Twist in the tale of Pied Piper's kidnapping

Imre Karacs
Tuesday 27 January 1998 00:02

The rats were gone, the rat-catcher returned to Hamelin to claim his wages, but the tight-fisted townsfolk would not pay up. Everyone who has read the Grimm brothers' fairy tales knows what happened next. The Pied Piper played a tune so enchanting as to lure all the children out of their homes.

Thus were they led, in the year of 1284, out of Hamelin, into the mountains and beyond. The mean parents never saw their offspring again. Only two of the children returned, and they could shed no light on the mystery. Moral: never cheat a rat-catcher.

That is where the tale ended, until now. In this revisionist age someone was bound to add a new twist to the legend. Previous research had placed the children variously in Transylvania or Moravia.

Good idea, but wrong country, argues the latest in the long line of German scholars who have devoted their careers to the quest. The children of Hamelin, Professor Jurgen Udolph says, lived happily ever after in what is today's east Germany and Poland.

Professor Udolph, who teaches linguistics at the same University of Gottingen where the Grimm brothers used to lecture, made his discovery while studying place names. Migrants, he says, tend to name their new settlements after their favourite hills and meadows back home.

Sifting through the atlas, he found various versions of "Hameln", as the town is known in German, in areas colonised by Germans in the 13th century. Even today, there are little Hamelns in thePriegnitz and Uckermark, north of Berlin, and in the vicinity of Stargard, which now lies in Poland.

The children, Professor Udolph says, were in fact young adults, hired by landlords in the east for their skills. After the defeat of the Danes in 1227, the area then inhabited by Slavs became ripe for conquest. Around the time of the Hamelin legend hundreds of thousands of young Germans were migrating from Lower Saxony and Westphalia to greener pastures in the east.

They were recruited in their home towns and villages by "locators" - the medieval equivalent of head-hunters. "Go east, young man," they preached on village squares, promising rich rewards for colonists. Documents going back five centuries show that on 26 June 1284, Hameln lost 130 young souls.

Now that they have been found, only one question remains: Who was the Pied Piper? "I have no idea," Professor Udolph admits. "But he may have been a locator. They wore multi-coloured robes, just like the the musician in the story."

The rats, by the way, returned to plague Hamelin several times down the centuries.

- Imre Karacs, Bonn

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