Sunday, June 26, 2011

Paying the Piper

Pied Piper of Hamelin by Gustave Spangenberg

In 1384, the town records of Hamelin records:
"It is 100 years since our children left."
That is our earliest documentation of the "Pied Piper" incident of the German town of Hamelin. Details regarding a piper, the infestation of rats, and the fate of the children get introduced in later eras. For instance, the Lueneburg manuscript (c. 1440-50) documents:
In the year of 1284, on the day of Saints John and Paul
on 26 June
130 children born in Hamelin were seduced
By a piper, dressed in all kinds of colours,
and lost at the place of execution near the koppen.
That's more detail, but it remains vague. What does the text mean by "seduced"? How were the children "lost"? Moreover, it's nearly two centuries after the event. Given the standards of the era, can their history be trusted?

Pied Piper of Hamelin by Kate Greenaway

Regardless of the historical particulars, the story has been a source of inspiration of writers and artists over the centuries.

One of the most famous narratives of the story is the poem by Robert Browning. Here are a couple vids, reciting the poem along with the iconic images by Kate Greenaway.

Among modern works, I'm fond of China MiƩville's King Rat. It's a novel of dark urban fantasy that bases it's conflict around the Pied Piper story within a contemporary setting, the London club scene of the late '90s. Unlike his later work, King Rat is a tight and compelling read. Fun stuff.

Here's a link to the Pied Piper Wikipedia page.

Here's a link to the Storynory website, where this reading of the Pied Piper is only one of many fairy tales available for free download.

Here's a link to China MiƩville's Wikipedia page.



  1. I wonder if this might have something to do with the Children's Crusade. The timing is off, since that Crusade happened about 50 years earlier or so, but that event or something similar would fit.

  2. I cannot help coming to a grim conclusion about the origin of this legend.

    See, by the way, as just one excellent source:

    ... "[the local Counts] "Nikolaus von Spiegelberg, his brother Moritz and the junior Hermann .... fell under suspicion of terminating the ongoing heathen practices by some kind of 'measure'."

    I have a feeling that, while of course "gewesen 130 kinder verledet binnen Hameln gebon to Calvarie, bi den Koppen verloren" ("lost at Calvary/execution at the Koppen") has a translation that is repeated by many researchers who are both learned and are native German speakers, the "koppen" may have a double meaning: "to Calvary/execution by lost heads."

  3. Very interesting. I was unaware of the "heathen practices" element. That does sound like a strong possibility.