There is a town in Germany, and you all know its name, for throughout the years it has garnered much fame. You can go there today, to see if you must, perhaps even taking a friend that you trust. For once, long ago, there were rats of distaste and they called in a piper to make the streets safe. He led them away and demanded the town pay… But when they refused he turned nasty and frightful, taking all of the children who thought him delightful… That’s enough of bad rhymin’ so let’s get things grindin’ and have a long talk of the Piper of Hamelin…
The story goes that in 1284 that the town of Hamelin was infested by rats and the townsfolk hadn’t got a clue about what to do. This the first thing that strikes me about the tale. 1284 was the height of the medieval era and at this time there would have been rats everywhere owing to the fact that there was no sewage system or sanitation in such places. People would have most likely thrown their sewage out of the windows. Old medieval towns such as Hamelin may look nice and picturesque and pretty today but in medieval times they would have stunk to high heaven, the streets teaming with crap, for want of a better word. It was the perfect breeding ground for rats and diseases so Hamelin probably wasn’t alone in being infested. This was also part of the reason why the black death was able to spread so rapidly a few years later, in 1349, particularly in the cities and towns.
Of course, it could be suggested that Hamelin was more infested with rats than any other town in which case we’re looking at a nightmare scenario of horror movie proportions- whole streets swarming in a sea of the little blighters. This seems to me to be logical and the fact that Hamelin became famous for a rat infestation at a time when rats were a far more visible presence than they are today suggests that this was something that was really serious. If you think of it this way it becomes a little clearer. Even today in our ‘sanitised’ western world you’re never more than a few feet away from a rat… There is probably one nearby to your computer right now as it happens.
A case in point is what happened after Hurricane Sandy in New York. It’s not known how many rats there are in New York but it’s reckoned that they could outnumber the human population, meaning there are an excess of 8 million of them. Estimates vary from as high as 25 million to as low as 250’000 but in a place as crowded and full of food as New York that second number seems to be an underestimation. The worry was that all the rats who had survived the flooding of the subway tunnels would come up to the surface in their hundreds and would create an infestation. A rat infestation in New York is a very scary prospect indeed and in 13th century Hamelin it would have been just as scary a thought, if not moreso, as rats would be a far more familiar occurrence. And even the idea of how many rats live in modern day New York on a regular day is disturbing… Therefore imagine how much more prevalent rats were in a medieval town such as Hamelin. There may have been just as many rats as in present day New York before the ‘Pied Piper infestation.’ So we can take a guess therefore that the Pied Piper infestation was something seriously bad.
In the story the townsfolk, not knowing what to do, were approached by a stranger who offered to sort out Hamelin’s rat problem. Which is all fine and dandy except for one thing. To be a stranger in Medieval Europe was not something to shout about. In fact in a lot of places strangers were treated with mistrust and suspicion. There were a few exceptions to this, such as if you were a troubadour or a traveling minstrel or a priest or of exceedingly high status perhaps, but even then you might still be regarded with suspicion. People just didn’t travel around that much as travelling was a very dangerous profession. Now despite wearing multicoloured clothing (Pied means multicoloured) the Pied Piper claimed to be none of the usual trusted professions like a monk or a minstrel. He claimed he was a rat catcher. This is a bit weird. The people of Hamelin probably wouldn’t trust a random stranger who just turned up claiming to be a rat catcher. There would be a great deal of suspicion, especially as he wasn’t dressed like a rat catcher and he only had a pipe with him. This. to me, is akin to your toilet overflowing and then a man turning up on the doorstep five minutes later claiming to be a plumber. My theory behind this part of the story is that he was only allowed to lure the rats away simply because the townspeople thought that he couldn’t do any harm by doing whatever he was planning to do. They probably thought he wasn’t going to do any good and just said that they’d pay him anyway and they didn’t actually have what they were offering. I’ll come back to this later though.
What happens next is that the piper goes out and lures all the rats to him with his pipe and then he leads them to the nearby river and drowns them. Rat’s can swim so in all likelihood they would have just swam across the river. Even if they were all ‘enchanted’ to drown themselves it wouldn’t work. The bodies of the drowned rats would float and most likely dam the river. And how would they drown anyway? Wouldn’t the enchanted bodies just float? Perhaps the current was too strong and took them away or the ‘enchantment’ had a clause that made them dive under the water until they died? But, disregarding enchantment, it doesn’t really make sense. If they did drown what happened to the bodies? Were they washed away down-river in a great torrent of rat Bodies and eventually out to sea where they got eaten by some hungry seals? Rats are notorious for being able to survive just about anything, including being thrown into a river and washed away. If they did end up in the river the strongest would have climbed out again and most likely gone home to Hamelin thus starting the problem all over again. Besides which, the lack of sanitation would likely have resulted in new rats at some time later on anyway.
