clothes, reminded me of the people who were thought by some to have been responsible for the dancing plagues that I wrote about a few days ago. A rather uncomfortable theory is that, at a time when everyone was grindingly poor, perhaps unable to provide enough food for all their children, they may have been sold into slavery. Another explanation is that ‘children’ does not necessarily refer to very young people. It may just mean people who were born in the town. Around that time an area of Eastern Europe was being resettled following a war and young people may have been lured there in hope of finding a better life.
The tale of the Pied Piper and the missing children has now been told and retold for well over seven hundred years and has undergone many changes. It is one of the stories collected by the Brothers Grimm and it appears in a poem by Robert Browning. Like many folk tales, it has received the Victorian treatment and been re-purposed as a story with a moral message. It’s hard to know what a child is supposed to take away from this story though. The children of Hamelin are victims and really can’t help what happens to them. It is good to learn that we shouldn’t renege on a promise, but probably if we learn anything from this story it is not to live in a time when the previous generation has taken loads of stuff and then decided not to pay for it. Hmmmm…