A Series Examining the Legend of the Pied Piper
Catch up and read the first article, here:
- Part I: When the Devil Walks the Earth he Wears a Coat of Many Colors
- Part II: Currently Viewing
- Part III: When the Devil Walks the Earth he Wears a Coat of Many Colors
Everybody has heard the Legend of the Pied Piper: an itinerant rat-catcher is jilted by the townsfolk of Hamelin and enacts his revenge by stealing away their children. In the first part of this series we explored the legitimate historical basis for this tale and its dark spiritual overtones. Now we examine, and cross-examine the theory embraced by historians in the late 20th century.
The Historical Case for Emigration
In the late 20th century, the theory that 130 youths emigrated from Hamelin to somewhere in Eastern Europe was widely accepted. This hypothesis had its genesis in the 1950s when a considerable effort was put forth by scholars to investigate the extant evidence and establish some, if any, historicity of the legend. What they produced is an explanation that, if true, drags the fairy tale out of the clouds and back to solid ground.
Yet the fate and destination of the Hameler youths vary depending on who you ask. That they left is not an issue, simply where they got off to and who led them there remain the questions.
Also, there is nothing intrinsically sinister in the behavior of the Piper in these hypotheses. He was a recruiter who, whether by his excellent salesmanship or some good old fashioned bamboozling, got buy-in from 130 Hamelers to leave their town and settle elsewhere. Presumably the man understood the value of wearing a flashy coat and playing a catchy tune to enhance his sales pitch. Two scholars, Wolfgang Wann and Hans Dobbertin, are the primary force behind this interpretation of the Pied Piper legend. We will examine each in turn.
Wolfgang Wann’s Case for Emigration
Wann’s thesis earned him a doctorate from the University in Wurzburg in 1949. He put his skills as an archivist to use examining historical records spanning nearly four centuries (1250 A.D. – 1618 A.D.) and has determined that “certain family names are present in the town of Hamelin as well as in Moravia” (Meixner, 3).1 These families are Hamlinus, Hamler, Leist, Rike, Fargel, and Ketteler. But how did they get some 438 miles from their homes in Hamelin, Germany, to where Wann says they settled, in modern-day Czechia?
Wann zeroed in on the person of Archbishop Bruno of Olmütz, who also held the title of Count of Shaumburg in Lower Saxony and ruled before the year 1284 (3).1 The diocese of Olmütz is in Moravia. The seat of Shaumburg ancestral power is Rinteln, a town some 17 miles from Hamelin to the northwest. The man presumably had enough power to remove peasants from one locale and herd them to another. That he recruited them from Hamelin, part of the Spiegelburg county, was perhaps a mere transactional encounter whereby he obtained permission to do so. No one knows.
Wann’s theory states the Archbishop recruited the 130 youths and took them to establish a settlement near what is now Vyskov, Czechia. There was even a settlement there named Hamelingow (the Slavic name corresponding to Hamelin with the suffix -ow), which shows up on “historical maps dated before the Thirty Years War (1618-1648 A.D.)” (3).1 The settlement was abandoned sometime during that same war for unknown reasons.
Cross-Examination of Wann
It should be noted that independent of Wann, Heinrich Spanuth placed the settlers in Mähren, CZ, using similar research techniques. He also received a doctorate for his work.2
It may only be the case that these surnames, while not common in Czechia, were not unique in late 13th century Moravia due to ongoing German settlement efforts in the area. The two places, Vyskov and Mähren, are a mere 40 miles from one another.
It is accepted that recruiters in this era sometimes visited Hamelin and other towns like it (also see Dobbertin’s comments below). Wann has shown genealogical traces of this in his research. However, whether the Pied Piper’s exit from Hamelin was the result of legitimate recruitment still remains open to debate.
Open Questions for Wann
One is left to wonder why this particular episode in an ongoing settlement drive has been perpetuated generation after generation if the youths really were a simple transplant to newly open territory. If nothing sinister happened, why pass down this story to us at all? Why pay an enormous sum of money to commission a stained glass window in the town’s central church? Why perpetuate the myth in town ledgers? Can it be that the legend was born out of this great a misunderstanding of events? The fact remains that the story described by contemporaneous events is nothing like a migration.
Hans Dobbertin’s Case for Emigration
In 1984, nearing the 700 year anniversary of the Piper legend, there was much ado among scholars and in the press regarding the real historical nature of the piper. Dobbertin rose to the top of the heap, seemingly by force of volume and frequent chest-thumping, positing his own version of the emigration theory.
Dobbertin began studying the legend of the Piper in 1952. He deviates from Wann in naming a different agent who took the Hamelers to a different place. The recruiter in Dobbertin’s version is Nikolaus von Spiegelberg, and rather than taking his recruits to Czechia, he instead was on his way to Kopahn, on the north coast of Poland, some 385 miles northeast of Hamelin.
