The town of Hameln is known in Germany and England for a dubious character who once spirited away its rats and its children.
The Victorian poet Robert Browning told the tale in “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”, which begins:
“Hamelin Town’s in Brunswick,
By famous Hanover city;
The river Weser, deep and wide,
Washes its wall on the southern side;
A pleasanter spot you never spied;
But, when begins my ditty,
Almost five hundred years ago,
To see the townsfolk suffer so
From vermin, was a pity.”
A stained-glass window in Hameln Church dating from around 1300 was the earliest reference to the pied piper legend. Destroyed in 1660, the window commemorated an event noted in the town chronicles in an entry from 1384, which says: “It is 100 years since our children left.” Research has failed to explain with any certainty what took place, although it seems that rats were only added to the story in a version from around 1559. They are absent from earlier accounts.
In 1803, the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote a poem based on the story, later set to music by Hugo Wolf. The Brothers Grimm included the tale in their collection of Deutsche Sagen, first published in 1816. According to them, when the Pied Piper spirited the children away, two were left behind: one blind and the other lame so neither could follow the others. Robert Browning wrote his poem based on a 1605 account by the English writer Richard Verstegan. It appeared in Browning’s Dramatic Lyrics (1842) and is notable for its wry humour and wordplay.
The story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin has been explained by suggesting that the children died of a natural cause such as disease or starvation and that the piper is simply an allegory of Death. Another scenario has the Hameln children being lured away by a pagan sect to the forest where they all perished during a sudden landslide or collapsed sinkhole.
Most recently, it has been suggested that the children were sold to a recruiter from the Baltic region of Eastern Europe, a practice not uncommon at the time. In her essay “Pied Piper Revisited”, theologian and writer Sheila Harty revealed that surnames from that region are very similar to those from Hameln and that the most likely explanation is selling off illegitimate children and orphans that the town could not support. She suggests that this may account for the lack of detailed records in the town chronicles as well as the memorial window in the church.
Today, the town of Hameln depends on its infamous legend to attract thousands of tourists to wander its pristine medieval streets in the hope of catching a glimpse if not of rats then of the mysterious piper.