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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  19 November 2013


Folklore experts have shown that for a legend to be remembered it is important that it is historicised. Focusing on three case-studies from early modern Germany and the Netherlands, this article explores how the historicisation of mythical narratives operated in early modern Europe, and argues that memory practices played a crucial role in the interplay between myth and history. The application of new criteria for historical evidence did not result in the decline of myths. By declaring such stories mythical, and by using the existence of memory practices as evidence for this, scholars could continue to take them seriously.

Research Article
Copyright © Royal Historical Society 2013 

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Research for this paper was done in the context of the NWO VICI research project ‘Tales of the Revolt. Memory, Oblivion and Identity in the Low Countries, 1566–1700’. I am grateful to Marten Jan Bok, Frank de Hoog, Erika Kuijpers, Marijke Meijer Drees, Johannes Müller and Ann Rigney for their help in researching and writing it.


1 An indispensable survey and extracts of available source material to 1860 in the Quellensammlung zur Hamelner Rattenfängersage, ed. Hans Dobertin (Göttingen, 1970).

2 Ibid., doc. no. 96a–b, 96–9.

3 Spanuth, Heinrich, Der Rattenfänger von Hameln. Vom Werden und Sinn einer alten Sage (Hamelin, 1951)Google Scholar; Hucker, Bernd Ulrich, ‘Die Auszug der Hämelschen Kinder aus quellenkritischer Sicht’, in Geschichten und Geschichte. Erzählforschertagung in Hameln, Oktober 1984, ed. Humburg, Norbert (Hildesheim 1985), 96–9Google Scholar.

4 Radu Florescu, In Search of the Pied Piper (2005), 155–70; see for a critique of Dobertin's argument Werner Ueffing, ‘Die Hamelner Rattenfängersage und ihr historischer Hintergrund’, in Geschichten und Geschichte, ed. Humburg, 184–91.

5 Florescu, In Search of the Pied Piper, 205.

6 See e.g. Goody, Jack and Watt, Ian, ‘The Consequences of Literacy’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 5 (1963), 304–45CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Finley, M. I., ‘Myth, Memory and History’, History and Theory, 4 (1965), 281302CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Tamse, C. A., ‘The Political Myth’, in Some Political Mythologies. Papers Delivered to the Fifth Anglo-Dutch Historical Conference, ed. Bromley, J. S. and Kossmann, E. H. (The Hague, 1975)Google Scholar. Changing views of the relationship between history and myth are helpfully discussed in Cruz, Laura and Frijhoff, Willem, ‘Introduction. Myth in History, History in Myth’, in Myth in History, History in Myth. Proceedings of the Third International Conference of the Society for Netherlandic History (New York: June 5–6, 2006), ed. Cruz, Laura and Frijhoff, Willem (Leiden, 2009), 116Google Scholar.

7 Although some scholars insist that the term myth should in fact only be used to describe tales about the realm of the supernatural, modern theorists take a broader approach, see Robert A. Segal, Myth. A Very Short Introduction (2004).

8 E.g. ibid.; Laurence Coupe, Myth, 2nd edn (2009), 9–15.

9 Barthes, Roland, Mythologies suivi de Le Mythe, aujourd'hui (Paris, 1957)Google Scholar; Marina Warner, Managing Monsters. Six Myths of our Time, The Reith Lectures (1994).

10 This VICI project is funded by NWO, the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research, and titled Tales of the Revolt. Memory, Oblivion and Identity in the Low Countries, 1566–1700,

11 Examples cited for instance in Pollmann, Judith, Catholic Identity and the Revolt of the Netherlands, 1520–1635 (Oxford, 2011), 57–9, 94–100, 113–24, 131–5, 153–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 Eekhout, Marianne, ‘De kogel in de kerk. Herinneringen aan het beleg van Haarlem, 1573–1630’, Holland. Historisch tijdschrift, 43 (2011), 108–19Google Scholar; Kuijpers, Erika, ‘The Creation and Development of Social Memories of Traumatic Events. The Oudewater Massacre of 1575’, in Hurting Memories. Remembering as a Pathogenic Process in Individuals and Societies, ed. Linden, Michael and Rutkowski, Krzysztof (London and Waltham, MA, 2013), 191201Google Scholar; and Erika Kuijpers, ‘Between Storytelling and Patriotic Scripture. The Memory Brokers of the Dutch Revolt’, in Memory before Modernity. Practices of Memory in Early Modern Europe, ed. Erika Kuijpers et al. (forthcoming, 2013). On the mythologising of the siege of Leiden, Pollmann, Judith, Herdenken, herinneren, vergeten. Het beleg en ontzet van Leiden in de Gouden Eeuw, 3 October lezing (Leiden, 2008)Google Scholar.

