In the year of 1284, on the day of Saints John and Paul, the 26th of June, 130 child ren born in Hamelin were seduced by a piper, dressed in all kinds of colours, and lost at the calvary near the koppen.”
The town of Hamelin hasn’t forgotten this loss. The street where, supposedly, the children were last seen is called Bungelosen strasse: street without drums”. Even so many years after the event, no one is allowed to play music or dance there. Oral tradition preserved and enriched the story until the Brothers Grimm included it in their compilation of German legends, Deutsche Sagen (1816–18).
In the Grimms’ version, mediæval Hamelin is hit by a plague of rats. A seemingly hero-like figure appears, in the shape of a mysterious stranger dressed in red and yellow clothes. He promises to rid the town of the vermin, and the townsmen promise him money in exchange. The rat-catcher has a strange, almost supernatural gift: he plays a tune on his pipe that lures the rats into the river Weser, where they all drown. But, blinded by their greed, the townsmen refuse to honour their promise and pay the Piper his fee. The Piper leaves the town, plotting his revenge. When he returns to Hamelin, he wears the attire of a hunter. He plays a melody that hypnotises the children, who follow him to the mountains, never to be seen again.
The cruelty of the denouément strikes us doubly, because it surpasses our expect ations. What initially looks like a classic ‘Overcoming the Monster’ plot turns into a nightmarish tale of disproportionate revenge. The Piper’s retribution oversteps the boundaries, suggesting society’s ultim ate taboo: child murder. This twist is so shocking that many versions have been tempered, with the Piper orchestrating the disappearance of the children only to get the money he is owed; the children go back to Hamelin and the townsfolk learn their lesson. Far from simplifying the story, this presents the Piper as a more interesting hero, a complex, modern one – someone who has to challenge the establishment in order to survive in difficult times.
And yet the tale’s elements of greed, revenge and infanticide send us back to the Middle Ages, a violent period of deep contrasts. The legend contains enough material to have inspired the popular and the poetic imagination for centuries – but what really happened on that fateful day in 1284, and who was the mysterious Pied Piper?