“It is 100 years since our children left.” – attributed to Hameln’s book of statutes (1384 AD)
It’s a quiet place, Hameln. The waters of the Weser churn lazily here, sluggishly drifting past rows of green deciduous trees on the journey north to the sea. Aging residents stroll along the river bank, some idly chatting on park benches or outdoor cafes while white cloud puffs float past the sun, momentarily casting the red roofs of the town’s storybook houses in a pleasant summer shade. It was perhaps a day just like this in 1284, agreeable but otherwise unremarkable, that a man wearing a gaudy costume of colorful fabrics entered the town and took its 130 children away never to be seen again.
The tale of the Rattenfänger or Pied Piper is well known throughout the world. And while there are several versions of the fable, they all revolve around a disgruntled exterminator who uses a magical pipe to hypnotize Hameln’s children and lead them to their death as their parents sleep. You see, the piper was a bit peeved; he had taken care of Hameln’s rat problem by drowning the varmints in the river only to have the townsfolk refuse to pay up. Considering you couldn’t just file a worker’s compensation claim back in those days, mass kidnapping was, obviously, the next logical step in settling a wage dispute.
The thing is, though, most historians agree that this isn’t just a story but an actual event. So, compelled by curiosity, I decided to travel to this little hamlet in the lower part of Lower Saxony to see for myself the history behind one of Germany’s most enduring fairy tales.
My first stop was Market Church St. Nicolai in the center of the town. It was here that the oldest evidence of the Piped Piper was uncovered. Several contemporary travelers had described a stain glass window of a man in varicolored garb standing above throngs of smaller pious figures dressed in white, his hands cunningly clasped in front, head bowed in malevolence as if lording over the souls below. The window is dated circa 1300 but was destroyed in 1660.
I had hoped that the church would have retained some additional relics of the past or at least allow me to get a sense of 13th century Hameln. However, as a custodian politely pointed out, the original construction had been razed by artillery fire in 1945. Alas, other than a few foundational stones, nothing remained; it was a dead end.
I left the church and made my way to Bungelosenstraße (literally, drumless street). It was supposedly here that the children were last seen. Even today, no music is allowed to play along this road in fear that the terrible events of 1284 will repeat themselves.
Looking up, something catches my eye. It is gold script flashing brightly in the afternoon sun, “Anno 1284 Am Dage Johannis und Pauli war der 36. Juni. Durch einen Pieper mit allerley Farve bekledet gewesen. CXXX Kinder verledet Binnen Hameln geboren. To Calvarie bi den Koppen verloren.” Ah, the famous Rat Catcher’s House built in the early 17th century; my first credible lead. The rhymed verse translates as “A.D. 1284, on the 26th of June, the day of St. John and St. Paul, 130 children born in Hamelin were led out of town by a piper wearing multicolored clothes. After passing the Calvary near Koppenberg, they disappeared forever.”
I’m immediately struck by the details retained in the inscription, an exact date of the occurrence and the number of children lost. But it is also frustratingly vague on what transpired. Where is this Koppenberg? Why does it not mention the reason the children were led away? And what about all the rats?
To find out more, I headed to the Museum Hameln located in the Leisthaus, an ornate 16th century stone mansion on Hameln’s principal Osterstraße. After watching a rather bizarre retelling of the Rattenfänger with robots (yes, robots), I asked an employee if there was any documentation that would collaborate the inscription on the Rat Catcher’s House. I was assured that the words are attributed to a 15th century manuscript, and a similar verse in Latin was described in a Hameln chorus book from the 14th century. Sadly, neither document survives today. But what he told me next was even more frightening: contemporary witness accounts claim Hameln’s book of statutes would date its entries to the time of the disappearance in what is known as Hamelner Zeitrechnung. In other words, the loss of the children was year zero for the town’s people.
And the rats? That was added later, I was told, an embellishment that began to appear in the 16th century and made popular by the Brother Grimes, among others. After all, how can you drown rats in a river; they are excellent swimmers!
As it turns out, the children were almost certainly not murdered out of revenge. But their exact fate is a mystery. References to Koppenberg suggest they were taken to nearby hills were they may have succumbed to an act of God such as a landslide. Even recent retellings often state that a mountain swallowed the children.
A more popular explanation is that the story is an allegory for disease. But this also seems unlikely because the date is before the major plague outbreaks of the 14th century, and disease takes the elderly along with the young. The focus of the Rattenfänger is squarely on the children.
Ultimately, the truth may be more banal. In the 13th century, the Slavs had been expelled from the Baltic region and the new German princes needed colonists to work the land (Lebensraum has a long history in this country). The piper fits the description of recruiters sent by the lords to find young men (often referred to as Kinder or children) to emigrate east. The theory is backed up by Westphalia name places tracing a straight line to Pomerania.
Nevertheless, the attention that the townsfolk of Hameln give to the loss of their children suggests something sinister is indeed at the heart of the tale. After all, young men from villages across what is now Germany were heeding the recruiters call, but only Hameln appears to have been traumatized.
It may very well be that the children were led away by a recruiter to settle a foreign land. But did they go on their own volition? Perhaps the children were sold as slaves in a time of desperation. Was Hameln facing a crisis and decided to part with its children rather than watch them gradually starve to death? Whatever the case, it was tragic enough for the town that it could neither forget nor explicitly mention again the circumstances that led to their disappearance.
Next door to the museum is the Stiftsherrenhaus, its facade richly decorated in wooden religious carvings. On one column is the figure of Abraham, his sword raised high above the head of is son, Isaac, the death blow only being adverted by an interceding angel. I wondered how many of Hameln’s residents had walked passed that same column through the centuries and asked themselves where God’s merciful hand had been on that June day in 1284.
Getting There and Away
If you would like to see Hameln for yourself, the S5 train runs from Hannover at 25 and 55 past the hour and returns at 20 and 50 past the hour. The trip takes about 45 minutes and costs EUR 12.80 one way.