13 On mythmaking as the result of failing memories, see e.g. Fox, Adam, Oral and Literate Culture in England, 1500–1700 (Oxford, 2000), 225Google Scholar.

14 Woolf, Daniel, The Social Circulation of the Past. English Historical Culture, 1500–1730 (Oxford, 2003), 352–91Google Scholar.

15 Tangherlini, Timothy R., ‘“It Happened Not Too Far From Here . . . ”: A Survey of Legend Theory and Characterization’, Western Folklore, 49 (1990), 371–90, at 379CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On the concept of ecotype, see Hopkin, David, ‘The Ecotype, or a Modest Proposal to Reconnect Cultural and Social History’, in Exploring Cultural History. Essays in Honour of Peter Burke, ed. Rubiés, Joao Paul, Calaresu, Melissa and de Vivo, Filippo (Farnham, 2010), 3154Google Scholar.

16 E.g. Connerton, Paul, How Societies Remember (Cambridge, 1989)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Olick, Jeffrey K. and Robbins, Joyce, ‘Social Memory Studies. From “Collective Memory” to the Historical Sociology of Mnemonic Practices’, Annual Review of Sociology, 24 (1998), 105–40CrossRefGoogle Scholar; general introductions to memory studies like Cubitt, Geoffrey, History and Memory (Manchester 2007)Google Scholar; and Erll, Astrid, Memory in Culture, trans. Young, Sarah (Basingstoke 2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, excellent as they are, have relatively little to say on pre-modern memory, but still useful is Fentress, James and Wickham, Chris, Social Memory (Oxford, 1992)Google Scholar.

17 Gottschalk, Elizabeth, Stormvloeden en rivieroverstromingen in Nederland / Storm Surges and River Floods in the Netherlands, ii:1400–1600 (Assen 1975), 74Google Scholar. Gottschalk discusses all sources relating to the flood, including the transmission of tales about it.

18 ‘Chrysostomus Neapolitanus to Count Nugarola, c. 1514’, in Hadrianus Junius, Batavia (Leiden, 1588), 182–7. The letter was first published in Dorpius, Martinus, Dialogus: in quo Venus et Cupido omnes adhibent versutias: ut Herculem animi ancipitem in suam militiam invita Virtuta perpellant. Eiusdem Thomus Aululariæ Plautinæ adiectus cum prologis . . . Chrysostomi Neapolitani epistola de situ Hollandiæ viuendique Hollandorum institutis. Gerardi Nouiomagi de Zelandia epistola consimilis ([Louvain, 1514])Google Scholar.

19 Helmus, Liesbeth, ‘Het altaarstuk met de Sint Elisabethsvloed uit de Grote Kerk van Dordrecht. De oorspronkelijke plaats en de opdrachtgevers’, Oud-Holland, 105 (1991), 127–39CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

20 ‘Chrysostomus Neapolitanus to Count Nugarola’, 182–3.

21 van de Waal, H., Drie eeuwen vaderlandsche geschied-uitbeelding, 1500–1800, een iconologische studie (2 vols., The Hague, 1952), i, 255, and ii, 121Google Scholar.

22 Gottschalk, Stormvloeden, 73, suggests it first made an appearance in the Magnum Chronicon Belgicum of c. 1500.

23 See for this and a discussion of the meaning of the number van Herwaarden, Janet al., Geschiedenis van Dordrecht tot 1572 (Dordrecht and Hilversum, 1996)Google Scholar, 162. The inscription is cited in Balen, Matthijs, Beschryvinge der stad Dordrecht, vervatende haar begin, opkomst, toeneming, en verdere stant . . . (Dordrecht, 1677), 769Google Scholar.

24 Koman, Ruben, Bèèh . . . ! Groot Dordts volksverhalenboek. Een speurtocht naar volksverhalen, bijnamen, volksgeloof, mondelinge overlevering en vertelcultuur in Dordrecht (Bedum, 2005)Google Scholar.

25 Junius, Batavia, 249.

26 Gottschalk, Stormvloeden, 73–4, discusses e.g. the version of Reinier Snoy (1477–1537), whose De Rebus Batavicis was published in Frankfurt, 1620.

27 Spaan, Gerrit, Beschrijvinge der stad Rotterdam, en eenige omleggende dorpen, verdeeld in III. Boeken (Rotterdam, 1698), 1316Google Scholar.

