Of Rats, Pipers & Joy

Today is Rat Catcher’s Day in Hamelin, Germany, commemorating the day in 1284 on which the town’s children danced to their deaths, lured there by the Pied Piper. There is fragmentary evidence that the event indeed occurred; if it began as “collective joy,” says Barbara Ehrenreich in Dancing in the Streets, it is part of a long, regrettably fading tradition.

The how and why of the Hamelin story depend on which fairy tale, poem, play, film, song, historian, or physician you consult. The oldest documentary evidence is a note in Latin, written 150 years after the fact, although possibly earlier sources include a stained glass window with an inscription describing how there “came a colorful piper to Hamelin and led 130 children away to calverie on the koppen mountain.” Perhaps the piper was indeed a Rattenfänger, come to help the town with its rodents. Perhaps the children were infected by the plague or by St. Vitus’ Dance (Sydenham’s chorea) and enticed to a mass grave by a musician dressed in pied (colorful) clothing. Perhaps they were conscripted for the Crusades or to be settlers; perhaps they had ergot poisoning (the fungus, found on rye and other grasses, affects neurotransmission); perhaps they were destroyed by natural disaster or accident while participating in midsummer celebrations.

One theory interprets “children” to mean merely the citizens or offspring of the town and links the Hamelin tragedy to the mass dancing hysteria that periodically swept northern Europe in the Middle Ages. Whether a desire to escape boredom, hardship, or oppression, these dancing “plagues” could be protest-based — “flamboyant forms of what might be called ecstatic dissent,” says Ehrenreich. In any case, the dancing is well documented, some accounts indicating that the authorities, hoping to contain or dissipate the activity, even encouraged it — paid the piper in order to call (and call off) the tune.

Ehrenreich concludes that “the capacity for collective joy is encoded into us” and laments that the prospects for a widespread revival, at least in spontaneous forms, are slim.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.