Jun 262015


Today is Ratcatcher’s Day in Hamelin for slightly complicated reasons. 26th June is the feast day of the Roman martyrs SS John and Paul (not the Biblical saints). The Lueneberg manuscript (c. 1440–1450) mentions the day of John and Paul in an early German account of the Pied Piper of Hamelin:

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.

The lives of the saints have no connexion with the piper or Hamelin other than the dating, so we need not dwell on them. Let’s turn to the piper instead.


I’m sure many people in the English-speaking world know of the legend of the Pied Piper from Robert Browning’s poem which can be found here,


However, the tale of the Pied Piper is very old and exists in numerous variants. The earliest references describe a piper, dressed in multicolored (“pied”) clothing, leading Hamelin’s children away from the town never to return. No mention is made of rats. In the 16th century the story was embellished into a full narrative, in which the piper is a rat-catcher hired by the town to lure rats away with his magic pipe. When the citizens refuse to pay for this service, he retaliates by turning his power that he put in his instrument on their children, leading them away as he had the rats. This version of the story spread as folklore and has also appeared in the writings of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the Brothers Grimm, as well as Browning, and others. The Grimms’ version is here: http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/hameln.html#grimm245

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 and 17th centuries. It was destroyed in 1660. Based on the surviving descriptions, a modern reconstruction of the window has been created by historian 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 town. Also, Hamelin town records start with this event. The earliest written record is from the town chronicles in an entry from 1384 which states: “It is 100 years since our children left.” Although research has been conducted for centuries, no explanation for the historical event is universally accepted as true. In any case, the rats were first added to the story in a version from c. 1559 and are absent from earlier accounts.

Decan Lude of Hamelin was reported, c. 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 in the late 17th century. The odd-looking name ‘Decan Lude’ may possibly indicate a priest holding the position of Dean (Latin: decanus, modern German: Dekan or Dechant) whose name was Ludwig; but as yet he has proved impossible to trace.

The Lueneburg manuscript, already quoted, is the next reference. This appears to be the oldest surviving account. Koppen (High German Kuppe, meaning a knoll or domed hill) seems to be a reference to one of several hills surrounding Hamelin. Which of them was intended by the verse’s author remains uncertain.

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.

Somewhere between 1559 and 1565, Count Froben Christoph von Zimmern included a version in his Zimmerische Chronik. This appears to be the earliest account which mentions the plague of rats. Von Zimmern dates the event only as ‘several hundred years ago’ (vor etlichen hundert jarn [sic]).

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); he does not give his source. (It is unlikely to have been von Zimmern, since his manuscript chronicle was not discovered until 1776.) Verstegan includes the reference to the rats and the idea that the lost children turned up in Transylvania. The phrase ‘Pide Piper’ occurs in his version and seems to have been coined by him. Curiously enough his date is entirely different from that given above: 22 July 1376; this may suggest that two events, a migration in 1284 and a plague of rats in 1376, had become fused together.

The story is given, with a different date, in Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy of 1621, where it is used as an example of supernatural forces: ‘At Hammel in Saxony, ann. 1484, 20 Junii, the devil, in likeness of a pied piper, carried away 130 children that were never after seen.’ He does not give his immediate source.

Verstegan’s account was copied in Nathaniel Wanley’s Wonders of the Little World (1687), which was the immediate source of Robert Browning’s poem. 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”.

An excellent discussion of the historic texts can be found here with full versions of many of them, http://www.academia.edu/7062392/Documentary_Time_Line_of_Versions_of_the_Pied_Piper_Legend

So . . . today is Ratcatcher’s Day in Hamelin. The town chose this date over others because it is cited by the Grimms.


I had thought of including a recipe for rat, mainly because rat meat is quite plentiful in parts of Asia, notably Cambodia where they trap rats in the rice paddies and ship them to neighboring countries, including my part of the world. They are not legal for human consumption here, and there have been recent scandals involving butchers and restaurants selling rat as mutton. I’m pretty sure I’ve eaten it at street barbecues although it’s hard to know. The meat is chunked up and skewered, so it could be anything. I’ve certainly eaten meats that were strange looking and tasted nothing like pork, beef, or mutton.


Anyway, I will pass over rat in favor of a Lower Saxony (where Hamelin is located) specialty: labskaus. Although the word sounds like the English “lobscouse,” the dishes are not related. Labskaus is a favorite of mine, being related to the U.S. corned beef hash and eggs. You mince up boiled corned or salted beef, and then fry it in lard with chopped onions and mashed potatoes until lightly browned. Serve it with a fried egg on top and a side dish of pickled herring, pickled gherkin, and beetroot. Top 5 breakfast for me. I add hot sauce, which I like, but is not traditional.