June 26, 1284, is the traditional date given for the events that we have come to know as the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. The basic story is well-known.
There is a rat infestation in the German town of Hamelin (Hameln in German). A mysterious piper appears who offers to use his magical pipe to lure the rats from the city where they drown in a nearby river. He does so but the town burghers refuse to pay him the agreed upon fee. While the adults are at church for the religious festival of John and Paul Day, the piper returns and leads the town’s children away.
There are two different versions of what happens next. In the more macabre version, the children meet the same fate as the rats and drown in the river. Another version has the piper returning the children after the town pays his fee. And yet another has no resolution and the children remain missing.
As with many oral traditions, there is some semblance of truth to the tale but it has been enhanced over the years. The Hameln town records begin with an entry in 1384 remarking that it has been 100 years since the town’s children left. A stained glass window marking the event was installed in the town church around 1300. It was destroyed in the 1600s but there are references to the window in written accounts from the 14th and 15th Centuries.
Historians have posited various theories as to what really occurred. One theory is that the children died as a result of a plague or other illness. Another theory for which there is significant evidence suggests either a voluntary or involuntary migration to either the Baltic or Transylvania.
The historical accounts only account for the disappearance of the children. The rats and the pied piper are embellishments that are traced to the 16th Century. It is not clear as to whether these elements were added centuries after the event to explain why the children disappeared because the true cause was forgotten or suppressed. It is also possible that the rats and the pied piper were part of a separate event that was later merged into the earlier account of the missing children.
Like many German traditions, the story of the pied piper is memorialized in notgeld from Hameln. It appears on a kleingeldschein issue from 1918. There are two different serienscheine versions of the story. Portions of these are illustrated here.