Robert Browning’s poem, The Pied Piper of Hamelin is based on an old German legend translated into English in 1605 by Richard Verstegan. In Verstegan’s story, an odd-looking man “who for the fantastical cote which he wore being wrought with sundry colours, was called the pyed pyper” came to Hameln and, for an agreed price, offered to rid the town of rats. He “went pyping through the streets, and forthwith the rates cam all running out;” he then led them to the River Weser, where they drowned.
When the piper asked for his reward, the burghers of Hameln went back on their word and refused to pay him. So the piper played once again and this time called to the town’s children to follow him. Outside the town a door opened in the hillside, revealing a large cavern. After the piper had led the children through the door, it closed behind them and melted from view.
A lame boy who could not keep up with the others took back the news, but the lost children were neither seen nor heard of again. According to Verstegan, this happened on 22 July 1376. But a fourteenth-century account gives the date as 26 June 1284 and the number of stolen children as either 130 or 150.
Attempts to explain the legend include floods, plagues, ritual murder, dance mania and a children’s crusade that moved through the area in the thirteenth century. The most convincing explanation so far lies in the fact that Bishop Bruno of Olmutz (now called Olomouc) sent agents into the region to recruit colonists for his diocese in Bohemia. There is a startling similarity between family names in the town records of Olomouc and Hameln, which suggests that Hameln was one of the places where recruiting was successful.
The piper adds a supernatural dimension to the story, for rat-catchers were credited with the ability to charm rats away by piping, fiddling, or reciting incantations. A concealed hillside door that opens and closes takes the story into European mythology. It was long thought that the otherworld lay inside such hills. In Wagner’s Tannhauser this is portrayed as the pagan kingdom of Venus, and in folklore generally as the land of the fairies, who were notorious for stealing children. Over the years the people of Hameln may have come to believe that their lost children were taken by otherworld beings.