28 Helmus, ‘Het altaarstuk’.

29 As has been argued by van Herwaarden, Jan, Between Saint James and Erasmus: Studies in Late-Medieval Religious Life: Devotion and Pilgrimage in the Netherlands, trans. Shaffer, Wendie and Gardner, Donald, Studies in Medieval and Reformation Thought, 97 (Leiden, 2003)Google Scholar, 571–8; Van de Waal, Drie eeuwen, 255–6, was dismissive of the influence of the story, but he missed Junius's inclusion of the Colonna letter in his Batavia. It was published again in Scriverius, Petrus, Batavia Illustrata (Leiden, 1609)Google Scholar, 129ff.

30 Noordhollands archief, Inv. 164 Notary archives Jacob van Bosvelt, 7 July 1635, fo. 172r–v. It was published in De genealogieën van Nederveen, ed. F. B. M. Nederveen and C. J. Nederveen (Gertruidenberg, 2006), 44–5. I am most grateful to Marten Jan Bok for bringing the existence of this document to my attention.

31 Balen, Beschryvinge, 770, 1205.

32 Sinnighe, J. R. W., Hollandsch sagenboek. Legenden en sagen uit Noord- en Zuid-Holland (The Hague, 1943), 270–1Google Scholar.

33 First published in the nineteenth century without much detail on provenance and date, this was republished in De genealogieën van Nederveen, 42–3. It appears to have been written before 1800.

34 Spaan, Beschrijvinghe, 13–16.

35 Van de Waal, Drie eeuwen, 258; Koman, Groot Dordts volksverhalenboek 109 n. 327; De genealogieën van Nederveen; Nederveen, C., ‘Pieter, opgevist, met een kat legghende bij sigh’, Oud-Dordrecht, 25 (2007), 26–8Google Scholar. This also refers to the recent tale of the descendant of Beatrix.

36 Koman, Groot Dordts volksverhalenboek, 106–7; Van de Waal, Drie eeuwen, 255.

37 Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Romeyn de Hooghe, Sint Elisabethsvloed, 1675, RP-P-OB-76.843; and Jan Luyken, Watersnood in Groningen in 1686, 1698, RP-P-1896-A-19368-1562.

38 Spaan, Beschrijvinghe, 13–16.

39 van Someren, Reyer, De St. Elisabethsnacht, Anno 1421. Dichtstuk in drie zangen (Utrecht, 1841), 90Google Scholar; see also Van de Waal, Drie eeuwen, 258.

40 Koman, Groot Dordts volksverhalenboek, 105–6.

41 van Braght, Tieleman, Het bloedig tooneel of martelaers spiegel der Doops-gesinde of weerelose Christenen, die, om ‘t getuygenis van Jesus haren Salighmaker, geleden hebben, ende gedood zijn, van Christi tijd af, tot desen, 2nd edn (Amsterdam, 1685), 48–9, and 143–4Google Scholar. Van Braght had died in the 1660s. We do not know who re-edited the text.

42 Although some scholars have argued that letters like the one printed in the Sacrifice of the Lord were probably not genuine, precisely because they tend to include well-known narrative motifs, we are currently minded to consider them as authentic. See on this issue Gregory's introduction to The Forgotten Writings of the Mennonite Martyrs, ed. Brad S. Gregory, Documenta Anabaptistica Neerlandica viii (Leiden and Boston, MA, 2002).

43 Packull, Werner O., ‘Anna Jansz of Rotterdam. A Historical Investigation of an Early Anabaptist Heroine’, Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte, 78 (1987), 147–73Google Scholar; Els Kloek, ‘Esaiasdr., Anneke’, in Digitaal Vrouwenlexicon van Nederland. URL: (last accessed 29 May 2013).

44 Van Braght, Het bloedig tooneel, 143–4.

45 Engelbrecht, E. A., De vroedschap van Rotterdam, 1572–1795, Bronnen voor de geschiedenis van Rotterdam (Rotterdam 1973), 41–2Google Scholar. Esaiah was vroedschap from 1575 to 1602 and held office many times in the 1590s.

46 Jan Luyken, Anneke Jans, Condemned to Death, Hands her Son, the Later Esaias de Lind, over to a Baker, 1539, 1698, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam RP-P-OB-44.272. Covington, Sarah, ‘Jan Luyken, the Martyrs Mirror and the Iconography of Suffering’, Mennonite Quarterly Review, 85 (2011), 441–76Google Scholar, has argued that we should see the emotive nature of Luyken's work as an expression of a Mennonite sensibility, but I do not think this is necessary.

