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Towards Deciphering an Enigma The Pied Piper of Hamelin

by Julian Scutts

‘Curiosity killed the cat,’ so the saying goes. On the other hand curiosity spurs the quest for new knowledge, dynamic research and beneficial advances on many fronts where apparently trivial things can awaken curiosity even in the greatest of minds, the fall of an apple, water overflowing from a bathtub and noticing changes in substances left in the wrong place, these and other less sensational surprises have produced informed estimates that a goodly proportion of all inventions is at least the partial result of serendipity. Perhaps the phenomenon in question includes factors that set individuals on lifelong voyages of discovery and exploration perhaps in pursuit of unravelling some enigma or contending with some burning issue, whether philosophical, religious or aesthetic. I trace such a development in my bid to make sense of the Pied Piper of Hamelin as a figure that has produced vast ramifications in history, art and psychology.

Even as a child I relished Robert Browning’s ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin,’  a ‘child’s story’ after all, and felt entranced by its verve, its boisterousness  the  lyricism of the lame boy’s evocation of a promised land where bees had lost their stings and everything was fair and the fun tangent of a rat’s dream of a paradise for gluttons. I was not troubled by any hints of anything all too sinister or threatening. When I returned to poem in adulthood I came to regard the story of the Piper in a more subdued light under the influence of a great poet as different from Browning as different can be, or so I thought, and one to whom I was led by a very circuitous path. I came across lines in ‘Fern Hill,’ surely one of Dylan Thomas’s most cherished and famous poems, which made me see a poem with which I thought I was on familiar terms in an entirely fresh light. I recognized in ‘Time’ a  personification akin to the Pied Piper, for he led the children 'green and golden' 'out of grace by the mercy of his means.' In passing I venture to interpolate this comment: there is a difference between reading a poem and reading a piece of non-literary prose, say, a newspaper article. While one might well say ‘I read an interesting article’ the other day', a statement such 'I read an interesting poem last week' offends the ear as   the reading a poem knows no endpoint or closure. I reflected on the jaunty tone of Browning’s famous ditty and the strange mix of   lugubrious and elated tones emanating  from 'Fern Hill.' The transition from a state of childhood innocence to that of adulthood and a state of lost innocence inevitably brings the pain of a traumatic severance and yet by his ‘tuneful turnings’ the Piper eases that pain’s intensity ‘by the mercy of his means’ as might a soporific or anesthetic in a mundane medical context. I then came to realize that seriousness and an unsettling ambiguity inhered in the symbolic figure of Piper per se, even when set in Browning’s ditty, for Browning’s poetry is generally noted for its power to reveal the depths of his philosophic, religious and aesthetic concerns. Nor should we overlook the fact that by the mid-sixteenth century the figure of the Pied Piper had morphed into the leader of the so-called ‘dance of death.’ {See Secret Browning under ‘Books” below). Browning destroyed nearly all traces of his earliest verses written when he was a teenager but those which accidently survived his destructive hand reveal an obsession with the macabre themes of horrible afflictions suffered by the young, the plague and the death of the firstborn in the Bible in poems couched very much in Byron's style. In fact his private tutor in song and music was none other than Sir Isaac Nathan, who prompted Byron to compose the Hebrew Melodies. Ultimately his 'The Pied Piper of Hamelin' presents a sublimation of earlier dreads and fears in the form of a religious allegory that transfigures  the Piper into a Moses, or even Jesus Christ. We should not miss the irony implicit in the mayor of Hamelin's taunting words: 'What's dead can't come to life, I think.''


Three avenues are open to the diligent researcher, which I name ‘documentation,’ ‘field work’ and following E. M. Forster's dictum: Only connect.  There follows a brief summary or overview of the subject matter to be delved into and this will introduce articles and essays that, metaphorically speaking, will add flesh and blood to the bare bones of a very tentative outline.


Film material: (in German)

Covert connections between the 26th of June - along with other dates in the Church calendar - and the Pied Piper of Hamelin

On the 26th of June in the year 363 AD the Roman emperor Julian was fatally wounded by a projectile during his ill-fated war against Parthia. Let us briefly consider the events that led to his death and why the date of his death finds a place in the annals of the Church in connection with the story of the Pied Piper.

