|From a window of the Market Church in Hameln/Hamelin Germany (c.1300-1633), thought to be the earliest representation of the legend.|
A well-known story of German, and now global, tradition is a constant reminder of what might happen if a helper is not properly rewarded for his assistance. The Pied Piper of Hamelin is the ambivalent focus of an enduring medieval legend. In 1284 the town of Hamelin in Saxony is disturbed by a plague of rats. The piper, dressed in motley, hence the term ‘pied’, pipes the rats into the River Weser where they drown. But the people of the town refuse to pay him and so he pipes their children inside Koppenberg Hill, from where they have never emerged. Only one lame child, too slow to keep up with the others, survived.
This is the most familiar version of this enigmatic legend today, though its original form, as far as can be known, was a little different. One of the earliest and most significant accounts of the event is the fourteenth century version appearing in the Latin chronicle Catena Aurea (The Golden Chain) and written by a monk known as Heinrich of Hereford. This account has nothing about a plague of rats but simply tells of a handsome and well-dressed young man appearing in the city on the Feast of Saints John and Paul (26 June). He went through the streets playing a magnificent silver pipe, attracting about 130 children to follow him out of the city to the execution ground known as Calvary. There they all vanished without trace. Heinrich gives an earlier written source for this information and also refers to the testimony of an eye-witness relayed to him through the witnesses’ son.
As well as the absence of the rats and the reluctance of the townspeople to pay the piper’s fee, there is nothing ‘pied’ about the piper in Heinrich’s version of events, and no children returned. By the mid-1550s, though, an account written in Bamberg elaborated the story with such details as the threat of the piper to return in three hundred years and take more children away and the return of two naked children, one blind and one mute. Another account from around the same period identifies the piper as the devil and the fate of the children a result of God’s retribution for human sin. The return of the one lame child seems to appear first in the English translation made by Richard Verstegan in 1605.
The detail of the rat plague is first heard of in the Swabian Zimmer Chronicle of 1565. However, it is known that by this time there were other legends involving rat and mouse-catchers attached to other parts of Europe and it may be that these became mixed with the basic Hamelin story. By whatever and various ways the story evolved, it was already a popular item of print entertainment by the early seventeenth century and, in one version or another, continued to attract the interest of poets like Robert Browning (‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’, 1842) and of folklorists like the Brothers Grimm as well as carrying on a busy life in oral tradition, including a number of German folksongs.
This disturbing legend has attracted a good deal of scholarly speculation through the succeeding centuries. Some suggest the legend is derived from the eastward migrations of young Germanic peoples during the thirteenth century. Others relate the story to the disastrous Children’s Crusade in which many children left their homes, never to return. There are also suggestions that the story is related to the medieval dance epidemic known as ‘St John’s Dance’ or ‘St Vitus’ Dance’ or to a major bubonic plague outbreak. Others have looked to mythological and historical sources for enlightenment and explanation.
Whatever its source, the tale has been continually in oral tradition and, later, in literature, theatre, children’s books, advertising, cartoons, political propaganda, films and, of course, in the tourism industry of the city of Hamelin. The many-faceted legend of the Pied Piper is largely due to the ambiguity of the piper’s character, both good and evil, and the ingratitude and stupidity of the burghers of Weser. As well as all the other many uses to which the tradition has been put, in the end it is perhaps primarily an appealing moral tale about just rewards (‘you must pay the piper’s fee’) and being careful about which processions you follow.
From Graham Seal and Kim Kennedy-White, Folk Heroes and Heroines Around the World