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The History of The Pied Piper of Hamelin

Source & Credits: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The oldest picture of Pied Piper (watercolour) copied from the glass window of Marktkirche in Hamelin by Freiherr Augustin von Moersperg.

The oldest picture of Pied Piper (watercolour) copied from the glass window of Marktkirche in Hamelin by Freiherr Augustin von Moersperg.

“Pied Piper” redirects here. For other uses, see Pied Piper (disambiguation).

The Pied Piper of Hamelin is a legend, documented by the Brothers Grimm (Der Rattenfänger von Hameln, which translates to "The Ratcatcher of Hamelin"), which tells of an unusual disaster that occurred in the town of Hamelin (Hameln), Germany, 26 June 1284.

In 1284, the town of Hamelin was suffering from a rat infestation. One day, a man claiming to be a rat-catcher approached the villagers with a solution. They promised to pay him for the removal of the rats. The man accepted, and thus played a musical pipe to lure the rats with a song into the Weser river, where all of them drowned.

Despite his success, the people reneged on their promise and refused to pay the rat-catcher. The man left the town angrily, but returned some time later, on June 26th, seeking revenge.

While the inhabitants were in church, he played his pipe again, this time attracting the children of Hamelin. One hundred and thirty boys and girls followed him out of the town, where they were lured into a cave and never seen again. Depending on the version, at most two children remained behind (one of whom was lame and could not follow quickly enough) who informed the villagers what had happened when they came out of the church.

Other versions (but not the traditional ones) claim that the Piper returned the children after the villagers paid several times the original amount of gold.


The rats of Hamelin

The rats of Hamelin

The earliest mention of the story seems to have been on a stained glass window placed in the church of Hamelin c. 1300. The window was described in several accounts between the 14th century and the 17th century but it seems to have been destroyed. Based on the surviving descriptions, a modern reconstruction of the window has been created by Hans Dobbertin. It features the colorful figure of the Pied Piper and several figures of children dressed in white.

This window is generally considered to have been created in memory of a tragic historical event for the city. But although there has been a lot of research, no clear explanation can be given of what historical event is behind the reports, see an external link with a list of hypotheses. However, the rats were first added to the story in the late 16th century; they are absent from all previous accounts. Some traumatic event must have given rise to the tale; Hamelin town records are dated from this time.

Theories that have gained some support can be grouped into the following categories:

  • The children fell victim to an accident, either drowning in the river Weser or being buried in a landslide.
  • The children contracted some disease during an epidemic and were led out of town to die in order to protect the rest of the city's population from contracting it.
    • An early form of Black Death has been suggested.
    • Others attribute the dancing of the children to be an early reference to Huntington's disease; however, this is an inherited disorder, and the statistical probability of that many unrelated children having the same genetic condition is very low.
    • Another possibility would be the outbreaks of chorea, or communal dancing mania, which are recorded in a number of European towns during the period of general distress which followed the Black Death. The 'Verstegan/Browning' date, 1376, would be consistent with this. These theories perceive the Piper as a symbolic figure of Death. Death is often portrayed dressed in motley, or "pied." Analogous themes which are associated with this theory include the Dance of Death, Totentanz or Danse Macabre, a common medieval type. Various ecstatic outbreaks were associated with the Plague, such as the Flagellants, who wandered from place to place while scourging themselves in penance for sins that presumably brought the plague upon Europe. The rat is the preferred host for the plague vector, the rat flea. When the rats die, the fleas seek humans as a substitute host. Children might be especially vulnerable to the disease.

The Pied Piper leads the children.

The Pied Piper leads the children.

  • The children left the city to be part of a pilgrimage, a military campaign, or even a new Children's crusade (which occured in 1212, not long before) but never returned to their parents. These theories see the unnamed Piper as their leader or a recruiting agent.
  • The children willingly abandoned their parents and Hamelin in order to become the founders of their own villages during the colonization of Eastern Europe. Several European villages and cities founded around this time have been suggested as the result of their efforts as settlers. This claim is supported by corresponding placenames in both the region around Hamelin and the eastern colonies where names such as Querhameln ("mill village Hamelin") exist. Again the Piper is seen as their leader.
  • There have also been stories that a few months after the disappearance of the children, in a forest nearby there were bodies of children found underneath the trees. Meaning the Pied Piper could actually have been a real person who killed the children.

The tradition that the children emigrated in 1284 is so old and well-reported that explanations associated with the Black Death seem unlikely (there is an alternative, post-Black Death, date 1376 , but it is documented far away from Hamelin and as late as 1605 - see below). Modern scholars regard the emigration theory to be the most probable,[1] i.e. that the Pied Piper of Hamelin was a recruiter for the colonization of Eastern Europe which took part in the 13th century and that he led away a big part of the young generation of Hamelin to a region in Eastern Germany.

