Animals, History, Literature

It’s National “Hug A Rat Catcher Day!”

Well, not really.

While July 22 is celebrated as Rat Catcher’s Day in the United States and a few other countries, it’s not a festivity that has really caught on, and good luck finding a celebratory acknowledgement to send to your friend in the greeting card section of your local supermarket. As far as I know, there aren’t any fireworks, either.

It’s a day that commemorates one of the least favorite stories from my childhood, that of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, a story so redolent of evil with overtones of perversity that I pretty much deep-sixed it to the memory hole until this morning, when I came across a reference to this day.

If you’re not familiar with the story (parts of which date back to the thirteenth century), it goes like this: A young man dressed in patched and multicolored (“pied”) clothing appeared in the German town of Hamelin, very opportunely one day, and offered to rid the town of the infestation of rats that was plaguing it.

Anxious to solve an unhealthful and expensive problem, the local burghers were eager to contract for his services, promising him a handsome reward, should he be successful in his endeavors.

The piper (for such he was) removed his instrument from his pocket, played a merry tune on it, and led the rats to the Weser River, where all but one of them drowned.

At which point, the worthy burghers defaulted on their promise of payment, accused the piper of extortion by bringing the rats to the town in the first place, and sent him, penniless, packing.

A few weeks later (the legend in Hamelin has this happening on June 26), the piper showed up in the town again dressed all in green (red in some versions) while all the adults were in church, and played a tune of such sweetness on his pipe that all the local children were enchanted to follow him into a cave whose entrance closed up after them, and they were never seen again. Remaining behind were only three children, one of whom was lame, one deaf, and one blind, to tell the sad story to the bereft parents when they emerged from church.

Several variations of the story exist, especially on the theme of what happened to the children, with the most popular being that they were escorted to a paradisial setting and lived happily ever after; that they were led into the River Weser and drowned just like the rats; that they were returned to the bosom of their grieving parents after the town paid the piper several times the promised original amount; and that they formed a settlement in Transylvania.

I always loathed the story, whether reading it in a book of childhood fairy tales from the aptly-named Brothers Grimm, struggling through the original German of Goethe’s poem in school, or rounding out my understanding of Robert Browning in what passes for him, as an attempt at light verse. There’s just nothing nice about it. The adults are duplicitous and greedy. The piper is cruel and vindictive. The children are two-dimensional pawns. And by the end of it, I’m even feeling sorry for the rats.

Time, perspective, and additional information have altered, or at least broadened my view a bit. It’s apparent that something cataclysmic and tragic must have happened in Hamelin, starting with records describing the church window from about 1300, about which was written in 1384, “it is 100 years since our children left.” Other theories, some with legs, some pure speculation, center on an epidemic of plague-like illness, a mass drowning, an enforced emigration (deportation) by the feudal lord of dozens of his vassals, and a landslide that killed hundreds. We’ll never really know.

But. Rat Catcher’s Day.

It’s our day to express appreciation for those who help to keep our countryside, villages, towns and cities free from those pesky rodents (out here where I live, the Rat Control Officers I’ll be hugging today are named Am and Little Levi). We should especially honor Alberta, Canada which has officially declared itself a rat-free province, although I see as I write this that the capital city of Calgary is occasionally covered in embarrassment when a handful are discovered here and there within its boundaries. Oh, the horror! Still, no reason to stop trying.

It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it. So, rat catchers of the world, both two and four-legged, I salute you! Hugs all round. I’ll be raising a glass to you later today, most likely a dram of ratafia.

Now, what to eat with it. Ah. A nice piece of cheese. Yes, of course!

Happy Rat Catcher’s Day.

4 thoughts on “It’s National “Hug A Rat Catcher Day!””

  1. There is a podcast series called “Our Fake History”, and it looked at the legends in an episode I think about 2 years ago. Sebastian, the host, after studying the legendarium, figured the most likely explanation is that the Pied Piper seduced many of the teens and young adults into leaving, on the promise of land, to settle in Transylvania. The use of “children” in the records would not have necessarily meant only the little ones in that context, and there are contemporary records elsewhere of similar “recruiters” making the same pitch throughout Germany at that time.

    1. I’m not sure I’d call it trafficking, if the story is true, because the people were genuinely supposed to settle and shore up a frontier area that was constantly being fought over (and thus denuded in people) between the Serbs, Hungarians, Bulgarians, and by that time the Turks – the latter would, of course, eventually conquer it all. Until the great population expulsions following WWII, the German-speaking population in that region was substantial – at least in pockets. There was a sort of travelogue of the interwar Balkans, Black and Lamb and Grey Falcon, published in 1937 by Dame Rebecca West, that claimed if you spoke German, you could still freely navigate the entire Balkans just due to the mixing from those pockets.

      1. Well, that makes sense, given the history of the region over the course of the past 1000 years or so. I will look around for a used copy of the book you mention which suggests German as the lingua franca for the area. Your comment reminds me a bit of the difficulties I’ve had trying to trace Mr. Right’s ancestry (for the sake of simplicity, I’ll say that his background, on both sides of his family, is 100% Polish), as wanderings back through about 1850 or so regularly involve the same town/region appearing with a different name/language, and more than once for a particular location, as being in a different country. 21st-century America may call all of it “Polish,” but that’s not what it’s been consistently for the past 150 years and beyond.

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