Life in Europe in those days was like your American Wild West… people were easily lured into the wilderness by nobles who promised glory and land to those willing to take up the broadsword to fight non-Christian barbarians in the name of God (Grogan).3
Having gotten his recruits, Spiegelberg started off to Kopahn. Dobbertin further speculates that,
…blocked in their eastern exodus by unfriendly armies on land, the group put to sea in the Baltic and were lost in a storm.3
Wait a second. Lost in a storm at sea? Dobbertin treats Mörsperg’s watercolor as his smoking gun in establishing the conclusion of his theory:
…it was the custom of the era to portray the souls of those lost at sea as rats in water.3
So why isn’t the story that’s been handed down for more than seven centuries been a local noble recruited 130 youths and led them to settle in a far off place but they died tragically at sea before they could reach their destination?
When pressed as to how his interpretation differs from the traditional folk tale, Dobbertin reminds us we are to
…remember that for years before printing, this entire story was perpetuated generation after generation by word of mouth. In any retelling, names and places were bound to be altered.3
Cross-Examination of Dobbertin
There are several obstacles to ignore if we want to accept Dobbertin’s theory.
Oral Tradition or not?
Dobbertin’s assertion that the pied piper legend was, for the first few generations, “perpetuated by word of mouth,” is demonstrably false. First, we have what I consider to be reliable testimony of the stained glass placed in the market church around 1300 A.D., to which the oral tradition of Hamelers conforms; this is preserved in Mörsperg’s painting. Second, Decan Lude of Hamelin owned a chorus book that preserved an eyewitness account of the piper’s procession in Latin verse, written by his grandmother. The book was lost in the late 17th century.
Inconvenient details ignored?
Dobbertin cites Mörsperg’s watercolor, specifically the detail showing the rats drowning in the river Weser, as justification for his conclusion that the emigrants drowned at sea. He completely ignores a third of the painting, that part showing the Piper leading a crowd of youths off to a nearby hill. The hill depicted comes complete with corroborating details, namely the place of execution depicted just to the left of a ravine or cleft in the rocks. This is the medieval equivalent of citing grid coordinates. The execution site is no longer functional and is a gravel quarry (Scutts, 24).4
Lack of orthography?
Citing the lack of orthography in the middle ages, Dobbertin looks far and wide for anything sounding like Koppen / Coppen / Kopahn, etc., as a final destination. He ignores the nearby hill, referred to as “the Koppen” as early as 1013 (28),4 and the town at its feet, Coppenbrügge. This seems to have been the traditional association of “Koppen” all along (Scutts, 6).5
A Voyage at Sea?
There is no evidence of a sea voyage. This carries the odor of a conclusion in search of an explanation. If the drowning rats signify death at sea, then there must have been a sea voyage involved, ergo they must have had to take to sea to complete their journey. The Kopahn in Poland is the only destination that satisfies all the above while putting the emigrants in the Baltic Sea, there to be drowned.
The River Weser as an Allegorical Motif
The idea that rats drowning in the river Weser signifies drowning at sea may stem from a complete misunderstanding of the motif of the river altogether. It is elementary to state that any painting of medieval Hamelin would be incomplete without reference to the Weser river, which still flows by the old town today. Including it is justifiable as a realistic detail. However, the artist may not have been content with realism alone. The inclusion of the apostle Peter, famously the fisher of men, casting his line fruitlessly while the Piper leads the group of rats to the river to drown them, speaks volumes. It lets us know that the tragedy of Hamelin’s children is two fold: they were misled to a dire fate on a nearby hill, and the artist believed their souls were lost as a result of it (Scutts, 23).4 Peter’s line is unburdened, the Piper’s raft is surrounded by drowning rats. No detail of this painting seems wasted, allegorically speaking. Leaping to the conclusion that drowning rats in a painting always signify souls lost at sea is narrow.
Our Verdict on Dobbertin’s analysis
Any one of these objections is problematic for Dobbertin’s theory. Taken as a whole, his ship is sunk in the harbor.
Let History be History
There is a tendency of some historians to ignore parts, or nearly all of the source material — in some cases the only material. Invariably they replace missing pieces with speculation and assumption. In the case of this legend, the logical gaps are a leap too far. This is especially true when, in many instances, we are asked to ignore entire pieces of the puzzle because someone wants to sell us on their version of history.
A charlatan in a coat of red and gold plays a song and gets our buy-in. Indeed.
