Friday, August 28, 2009

The Science of Fairy Tales - Hamelin's Rat Problem Then & Now

It's true.

Hamelin still has need of a Pied Piper from time to time - the most recent being in December just last year.

From travel 'zine on December 19, 2008:
Officials in the town of Hamelin in northern Germany have expressed alarm at a surge in the rat population much like the Great Plague in 1284 on which the tale is based.

“Rats usually come in packs of 20 to 30 but these can expand up to 200 or 300 and that what’s happened in Hamelin,” said Rolf Schmidt, who works for a pest control service in the town north of Hanover.

The town, which has 58,000 inhabitants, has added teams of rat-catchers to try to contain the new plague.

You can find the rest of the article HERE.

So what else about the tale is based in fact?

From Wikipedia (which present multiple theories, all suggesting that there is likely some factual story behind the legend):
"Among the various interpretations, reference to the colonization of East Europe starting from Low Germany is the most plausible one: The "Children of Hameln" would have been in those days citizens willing to emigrate being recruited by landowners to settle in Moravia, East Prussia, Pomerania or in the Teutonic Land. It is assumed that in past times all people of a town were referred to as "children of the town" or "town children" as is frequently done today. The "Legend of the children’s Exodus" was later connected to the "Legend of expelling the rats". This most certainly refers to the rat plagues being a great threat in the medieval milling town and the more or less successful professional rat catchers."
You can read the rest of the theories and more about the tale HERE or read about the facts behind the fairy tale at "How Stuff Works" (which I recommend) HERE.

Here's a lovely claymation version of the Robert Browning poem, shown below in three parts:

There are also a few novels based on The Pied Piper tale but my favorite, though chilling, is "Breath" by Donna Jo Napoli. Her well researched story puts a number of events happening in 1284 into a plausible story, giving the tale an even more sobering weight. While the book is YA, I recommend it to more mature readers as the subject matter is rather weighty in dealing with plagues, illness and the resulting societal chaos. A wonderful medieval book - complete with grit.


  1. I haven't read 'Breath', though I'll definitely add it to my reading list, just wanted to recommend 'King Rat' by China Miéville, a brilliantly dark urban fantasy that uses the Pied Piper story.

  2. There's also Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple's 'Pay the Piper' to add to the list.

    And, Gypsy, I think this is my favorite of your developing regular features so far. Please keep the Science of Fairy Tales going!

  3. I love Fairy tales. I personally feel that it is the best time pass. I have not read any of these. These seem very interesting. I will definitely go through it. Thanks for sharing.