Hameln, the city of rats

In the old tale of the "Pied Piper of Hamelin" ("der Rattenfänger von Hameln"), hundreds of thousands of small vermin supposedly ended up in a watery grave. The Vermin Brewing International Research Team decided to visit this famous rat city to see if the rumors of "raticide" were true.

The small town of Hameln is located about 50 km southwest of Hannover in Germany's northern province of Niedersachsen, about a 4 hour drive from VB Headquarters in Weert, Netherlands. Upon entering the pedestrian zone of the old town center, the team simply followed one of the many "rat trails" that crossed their path. These were simple rat shapes painted on the ground that formed little trails that wandered throughout the city.

Other rat images were also plentiful: artwork (including rat graffiti) decorated various buildings, doorways and statues; rat-shaped pastries and candies lined the bakery shelves; rat gift items such as stuffed toy animals, mugs, posters and t-shirts filled the stores. Surprisingly there were no live rats. There was not a rat to be seen on shoulders or in pet store windows. The team became concerned. A bit later at the Hochzeitshaus, the glockenspiel began to play. The many lovely bells began to chime and slowly the pair of big heavy shutter doors began to open. A tiny door slid open and the small metal figure of the Pied Piper began to make his round followed by dozens of tiny metal rats. Within moments, they disappeared behind another tiny door. Again, no live rats made their presence known.

Then came the true test... the free 30-minute play that takes place every Sunday at noon during the summer months. By the time team arrived at the center town square, it was packed with tourists from every country. Over the loud speakers, the story of the Pied Piper was told in several different languages. Then an announcer dressed in old medieval clothing came out and set the scene in German. The year was now 1282, and this town, the exact same spot on which the team now stood, was witnessing one of the worst rat and mouse plagues in its history.

A small crowd of villagers of the old town of Hameln gathered on the main town steps to complain about the horrid rat infestation. One woman told how the rats had eaten all her bread; another complained how they had stolen all her sausages. Suddenly three small children dressed in rat costumes started darting in and out among the villagers, eventually ending up in the corner to eat a sausage they had stolen. The people cried out for the mayor to help them, but before he could answer, a man wearing a very colorful outfit arrived. He promised that he could rid the town of rats by playing his flute. He started to play and several of the children in rat costumes appeared. They followed him, and he made them dance and spin. When he stopped playing, the “rats” darted back into the crowd of villagers. The mayor immediately promised the man 100 Ducats to rid the city of the vermin. Again the man began to play and this time a dozen children in rat costumes appeared. These “rats” of all sizes followed the Pied Piper once or twice around the stage and then off though the spectators and around the side of the building. Supposedly they were led to the nearby Weser river where they all drowned.

When the Pied Piper returned to collect his rightful payment, the mayor just laughed at him and had his guards chase him from the town. The children celebrated by dancing in circles around the stage. Eventually the villagers left and only the children remained on stage playing some games. Again the Pied Piper appeared and began to play, and the children obediently followed him off the stage. Supposedly all 130 children of the town followed him into a mountainside where they disappeared forever. And with that, the announcer came back on stage. But rather than end on such a sad note, he brought all the “rats” and children back on stage. Together with the villagers and the Pied Piper, they all enjoyed a big round of applause from the spectators.

The VB team remained wary of the facts in the play regarding the death of so many small rodents, so they continued their investigation. According to information from the tourist office, no one knows the real story, but it's very likely related to the colonization of areas in northern Germany and Prussia. At that time, wealthy noblemen often came to cities trying to recruit citizens to colonize new settlements in the east. These men were often well-dressed, and a flute could have been a good way to gather a crowd in the main city square. Back then, the citizens of a town were often referred to as the “children” of the town. Furthermore, since towns were commonly plagued by rats and mice, they were frequently visited by rat catchers who used more traditional methods such as traps, dogs or poison. It's likely that over the years the stories simply got blurred together, and that in fact, no massive rat extermination measure had been employed. Relieved, the VB team began the long drive back. And as they drove past all the grain fields on the outskirts of Hameln, they couldn't help pondering what stories the local rats told about the history of this small German city.