Many scholars torture history until it tells them exactly what they want to hear. The practice bears the vague whiff of dishonesty, if not outright intellectual cowardice. But who can blame them? We live in a scientific world and their peers, armchair scientists themselves, demand naturalistic explanations and cute bows tied around neat and tidy stories. Legends that don’t fit the mould are sequestered from mainstream discourse until enough parts have been shaved off for them to conform. There must be no talk of magic flutes capable of luring rats and alternately, children. The devil? We dispensed with him some time ago. Extra points are awarded for negating the mysterious; certainly for demystifying the miraculous. There are PhDs to be had, after all, and one must withstand peer review. The down-stuffed pillows upon which academics rest their heads don’t stuff themselves.
The reader will remember that the version of this story being addressed does not require magic flutes. We examine the pre-Browning and pre-Disney era of this legend, and aren’t confusing the Piper as someone with magic at his fingertips. There is no need for the banal wand of naturalism to do its work. In the two theories examined above, there is an active bias toward mundane explanations, as if we can dispel the existential hangover of this legend simply by tying up one or two loose ends and ignoring the ugly remainder.
However many details a historian ignores they must then insert speculation and assumption. This is still called scholarship when humility demands it be rated no higher than imagination. If imagination, then we must judge it along the lines of coherence, and if that fails, at least let it be entertaining. If we are not even entertained, it is of dubious value. Unless, of course, that’s how your pillow gets its stuffing. Then it’s called a livelihood.
Orthography is a Double-Edged Sword
Koppen is the location name in question. Historians, particularly Dobbertin, point to a lack of conventional spelling in written German in 1284 as license to search far and wide for anything that phonetically sounds like Koppen. Hence Kopahn in Poland. “Dobbertin also postulated locations in Brandenburg and elsewhere comprising the word Coppen” (Scutts, 24).5
German spelling conventions were standardized nation wide in 1871 with the establishment of a compulsory education system. In the preceding centuries, independent states were left to their own devices, and in the middle ages there were only a few scattered examples of standardization — a handful of monks and at least one royal dynasty– none of which took hold.6
We recall the inscription on the Rattenfängerhaus:
In the year 1284 on the day of John and Paul, the 26th of June, 130 children born in Hamelin were led away by a piper dressed in many coloured clothes to Calvary close to the Koppen and were there lost.
After all, the Koppen is Nearby
A chronicler from the German town of Bamburg, in 1553, indicated the hill in question was “approximately a rifle shot away” from Hamelin.7 The chronicler’s ability to exceed the current world record for long-range sniper fire will not be addressed here — again, the hill is almost 9 miles away. At any rate, we can infer he meant it’s right over there within line-of-sight.
Other questions remain. Why would historians look to Poland or Czechia when just east of Hamelin a hill stands with the very name Koppen, the same hill which was reputed as such from the very beginning? The town at the Koppen’s feet is Coppenbrügge. It’s within walking distance, some nine miles to the east, of the Rattenfängerhaus and the Bungelosenstraße (street without drums). The Mörsperg watercolor clearly shows the kids being led out of the city to this nearby hill by the Piper, complete with the execution site mentioned above. How has this been overlooked? Why was this location discarded in favor of others? Why is the original legend cast off in favor of more complicated and flimsy explanations when it is so simple it can be summed up in the medieval equivalent of a Tweet? What if the original stained glass was presented in the form of a medieval allegory precisely so future generations, regardless of whether they could read or which language they spoke, could understand what happened? Why do modern historians refuse to accept the ugly possibility that Hamelers have been right all along?
What if the original legend is actually the truth?
The Trail we will Follow
If you look at a map today, Hamelin is ringed by highways where it once had city walls. At the very eastern edge of the town is the Rattenfängerhaus, and if you’re facing it, turn left… to the east. There is a hill in view that has gone by different names over the centuries, but is referred to as early as 1013 A.D. in a land deed as “the Koppanberg,” but today is called the Oberberg (Scutts, 28).4
In 1284, 130 children disappeared there.
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- Meixner, Erich, "The Pied Piper of Hamelin.". Accessed May 14, 2018.
- LEGION OF LEGENDS, "Pied Piper Legend – Rattenfängerlegende.">/a>. Accessed May 14, 2018.
- Grogan, David, "Hans Dobbertin Smells a Rat in the 700-Year-Old Legend of the Pied Piper of Hameln." People Magazine, June 11, 1984.
- Scutts, Julian, Dracula, the Pied Piper & Co. and the Question of Evil in the World. lulu.com press, 2017.
- Scutts, Julian, and Holland-Laurentius, John. "Textual Sources of the Pied Piper Story".
- Wikipedia, "German Orthography". Accessed May 14, 2018.
- MEDIEVALISTS.NET, "The Pied Piper of Hamelin: A Medieval Mass Abduction?" Accessed May 26, 2018.