And how did the magic pipe thing work? Was it perhaps like an ‘Indian Snake Charmer’ type thing… Any Animal can be mesmerised with the right trick so it is just possible that the rats were hypnotised by some form of music. And who knows… Maybe it was a trick that the piper picked up somewhere out east. After all, we don’t know where he came from or who he was so it’s just possible he was a traveller who had spent time in India and other places in the orient where he might have learnt the animal hypnosis tune. And maybe this also explains how he was able to ‘enchant’ the rats into the river. Perhaps they were so hypnotised by the music they just all fell in and drowned under a hypnosis that prevented them from swimming. Is that even possible though? Wouldn’t the hypnosis wear off once they hit the water? They’d start swimming then for sure.
Whatever happened, whatever the mechanics, the Piper drove the rats from Hamelin and then asked the townsfolk for his payment. Which they didn’t give him. Here we return to my idea from earlier whereby the townsfolk just offered him anything because they believed he wouldn’t really do anything. So now they had to actually pay him what they didn’t have in the first place and rather than just apologising and admitting they didn’t have the money because they thought he wouldn’t do what he promised, they instead just outright refuse. If the piper was kind enough to rid the town of rats in the first place then I’m sure he would have understood had they just apologised and said they didn’t have the money. So instead he gets angry, as do most people when you refuse them something that they’ve been promised. This is of course understandable and clearly it’s the people of Hamelin that are in the wrong on this occasion as they didn’t keep their promise to pay the piper. So the Piper leaves Hamelin saying that he’ll be back for his payment.
Whilst the adults of Hamelin are in church celebrating the feast of John and Paul on June 26th the Piper returns, this time dressed like a ‘hunter’ and he lures the children away (130 of them). The point here is that it’s not as easy to hypnotise children as it is to hypnotise rats so clearly the piper used a different method. The most obvious idea that I can think of is that perhaps he used the same technique as the adults have Hamelin had used on him and promised them something. Perhaps he promised them money or a gift or something that a medieval child would have really wanted, but somehow he lured them away. I don’t know how easy it is to ‘lure’ children to follow you but it does unfortunately happen from time to time. In 1284 people weren’t as aware of child abduction as they are now and there were no such safety warnings in place. Children weren’t warned about talking to strangers because this was, ironically for such a dangerous time, not so much of a problem. So therefore back in 1284 it was substantially easier to lure children with promises of money etc. than it is today.
In the story the Piper leads the children on a merry dance across the countryside to a place called either Koppenberg Mountain or Koppelberg Hill. The first one appears to be somewhere in Belgium, some 265 miles (about 426 km,) which is a long way for one man to take 130 children on his own, so it seems unlikely that was where he took them- Although as an interesting sidenote ‘Koppen’ is an abreviation of cobblestones which in Dutch (Kinderkoppen) means ‘Childrens Heads.’ The second site, Koppelberg Hill appears to have no modern equivalent although looking around Hamelin it is conceivable that one of those around it could have been called ‘Koppelberg’ at some stage. What I did find though, some 21 miles (34 km) to the north of Hamelin is a small place called ‘Koppel.’ It’s my belief that you should never ignore a coincidence and like at Hamelin there are a number of hills/mountains nearby, making it all the more conceivable that one of them is ‘Koppelberg’ (Berg is German for Mountain so Koppel-Berg would be the Koppel Mountain, which makes sense.) Then again the children could have been taken to anywhere with a similar name… Kopparberg in Sweden for instance… (Or maybe they were turned into Kopparberg… Now that would be a conspiracy. Kopparberg is actually the liquidised remains of medieval children!) But it seems to me that there being a nearby place called Koppelberg is most likely.
What happens next is a matter of some debate as each version of the story is different. In one version the towns people eventually paid the piper and he returned the children. In another the children were led into a mystical cave that closed shut and they were never seen again. In another the cave was actually a tunnel to Transylvania and in a final version the piper ‘had his wicked way with them,’ which at this point I’m taking to mean paedophilia. In most cases, however, the children were never seen again and ‘something terrible happened to them.’
If there is one thing historians are absolutely certain is truth in the story it is that something happened to the children of Hamelin in 1284, many suggesting the story of the rats to be a later addition. There are some who belive that the children were taken to colonise lands in Eastern Europe, which would actually fit in quite well with the version of the story where the Pied Piper takes the children through a tunnel to Transylvania. There are others who reckon the children of Hamelin went off on a ‘Children’s crusade to the holy land (which, in all known historical cases, end in disaster, death, slavery or copious amounts of tears.) However, the Children’s crusades happened much earlier than 1284, which would mean the actual event remembered in the story would have also had to happen earlier suggesting that this idea perhaps isn’t true.
Another suggestion is that the children were struck down by an illness that didn’t affect the adults. If this latter explanation is true then it may explain the rest of the story. In this case the Pied Piper could be a representation of the devil, taking the children as his payment for perhaps stopping an infestation of rats. The story could perhaps be a warning about making a pact with the devil. ‘He always comes to collect sort’ of thing. This would certainly make sense as Medieval Europe was a highly religious society and this story about ‘a pact with the devil’ would certainly be something that was highly credible for the time period. Suggesting that he would take away your children if you made a deal with him would be one way of instilling the fear of God into the populace and using a real event like the loss of the Hamelin children would be an even better way to bolster that idea.