The Pied Piper

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 alighterversion 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.

11 responses to “The Pied Piper

  • Roger

    ” 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”.”

    Could it be a reference to the Children’s Crusade. when it is said tens of thousands of children set off to free Jerusalem from muslim rule?

  • ceciliag

    Ingmar bergman (excuse my spelling and lack of punctuation, i am very tired tonight) did not use scripts, he gathered his actors and told them what the story was, how he thought it should evolve, and in how many acts and then filmed what happened next, he has always fascinated me.. I think stanley kubrick is the only other director who came close to him in this genre of directing. But this is completely off the subject. I have always been fascinated by the pied piper. he is a terrible character, unforgiving in his dreadful pedantic honesty. i have always wondered whether in fact he was a political figure of the time. there seem to be powerful people like that in every generation of politics, terriers of the law. unbending. i had no idea that his shadow reached so far back.. and created so many questions, fascinating .. sometimes i wish you and i could sit on your stoop with a glass of wine and talk about these things, the blog world is so limiting.. but now i must go to bed. though i am glad i popped in first.. c

    • daseger

      I’d love to have a glass of wine with you too, Celie, and I really do think you for the slice of expertise from your earlier life; I had read that the dance of death scene was spontaneous, and now you’ve confirmed it.

  • amonikabyanyuvva

    Fantastic story though, I knew it as a child growing up, and have been wary of strangers ever since!! i always had some sympathy with him though. The townspeople should a) have honoured their debt
    b) been a bit more careful with their children!
    It is intriguing to wonder waht really happened.Great post as usual!

  • markd60

    I never knew that about the Pied Piper. Very interesting, and as always, I love the pictures.

  • Rick Hamelin

    Some say the story is based onthe story of Nicholas of Cologne and The Children’s Crusade, the name given to a disastrous Crusade by Christian children to expel Muslims from the Holy Land said to have taken place in 1212.

    The traditional narrative is probably conflated from some factual and mythical notions of the period including visions by a French or German boy, an intention to peacefully convert Muslims in the Holy Land to Christianity, bands of children marching to Italy, and children being sold into slavery.

    A study published in 1977 cast doubt on the existence of these events, and many historians came to believe that they were not (or not primarily) children but multiple bands of “wandering poor” in Germany and France, some of whom tried to reach the Holy Land and others who never intended to do so. Early versions of events, of which there are many variations told over the centuries, are largely apocryphal.[1][2]

  • Matt

    Interesting. My parents enrolled me in the Pied Piper Nursery School many decades ago. Perhaps they were familiar with the story and hoped that the service would live up to its name. Unfortunately for them, I returned daily, adding considerable economic hardship to their lives for the another 16 years or so….

    • daseger

      Well, I’m sure that’s not true, Matt! But I think we can all agree that Pied Piper is a TERRIBLE name for a nursery school!!!

      • Rick Hamelin

        There is an isolated town in the mountains of Hungary that is said to have only German speaking inhabitants and was formed of the children of Hamelin. The Pied Piper never broke his promise, it was the elders of Hameln who deceived and with greed, brought upon themselves the destruction of their future by gambling with the lives of the children.

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