47 See Kloek, ‘Esaiasdr., Anneke’; Bogaers, Adrien, ‘Het pleegkind’, in idem, Balladen en romancen ([Amsterdam], 1846), 118Google Scholar, interestingly presented Anneke's child as a little girl, who later married the baker's son. The novel by van der Staal, M., Anneke Jansz. Historisch verhaal uit den eersten tijd der hervorming (Rotterdam, 1914)Google Scholar, was last reprinted in Middelburg in 2006. ‘Anneke Jans. Op 24 januari in de Schie verdronken’, Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant, 22 Jan. 1939.

48 Geeraert de Rasier, Tazza, before 1587, currently on loan to Museum Boymans van Beuningen, Rotterdam, Inv. No. MBZ 489. I am most grateful to Esaiah's descendant Jan de Lint who first told me about the existence of the tazza and gave me copies of some documentation.

49 I thank Alexandra van Dongen, curator of Museum Boymans van Beuningen, Rotterdam, who arranged a viewing of the tazza, and made some of the information in the museum's files available to me. This included the press release announcing the transfer of the tazza to the museum on 2 Nov. 1996. That the museum did not seize the opportunity to buy the tazza in 2002 was partly because of uncertainty about the date of the inscription.

50 Erich, Samuel, Exodus hamelensis, das ist der Hämelischer Kinder Auβ gang (Hannover, 1654)Google Scholar. I used the Dutch translation, De uytgang der Hamelsche kinderen of de verbaasde geschiedenis van 130 burgerskinderen, dewelke in ’t jaar 1282 te Hamelen, aan de Weser, in Neder-Saxen, door een gewaanden speelman uyt de stadt verleydt, en . . . in de Koppelberg verdweenen zijn.: Aan de toetsteen der waarheit beproeft, trans. Isaac Le Long (Amsterdam, 1729).

51 The report from burgomaster Gerhard Reiche in Quellensammlung, doc. no. 69, p. 77–8.

52 Ibid., doc. no. 72, pp. 80–4; Schoock, Martinus, Fabula hamelensis sive disquisitio historica (Groningen, 1659), 151–5Google Scholar.

53 Discussed in Spanuth, Der Rattenfänger, 56.

54 On the inscription Quellensammlung, doc. no. 10, pp. 22–3.

55 As such, he was described in the first printed accounts in Fincelius, Jobus, Wunderzeichen (Jena, 1555)Google Scholar; Athesinus, Caspar Goltwurm, Wunderwerck und Wunderzeichen Buch (Frankfurt, 1557)Google Scholar; and Hondorff, Andreas, Promptuarium exemplorum. Historienn- und Exempelbuch aus heiliger Schrifft und vielen andern . . . Historien (Leipzig, 1573)Google Scholar, on which see Quellensammlung, doc. no. 9, pp. 21–2, doc. no. 11, pp. 23–4, and doc. no. 17, p. 29. Also in a local inscription from the mid-1550s, Quellensammlung, doc. no. 10, pp. 22–3.

56 Hsia, R. Po-Chia, Social Discipline in the Reformation. Central Europe, 1550–1750 (London and New York, 1989)Google Scholar.

57 Ueffing, ‘Die Hamelner Rattenfängersage’, 186.

58 Spanuth, Der Rattenfänger, 100–1.

59 The Transylvanian link was first mentioned in print by Verstegan, Richard, A Restitution of Decayed Intelligence (Antwerp, 1605)Google Scholar, cited in Quellensammlung, doc. no. 45, pp. 58–9. Later authors cited the evidence of a chronicle from Transylvania (Siebenbürgen) that referred to local German-speakers with accents that resembled that of the Hamelin area; a New World connection was first mooted in 1701, see Quellensammlung, doc. no. 105, p. 103.

60 The ongoing interest can be traced through the Quellensammlung. On the Enlightenment interest, see also Spanuth, Der Rattenfänger, 58–69.

61 Quellensammlung, doc. no. 5a and 5b, pp. 18–19. I am not persuaded by Dobbertin's arguments for believing them genuine. See also Ueffing, ‘Die Hamelner Rattenfängersage’, 187.

62 Spanuth, De Rattenfänger, 91–100; Quellensammlung, doc. no. 4, pp. 15–18.

63 Florescu, In Search of the Pied Piper, 166–7; Ueffing, ‘Die Hamelner Rattenfängersage’, 186.

64 Erich, De uytgang der Hamelsche kinderen, 26.

65 Mali, Joseph, Mythistory. The Making of a Modern Historiography (Chicago and London, 2003)Google Scholar.

66 Benes, Carrie, Urban Legends. Civic Identity and the Classical Past in Northern Italy, 1250–1350 (University Park, PA, 2011)Google Scholar; Fox, Oral and Literate Culture, 213–58.

67 Coupe, Myth, 15.

68 E.g. Woolf, The Social Circulation of the Past, 390–1.