Like Trajan before him he aspired to follow the lead of Alexander the Great and conquer Persia, maybe India too. Trajan, in his seventies, had to accept that for him it was too late to undertake so great a mission. Julian at thirty, about the same age as Alexander when he invaded Persia, launched a massive invasion of Parthia  a mere one year and a half into his reign. Julian, a nephew of Constantine the Great, had proven his mastery of the battle field in his defense of eastern Gaul against invading barbarians while his cousin was still ruling as emperor.

The objective of the expedition was to besiege and capture the Parthian capital Ctesiphon (located near the site of ancient Babylon and present-day Baghdad) and oust the Parthian king Shapur II from power. His army of about 100.000 soldiers had the advantage of being backed up by a strong naval fleet which was able to make its way towards Ctesiphon on rivers and waterways that lay between Julian’s Roman base and the Parthian capital. Julian’s army prevailed in bloody engagements with the enemy, though at a heavy price and all seemed to be set for a capture of the Parthian capital. However, Julian was disconcerted by two adverse developments. A second supporting army that was supposed to join forces with Julian’s army at the time of the siege of Ctesiphon failed to show up. Furthermore Shapur, the elusive Parthian leader, kept his movements and dispositions hidden from the Romans, thus engendering the fear in Julian’s mind that he could launch a stealthy attack at any given moment.

. 0ut of the blue Julian made an astounding and fateful decision - to destroy his entire fleet ostensibly to prevent it from falling into enemy hands. Even at this stage Shapur was willing to make concessions to Julian in a peace agreement and the retention of Julian’s navy would have served as a weighty bargaining counter. Without the support of waterborne supplies the danger of complete isolation loomed large. Why then did Julian make this illogical move? Was he inspired by the example set by Alexander the Great, no less, when he ordered the destruction of the boats that allowed him and his men to reach Anatolia on their way to the Persian heartland? The annals of history include the story of the occasion when Cortez destroyed the ships that had brought his men and himself to the shores of Mexico, a no uncertain indication that for the Spaniards there was no turning back. Neither was there for Julian after the destruction of his fleet, but in his case there was no road forward either. He was soon disabused of any hope of lunging into the Parthian interior not least by mosquitoes, sandflies and the oppressive heat of a pitiless sun. Thus he was forced to attempt to lead his army back home through hostile territory to the east of Ctesiphon. Straggling Roman columns trying to advance through hostile unfamiliar terrain can easily come a cropper as the story of Varus and his legions shows all too clearly. The Parthians attacked the Roman vanguard and then the rearguard, forcing Julian to hasten back without even donning his full array of armour. He pushed the Parthians back in a heroic last stand but fell from his horse then a spear or dart penetrate his ribcage. He died toward midnight before finally admitting to his most formidable adversary: ‘You win, Galilean!’

Julian was the only Roman emperor to attempt to declassify Christianity as one of Rome’s legitimate or state-protected religions and was designated the ‘the Apostate by the Catholic Church. To disparage his memory further he was accused of enforcing the execution of John and Paul, brothers and formerly soldiers of renown who had decided to devote their lives to the service of Christianity. According to one account they were executed on the 26 of June but it was not certain in which year. How so? In 361 Julian did not become emperor until November. He himself died on this date in 363. This leaves the 26th of June as the only possible alternative. A strange coincidence indeed that the execution of the martyrs and Julian’ s death should occur on the same date. Such quirks do happen in the annals of history, but historians admit that the exact date of the martyrs’ execution is not known and therefore the link between the 26 of June and the martyrdom of John and Paul resulted from a conflation of the 26 of June, the known date of Julian’s death, and the execution of two martyrs who died at some time during Julian’s. reign.

It was on the 26th of June in 1284 on the day of John and Paul, that a piper clad in many colours led away 130 children from Hamelin to ‘Calvary,’ where they were lost, so we read the inscription that sparked the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. It is generally accepted that the account finds its origin in an attempt by Count Nicholas von Spiegelberg to eliminate pagan midsummer dancing celebrations performed in the region of Hamelin. That fits! Saints in the Catholic tradition preside over some aspect of human life and in the case of John and Paul this was evidently the spiritual war against apostasy in all its various forms. In the course of time the core of the first narrative gave rise to new narratives that incorporated new material. Rats, recalling the dreaded carriers of the plague entered the scene in the sixteenth century and some versions interpreted the Pied Piper as the devil. The Piper was an ambivalent figure to begin with. He may have begun as an agent in a crusade against heresy but in certain narratives ended as a personification of the seductive power of heresy itself.

