I didn’t think Ratcatcher’s Day would be the thing that would prompt me to write another blog post for Hag Stone Journal. But, Der Rattenfänger von Hameln brings together German folklore, Grimm fairytales, missing children, and one of the three animals that students are allowed to bring to Hogwarts their first year. So, of course it did.
The Pied Piper of Hamelin is an interesting story. I researched it in depth some years ago for a fictional horror story I was writing. You may be familiar with it from Grimm or Robert Browning’s poem, The Pied Piper of Hamelin.
“Rats! 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 ladle’s,
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.”
The German town of Hamelin’s first written record is from June 26th, 1384 and it says “It is 100 years since our children left.”
The legend of the missing children is told in the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin:
In June of 1284, the town of Hamelin was besieged by rats. A Piper dressed in multicolored (pied) clothing told town leaders he could remove the rats from the town with a tune from his magical pipe. He was promised 1000 guilders by the town leaders to do so. The Piper played his pipe through the streets and drew the rats out of the town and drown them in the Weser River.
The Pied Piper, having successfully rid the town of rats, found that the leaders refused the payment they promised. In retaliation the Piper returned, and while all the adults were at church, he played a magical tune that could be heard by all the children in Hamelin. The children danced through the streets and followed the Piper out of the town. And the children never returned.
Depending on which version of the story is told, the children were taken into a cave by the piper, to the top of Koppelberg Hill, or were drown, like the rats, in the Weser River. In some tales, three children survived the piper’s song: one who couldn’t walk, one who was deaf, and one who was blind. Those children told the town that it was the Pied Piper who took the children away.
The first known telling of this legend was on a stained glass window in a church in Hamelin. The church, built in 1300, was destroyed in 1660, but there are several written accounts of the stained glass depiction of the Piper leading the children out of Hamelin.
Where did all the children of Hamelin go in 1284? Was the Pied Piper a metaphor for a plague, or emigration, or a landslide that killed the children?
Perhaps the Pied Piper is metaphor for the angel of death, a leader of the Danse Macabre, and the 130 children of Hamelin died in 1284 from an epidemic or an accident.
Some researchers suggest that the Pied Piper was a recruiter for emigration to Transylvania. Transylvania had lost a significant portion of its population under the Mongol invasion of the early 13th century. It was a practice at this time for illegitimate children, orphans, and children that a family couldn’t support to be sold to such recruiters. The Pied Piper: A Handbook, by Wolfgang Mieder, supports this theory with historical documents that show that people from the area of Hamelin did settle in Transylvania.
Another theory is that the children were afflicted with dancing mania or St. Vitus’s dance, a kind of mass psychogenic illness primarily recorded in mainland Europe from the 14th through the 17th centuries. Dancing mania is well documented and known to affect thousands of people at a time. There are two recorded incidents of dancing mania in Germany in the 1200s, including one, in 1237, of children that jumped and danced for 20 kilometers. Dancing is a significant part of the Pied Piper legend. To this day there is a street in Hamelin, Bungelosenstrasse (street without drums) where music and dancing is forbidden. It is believed that that street is the last place the children of Hamelin were ever seen.
Then there is the 15th century manuscript, the Lüneburg manuscript, that states:
(In the year 1284 on the day of [Saints] John and Paul on 26th June
130 children born in Hamelin were led away by a piper clothed in many colours
to [their] Calvary near the Koppen, [and] lost)
The Koppen mountains were a site of pagan rituals and some sources say that the children went willingly to Koppen and were sacrificed.
Perhaps something really did happen to the children of Hamelin in 1284, something that the town commemorated as a tragedy in stained glass, legend, and in official records. Today, Hamelin is a tourist destination and the Pied Piper and the rats are themes throughout the town. June 26th is also Ratcatcher’s Day, perhaps to make up for how the townspeople wronged the Pied Piper and to ward off any future losses of the town’s children.