Decan Lude of Hamelin was reported ca. 1384 to have in his possession a chorus book containing a Latin verse giving an eyewitness account of the event. The verse was reportedly written by his grandmother. This chorus book is believed to have been lost since the late 17th century. The odd-looking name ‘Decan Lude’ may possibly indicate a priest holding the position of Dean (Latin decanus, modern German Dechant) whose name was Ludwig; but as yet he has proved impossible to trace.

The Lueneberg manuscript (c. 1440-1450) gives an early German account of the event:

Anno 1284 am dage Johannis et Pauli
war der 26. junii
Dorch einen piper mit allerlei farve bekledet
gewesen CXXX kinder verledet binnen Hamelen gebo[re]n
to calvarie bi den koppen verloren

In the year of 1284, on the day of Saints John and Paul
on the 26th of June
130 children born in Hamelin were seduced
By a piper, dressed in all kinds of colors,
and lost at the place of execution near the koppen.

This appears to be oldest surviving account. Koppen (Old German meaning "hills") seems to be a reference to one of several hills surrounding the city. Which of them was intended by the verse's author remains uncertain.

Reportedly, there is a long-established law forbidding singing and music in one particular street of Hamelin, out of respect for the victims: the Bungelosenstrasse adjacent to the Pied Piper's House. During public parades which include music, including wedding processions, the band will stop playing upon reaching this street and resume upon reaching the other side.

In 1556 De miraculis sui temporis (Latin: Concerning the Wonders of his Times) by Jobus Fincelius mentions the tale. The author identifies the Piper with the Devil.

The Lame Child

The Lame Child

The earliest English account is that of Richard Rowland Verstegan (1548-c. 1636), an antiquary and religious controversialist of partly Dutch descent, in his Restitution of Decayed Intelligence (Antwerp, 1605); unfortunately he does not give his source. He includes the reference to the rats and the idea that the lost children turned up in Transylvania. The phrase 'Pide [sic] Piper' occurs in his version and seems to have been coined by him. Curiously enough his date is entirely different from that given above: July 22, 1376. Verstegan's account was copied in Nathaniel Wanley's Wonders of the Visible World (1687), which was the immediate source of Robert Browning's well-known poem (below). Verstegan's account is also repeated in William Ramesey's Wormes (1668) - "...that most remarkable story in Verstegan, of the Pied Piper, that carryed away a hundred and sixty Children from the Town of Hamel in Saxony, on the 22. of July, Anno Dom. 1376. A wonderful permission of GOD to the Rage of the Devil".

In 1803, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote a poem based on the story. He incorporated references to the story in his version of Faust. The first part of the Drama was first published in 1808 and the second in 1832 .

Jakob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm, siblings known as the Brothers Grimm, drawing from eleven sources included the tale in their collection "Deutsche Sagen", first published in 1816 . According to their account two children were left behind as one was blind and the other lame, so neither could follow the others. The rest became the founders of Siebenbürgen (Transylvania).

Using the Verstegan/Wanley version of the tale and adopting the 1376 date, Robert Browning wrote a poem of that name which was published in 1842. Browning's verse retelling is notable for its humor, wordplay, and jingling rhymes.

“When, lo, as they reached the mountain's side,
A wondrous portal opened wide,
As if a cavern was suddenly hollowed;
And the Piper advanced and the children followed,
And when all were in to the very last,
The door in the mountain-side shut fast.”

This location is located on Coppenbrügge mountain and is known as an ancient site of pagan worship.[citation needed]

Allusions in linguistics

In linguistics pied-piping is the common, informal name for the ability of question words and relative pronouns to drag other words along with them when brought to the front, as part of the phenomenon called Wh-movement. For example, in "For whom are the pictures?", the word "for" is pied-piped by "whom" away from its declarative position ("The pictures are for me"), and in "The mayor, pictures of whom adorn his office walls" both words "pictures of" are pied-piped to in front of the relative pronoun, which normally starts the relative clause.

Some researchers believe that the tale has inspired the common English phrase "pay the piper", although others disagree. To "pay the piper" means to face the inevitable consequences of one's actions, possibly alluding to the story where the villagers broke their promise to pay the Piper for his assistance in ridding the town of the rats. The phrase sometimes refers to a financial transaction but often does not.