In some narratives the Piper made his appearance on the twenty-second of July, the day of Mary Magdalene in the Church calendar, posing an alternative to the 26th of June dedicated to the martyrs Paul and John. However, the 26th of June creeps back into a new association with the Pied Piper if we accept the premise of A. P. Rossiter that the theme of the dance of death, interfused with the story of the Pied Piper, permeates Richard the Third by William Shakespeare. Richard staged his coup on 26th of June and Richard swore an oath in the name of ‘Paul’ on several occasions. The abduction the young princes is in tune with the message conveyed by the Piper’s sinister dealings with children and  Clarence’s nightmare with its horrific anticipation of his drowning accords with the lethal aspect of the river Weser in the tale of the Pied Piper, this term finding its origin in the first rendition in English of the German legend, Richard Verstegan’s tale of ‘the pide piper’ that was published in 1605. Well before this date the participation of English ‘comedian actors’ in German theatrical events promoted a cultural interchange that gave rise to Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus. Up to the seventeenth century the various versions of the Pied Piper theme retained at least formally the character of a chronicle with a didactic or allegorical implication, sometimes warning of the devil’s insidious powers of influence, sometimes admonishing acts of cheating and breaking promises. From the age of Goethe and the Romantic poets the legend was treated with a much more liberal hand. In Goethe’s poem that opens with the line ‘Ich bin der wohlbekannte Saenger,’ the rat-catcher, who in this case plays a stringed instrument, is shown to evince an irresistible attraction to girls and women in line with modern theories concerning the power of the libido. The Grimm brothers viewed the legend scientifically as an expression of its folkloric importance. In his historical novel Chronique du temps de Charles IX (1820), Prosper Merimee incorporated the story of the evil piper within the body of an account of events that took place in France during the war of religion that culminated in the massacre of Huguenots on the Eve of Saint Bartholomew’s Day in 1572. Mila, a young gypsy woman, recounts a version of the legend where the piper appears in the guise of the devil as the author of destruction. In so doing she conjures up an omen of the grisly fate that awaits the Huguenots in Paris. Do we here discern an echo of the earliest version of legend that according to certain scholars could well[U1]  recall the act of suppressing pagan or heretical practices on a date noted as a saints day in the annual calendar of the Church? The watercolour shown below also allows us to explore the connection between the original terse account of the piper’s abduction of Hamelin’s children and the legend’s subsequent evolution.



In 1592  Alexander von Moersperg, an artist motivated by an antiquarian interest in features he encountered during his travels, painted this watercolour, itself a copy of a stained glass window in the parish church of Hamelin, a window that unfortunately was lost to posterity as the result of an accident. He three stags we see in the lower half of the picture must pose a coded reference to Nicholas von Spiegelberg and his two brothers who according to a long tradition suppressed pagan celebrations in which young people from Hamelin participated. The Piper looms large on the left side of the picture, a pointer to his ‘sinister’ character in the view of a Gernot Huesam, a local scholar with a close interest in the Pied Piper’s historical background. In a detail in the upper section of the picture the Piper leads the children past ‘Calvary,’ a place of execution and torture, towards the mouth of a great cave. Calvary to the medieval mind represented the mouth of hell to which sinners and heretics were relegated. The small figure situated in the lower right section represents the Apostle Peter, the fisher of souls, as he attempts to save the souls of the children from perdition. Some hold the view that the picture copied from the church window dates from 1300. Why would the bearers of the written accounts until the sixteenth century not have known of, or ignored, the rats depicted in the picture? Besides, who would have dared to advertise any connection between the alleged murderous actions of the Spiegelberg brothers to the surviving parents of the lost children? Perhaps the question is of ‘academic interest’ only as the later versions in written accounts and the events depicted by Moersperg converge anyway.

If Robert Brown was  acquainted with Merimee’s treatment of the Pied Piper in his novel, which is a reasonable assumption, he may have been prompted to cast him as gypsy-like figure in his coat of red and yellow and the insertion of the description of a rat ‘as fat as Julius Caesar‘ finds a parallel in the one rat who almost escaped from the river Weser. However, the Piper in Browning’s poem, far from being the devil, represents a power for salvation and ‘Calvary’ becomes the Calvary of the gospels.


Essays and Articles to be added.


Hamelin Revisited

An Interview with Herr Gernot Huesam, Former Director of the Burgmuseum in Coppenbruegge near Hameln (translated from the German original script)




Secret Browning:

In Pursuit of Verbal Clues Detected in the Body of Literature

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