Everyone knows the story: Hamelin has rats, a pied piper calls the rats into the River Weser, the town won’t pay the piper, he calls all the town’s children (except one lame kid who can’t keep up) into a cave in a mountain, the cave entrance closes up and the town learns a lesson. That’s more or less the legend set to poetry by Robert Browning in the 19th Century and collected by the brothers Grimm in the 18th. The legend is based on something real that happened in 1284, but no one is certain what that was.
In 1300 the town of Hameln, Germany put up a stained glass window in the church to commemorate the loss of 130 children. That window disappeared around 1660 but not before some of its details were copied by a painter and its inscription noted by several people. The inscription reads:
In the year of 1284, on the 26th of June, the Day of St. John and St. Paul, 130 children, born in Hameln, were led out of town by a piper wearing all kinds of colors. After passing the Calvary near the Koppenberg they disappeared forever.
The taking of these children is also mentioned in several print sources including some of Hameln’s town records for 1384, “It is a hundred years since our children left.” So what happened in Hameln on June 26, 1284?
The first thing to note is that there are no rats mentioned. You can forget all those theories about bubonic plague, too, because the plague didn’t hit Hameln for another sixty years. “Children” does not necessarilly mean very young people, either. These were townspeople possibly young and unmarried but maybe in their teens — anyway, people of Hameln of indeterminate age.
What is the “Calvary near the Koppenberg”? Some translate “calvarie” as place of execution, i.e., the same as Golgotha, the Place of the Skull. “Koppen” may mean “forest” and “berg” = “mountain”. There’s a lot of forested mountains about. One scholar suggests that “koppen” is slang for “head” and translates the line as “the jaws of Hell”. He says that the children were led up a nearby mountain and sacrificed in pagan ceremonies. This seems a little unlikely; 130 children being killed all at once isn’t so much a sacrifice as a massacre. The notion that a pedophile serial killer done it is not credible either.
A more likely thesis has it that people were led away by some kind of recruiter. The Children’s Crusade has been mentioned but that was in 1212. But there was another kind of recruiting going on in 13th Century Germany, that of settlers for land opening up in the east.
The Baltic coast of what is now Germany and Poland was once populated by Slavic tribes known collectively as Wends. These tribes were attacked by Franks, Danes, and each other. In 1168 the Danes finally subdued that last Wendish army and began to occupy the coastal area. By 1202, Denmark held a wide swath of territory from Holstein in south Jutland to Pomerania in north Poland. German princes pushed back and, in 1227, drove the Danes out of the region. Now this area was open to settlement and local rulers began recruiting people to come live there.
Jurgen Udolph noted that many place names in the newly opened Danish lands are German and reflect a Westphalian or Saxon origin:
Professor Udolph surmises that the children were actually unemployed youths who had been sucked into the German drive to colonize its new settlements in Eastern Europe. The Pied Piper may never have existed as such, but, says the professor, “There were characters known as Lokator who roamed northern Germany trying to recruit settlers for the East.” Some of them were brightly dressed, and all were silver-tongued.
Another version of this idea has been promoted by Hans Dobbertin who thinks that the new recruits were taken on board a ship that sank and all were drowned. Dobbertin believes that “koppen” refers to Kopahn, a town on the coast of north Poland.
Then there is Wolfgang Wann’s theory that the recruits went to Moravia rather than the Baltic, possibly to a place once named Hamelingow, now Olomouc in the Czech Republic. Family names from Hameln are found in Olomouc from the 13th Century on. Some versions of the legend have the children winding up in Transylvania which is not so very far off.
Whatever happened in 1284, Hameln is milking the old legend for as many tourist dollars as it can. There is a play, a musical (Rats, of course), and walking tours that include the Steet of No Music — the place where the children were last seen and no musical instruments (especially pipes!) may be played.