The Catholic liturgical calendar reveals that today is the day of the martyred saints John and Paul, the day on which (in 1284) several late medieval sources report that a man wearing a multicolored cloak strode into the small town of Hamelin (Hameln) in lower Saxony, and upon the request of the townspeople, took up his pipe and played a tune that lured all of their troublesome rats out of town and to their deaths. The piper returned for his payment, and when rebuffed, went away and then returned yet again, this time wearing the dark green cloak of a hunter. He picked up his pipe again, and played a tune that lured Hamelin’s children–130 children in all–away, never to return. And so the piper got his revenge, and a community lost its children for failing to pay its debt.
Engraving by Henry Marsh after John La Farge, 1868, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; 1930 Hameln postcard, Casas-Rodriguez Collection.
Such a dark story, and a source of puzzlement ever since its rediscovery and publication by the Grimm Brothers in the nineteenth century. Actually it never really disappeared; there seem to have been variant “rat-catcher” stories in circulation all over central Europe, and even in Scotland. But the Grimms spread the tale far and wide, and Robert Browning’s 1844 poem made it even more popular. Given the prominent role played by RATS in the narrative, it is an easy connection between the loss of the children and the momentous mortality of the Black Death, but the chronology doesn’t work: the story dates to almost a century before the arrival of the plague in Europe. In any case, the earliest references to the Pied Piper don’t even mention rats; they first appear in the sixteenth-century Zimmern Chronicle. The other references from that century, a time not only of periodic plague but also religious wars and witch hunts, seem to be transforming the piper into either the Devil or the grim reaper, leading the children in a “dance of death”.
The haunting Dance of Death at the end of Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film The Seventh Seal.
Robert Browning’s poem, based on the version of the Pied Piper contained in Nicholas Wanley’s six-volume Wonders of the Little World; or, A General History of Man (1677), somehow presents a “lighter” version of the story while still maintaining all the dismal details. I think this is because of all the colorful illustrations in the many Browning editions: by Kate Greenaway (1888), Hope Dunlap (1910), and Margaret Tarrant (1912), among others. Browning also has a similar “tribe” of people resurfacing in far-east Transylvania, a reference to Ostsiedlung, the eastward migration of the Germans in the high middle ages, a more likely basis for the Pied Piper tale.
As is always the case, folklore serves up useful metaphors to the present, for both social and political commentary. The first half of the twentieth century used the piper for a variety of messages: in two very timely (and different!) American images, he is leading a pack of criminal and/or radical European immigrants across the sea and a group of children gardeners after World War I, while in Germany, he is a leftist devil, leading the fledgling German republic Into the Abyss.
Anti-immigration and US School Garden Army posters (1909 & 1919), Library of Congress, and “Into the Abyss” poster by Theo Matejko (1919), Victoria & Albert Museum, London.