The year was 1284, and the town of Hamelin in Lower Saxony, Germany, was besieged by a plague of rats. The despairing townsfolk offered a sizeable reward to anyone who could rid them of these rodents. One day a stranger arrived, dressed in garish two-tone attire, and by skilful playing of his musical pipe he lured the rats into the river Weser, where they all drowned. However, the ungrateful people refused to pay him his reward, so the piper began to play again, but this time it was not the rats but the town’s own children who were called forth. Still playing, the sinister piper led 130 of them away, eastward out of Hamelin and on towards a hill called Koppen, which opened as they approached and closed up again when they had entered. Neither the piper nor the children were ever seen again.
There are many historians, especially in Germany, who believe that this famous fairy tale has a firm basis in fact. In Hamelin itself is a street called Bungelosen Strasse. This is the street through which the children supposedly ran when called by the piper’s bewitching music, ever since, it has been forbidden by law to play any form of music here. It also bears an inscription recalling the piper’s dreadful deed and fixing its date as 26 June 1284.
In 1982, Maurice Shadbolt revealed how, while investigating the pied piper myth at Hamelin, he visited the home of retired schoolteacher Hans Dobbertin, who has spent much of his life attempting to trace Hamelin’s lost children and is now certain of their true fate. Dobbertin’s theory hinges upon the key fact that in medieval times, German colonization of eastern territories was greatly encouraged, not only because they were eminently suitable for settlement, but also because their Slav and Hungarian overlords needed all the help they could obtain to prevent their lands from being overrun by the savage Tartars.
According to Dobbertin, the vanishing pied piper was most probably count Nicholas von Spiegelberg, a German colonizer with longstanding connections in the Hamelin area. As for Hamelin’s lost children, Dobbertin and Shadbolt consider it much more likely that these were actually a group of disaffected teenagers, out of work and eager to make a new start elsewhere, who were encouraged by Spiegelberg to seek their fortune in the east of the country.
Dobbertin believes that Spiegelberg and the children journeyed north-east, eventually boarding a ship that sank, drowning everyone aboard, near a Pomeranian coastal village called Kopahn, now contained within Poland. He considers that over the course of several centuries, the name Kopahn became confused with that of Koppen, the hill beyond Hamelin.
Spiegelberg was last seen on 8 July 1284, at the Baltic port of Stettin, several days’ journey from Hamelin. Of particular note is that Stettin, like Kopahn, was a port along the route habitually taken by German colonizers travelling to the Baltic regions. Even the piper’s pied attire recalls the ornate outfits worn by German nobleman like Spiegelberg.
But what of the earlier portion of the legend, in which the piper rids Hamelin of its rats? Shadbolt believes this to be an entirely separate event. HE claims that it was merely an example of rat removal involving the play of a high pitched tin whistle of the type frequently used for this purpose by English rat catchers; this was later erroneously tagged on to the tragic deaths of the town’s teenagers when their ship sank near Kopahn. As a result, a wholly new story was created whose strange qualities have persisted long after the more prosaic reality had been forgotten.
Interestingly, a similar theory has been outlined by various other historians, but nominating Bishop Bruno of Olmutz as the piper figure, anxious to obtain colonizers for his diocese in Bohemia. They point out the many similarities in family names between the town records of Olomouc and Hamelin.