Also, some experts on pedophilia, such as Ken Lanning, in writing about the seduction of children by some pedophiles, have used the term the "Pied Piper effect" to describe a "unique ability to identify with children." [A Behavioral Profile of Pedophiles]

Contemporary renditions


  • The military interpretation of the Pied Piper story is used as a foreshadowing device in Rainbow Valley (1919) by Lucy Maud Montgomery. The story is told on two occasions by young Walter Blythe, son of Anne of Green Gables, who will later be called to fight in World War I, and fall in the Battle of the Somme (1916).
  • The Pied Piper story is heavily referenced by the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva in her poem The Ratcatcher, first published in 1925.
  • The story provides the basis for the central plot and several characters in the 1998 debut novel King Rat by China Miéville.
  • Breath by Donna Jo Napoli tells the tale from the point of view of the lame child left behind when the Piper takes the children into the mountain.
  • Eric Frank Russell's short story "The Rhythm of the Rats", published in the July 1950 issue of Weird Tales, is a retelling of the Pied Piper legend as a 20th century horror story.
  • After Hamelin by Bill Richardson is a unique story that picks up the story where Browning's poem left off. It is written in the voice of the deaf child in the poem, whom Richardson names Penelope.
  • Michael Moorcock produces his own theory of the Hamelin tale in his book, The Dreamthief's Daughter, where the cavern that the children escape into is actually a secret entrance to the Mittelmarch.
  • The Ratastrophe Catastrophe by David Lee Stone is a parody based on the Pied Piper about a boy called Diek who takes away the children of a town because a voice in his head told him to.
  • In his poem, "The One Who Stayed," Shel Silverstein tells the story of a kid who stayed behind while the rest of Hamlin's children followed the piper's song. ("Where the Sidewalk Ends")
  • In the fifth book of The Dark Tower Series, Wolves of the Calla, by Stephen King, the town robot Andy leads the children through the town playing a song, and a reference is made to the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Andy turns out to be the one helping the Wolves take the children away.
  • Terry Pratchett's The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents is a humorous take on the Pied Piper. A talking cat engineers the plagues (and subsequent removals by his sidekick piper). The story lampoons the fairy tale conventions of the original tale while providing thoughtful commentary on the motives that drive people to act as they do in the real world.
  • In 2005 , children's author Jane Yolen wrote a young adult novel about the tale: Pay the Piper, a rock and roll fairy tale.
  • In 2005, Adam McCune and Keith McCune, a father-son writing team, published The Rats of Hamelin, in which an eighteen-year-old Pied Piper faces a hidden enemy with powers like his own.
  • What Happened in Hamelin (1993) by Gloria Skurzynski is a young adult novel in which ergotism from contaminated rye crops helps explain the mystery of what happened there
  • An allusion to the folk tale appears in the poem The Drunk in the Furnace by W. S. Merwin. Children "flock like piped rats" to the noises of a drunk in a furnace while their parents are at church.
  • The Piper is also mentioned as an antagonist in Garth Nix's series, the Keys to the Kingdom.
  • In the Mary Higgins Clark novel "Two Little Girls in Blue", the main antagonist is until the end referred to as the Pied Piper, for his plot involves the kidnapping of a pair of twin children.
  • In the Diana Jo Napoli novel "Breath" the main antagonist, Sal, is the lame boy who did not catch up with the pied piper.


  • The 2006 DVD version "O Flautista", choreographer by Iolanda Rodrigues, dance show performed by CeDeCe - Companhia de Danca Contemporanea. This dvd was directed by Joao Tocha.
  • In the play The Pillowman, the main character had written a story explaining the origin of the lame child who could not follow the Piper. He claimed that it was the Piper himself who chopped off the child's toes, because the child had showed him kindness, and the Piper did not want to punish the child.
  • Mark Alburger's opera, "The Pied Piper of Hamelin" (2004), with a libretto after the Robert Browning poem, was premiered at Thick House Theater in San Francisco (2006), with the Piper in the guise of George W. Bush and the Rats as terrorists.


  • The story has been depicted many times on film: 1903, 1911, 1913, 1918, 1924, 1926, 1933, 1957, 1972, 1982 and 1985 .
  • Nevil Shute's novel Pied Piper was set in Nazi-occupied France and was only very loosely connected with the original story. It was filmed as The Pied Piper in 1942 and 1990 . The 1990 film went directly to U.S. television instead of being shown in American theatres, and was retitled Crossing to Freedom for its U.S. telecast.
  • Atom Egoyan's 1997 film The Sweet Hereafter (based on the novel by Russell Banks) makes extensive metaphorical use of the Pied Piper legend. Browning's poem forms the narration for the film, delivered by a young girl who was crippled in a school bus accident that killed all of the other children in her small Canadian town. The script adds several lines that are not in Browning's poem.
  • Katy Towell's 2006 animated short El Despertar is based on the "Pied Piper" with a Spanish, darker influence, replacing the rats with zombies.


  1. ^ Nobert Humburg, Der Rattenfänger von Hameln. Die berühmte Sagengestalt in Geschichte und Literatur, Malerei und Musik, auf der Bühne und im Film. Niemeyer, Hameln 2. ed. 1990, p. 44. ISBN 3-87585-122-6. - Jürgen Udolph, Zogen die Hamelner Aussiedler nach Mähren? Die Rattenfängersage aus namenkundlicher Sicht, in: Niedersächsisches Jahrbuch für Landesgeschichte 69 (1997), p. 125-183, here p. 126. ISSN 0078-0561
  2. ^ The website cites the Lueneberg manuscript and gives the dates 1440-1450.

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