The Folk-Lore Journal/Volume 2/The Pied Piper of Hamelin

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949033The Folk-Lore Journal, Volume 2 — The Pied Piper of HamelinEmma S. Buchheim


By Emma S. Buchheim.

TT has of late become the fashion to celebrate the anniversaiy of any important historical or legendary event, and the people of Hamelin, not to be outdone, intend this year to celebrate the memory of one of the darkest days in their annals. On the 26th of June it will be six hundred years since, according to a legend made popular in England by Browning's well-known poem, "The Pied Piper of Hamelin," the injured rat-catcher led away the children of the town, thereby causing much grief to their parents and much perplexity to historians. As public attention is thus called to the legend it may not be uninteresting to English readers to learn the results of recent investigations undertaken in Germany by several scholars, more especially by Dr. Otto Meinardus, in a treatise entitled Der historische Kern der Hameler Rattenfängersage, and by Herr M. Busch in the Grenzboten, with a view to ascertaining whether or no the legend rests on an historical basis.

The Piper and the rats have always been considered an essential part of the story. It seems impossible that the man on whom we have always looked as the cause of the catastrophe should in reality be only a secondary personage; but on turning to what is considered the earliest record of the tragedy of Hamelin we find it is merely to the effect "that on the 26th of June, 1284, one hundred and thirty children vanished into Mount Calvary," afterwards called the "Koppelberg." There is no doubt whatever that the above record was made a long time after the occurrence of the event, for the mystical element has already made its appearance in the statement that the children disappeared into the mountain. The entries concerning the Piper do not occur till some years after the first record was made, and the rats are not mentioned at all in the archives of the town. We are then not unjustified in taking for granted that, if any part of the story is true, it is the disappearance of the children, and that the Piper, the scourge of the rats, and the broken treaty, were added to account for a fact whose real cause was long since forgotten.

We will first see whether any satisfactory explanation presents itself of that part of the story which we have already relegated to the rank of fable, and here we find that the Piper who by means of his music destroys obnoxious animals is not the sole property of the people of Hamelin. Like Wilhelm Tell he is common property in the realm of fiction. It is not only that the Piper recalls the malicious gnomes and elves who delight to steal children, or that his gay costume reminds us of the love these creatures have for bright-coloured cloth, he has his actual counterpart in the legends of other countries. In France there is a story of a monk who freed a town from a plague of rats. The people withheld the promised reward, and with the help of his horn the monk led away their cattle and their domestic animals. In Ireland we actually meet with a legend of a bagpipe-player who decoyed a number of young people in the same manner that the ratcatcher of Hamelin led away the children. In many Teutonic myths we find that the soul leaves the body in the shape of a mouse, and it has occurred to one writer that the Piper is the god of death of the Aryan races, who is followed by the souls of the dead, represented in the legend as rats. Without going so far as to look upon the whole legend as a new form of the dance of death, we may consider that the musician whose magical attributes give him power over man and beast belongs to the same category as elves, gnomes, and other mythical creatures, who love to mislead human beings. We shall presently see how he came to be connected with our legend.

As regards the historical basis of the tale some historians endeavoured to bring it in connection with a battle fought in 1259 or 1260 between the Bishop of Minden and the people of Hamelin at Sedemunde. The latter were defeated, and a number of them having been taken prisoners they were led away, "disappearing behind the mountains," and returning after some time by the roundabout way of Transylvania. There are two objections to this explanation which has found very general acceptance. The dates of the two occurrences do not coincide, and the battle has been fully described in the chronicles. It is scarcely probable that an event so well remembered as the battle of Sedemunde should have given rise to a distinct legend. It seems therefore that we must seek for another interpretation of the legend, and this is to be found by connecting it with the strange psychological epidemic which prevailed to such an alarming extent in the Middle Ages, namely, the dancing mania. Men, women, and children, seized by this disease, danced till they fell down utterly exhausted. Then they slept, and awoke refreshed. The disease was epidemic; sometimes the crowd numbered from 500 to 1000 dancers who did not always remain in one place, but wandered dancing from town to town. They were much excited by music, and the authorities sometimes hired musicians in order that they might hasten the exhaustion which preceded the healing sleep. Though the disease did not attain its full height till some centuries after the date ascribed to the Hamelin incident, we know that it had already broken out. In 1237 the young people of Erfurt were attacked, left their homes, and were found again at Arnstadt, where they had fallen down in the streets worn out by their exertions. May not a similar occurence have led to the loss of the children of Hamelin? It seems that these dancers were called "Dancers of St. John" (Johannes tänzer). From the 24th to the 26th of June the Midsummer festivals were held, at which many of the ancient heathen customs were carried out. Wild dances formed an essential part of the festival, for whoever danced through a burning fire was free from illness for that year. Such occasions as these might easily give rise to the dreaded epidemic, and hence probably the name "Dancers of St. John." We must remember that it was on the 26th of June, the last day of the Midsummer festival, that the children of Hamelin vanished. Is it not probable that the youth of the town were celebrating the festival, and that musicians were among them? Whether the mania originally began at Hamelin, or whether dancers from other districts infected the people of that town, is difficult to decide. We will assume that they were infected, and that, headed by a musician wearing the gay dress of his class, the young inhabitants of Hamelin began their journey, and disappeared from sight behind the Koppelberg. The story of the Erfurt children leads us to think that the Hamelin children in their wanderings may have gone to a distant place fixed by popular fancy in Transylvania, and have been brought back from there. When the old chronicler subsequently wrote down the brief record of what had taken place the children were said to have disappeared not behind but into the mountain. Beside such a wonder other circumstances seemed trivial indeed in the eyes of the people; it was impossible that such a simple thing as dancing should lead to such a catastrophe. How was it brought about? The Piper who led the crowd became the cause of the tragedy, the vague memory of myths and traditions came to the aid of the people; the Piper became a man with magic powers who revenged himself on the people of Hamelin when they refused to give him his promised reward, and the legend assumed the shape in which it has come down to us.

June 20th, 1884.