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Could Medieval Bards Kill Rats with Their Songs and Rhymes?
Poetry and music were once martial arts—and the practice may have survived into modern times
As a child, I was fascinated by the story of the “Pied Piper of Hamelin,” the traveling musician who got rid of all the rats in a German village with his magical song. Ah, the story has a nasty ending. When the ungrateful residents refused to pay him, the Pied Piper did the same thing with their children.
I was especially charmed by Robert Browning’s verse rendition of the tale—which you really need to read aloud, at a nice clip and accenting the beat, to savor in full. Here’s one stanza to give you a taste of how much fun this can be.
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Rats! They fought the dogs and killed the cats,
And bit the babies in the cradles,
And ate the cheeses out of the vats,
And licked the soup from the cooks' own ladles,
Split open the kegs of salted sprats,
Made nests inside men's Sunday hats,
And even spoiled the women's chats
By drowning their speaking
With shrieking and squeaking
In fifty different sharps and flats.
And it goes on from there, in the same maniacal rhythm.
Young adult fiction (or YAF, as it’s now quaintly called in the publishing biz) was much darker back then. But what no one told me when I first heard this story, is that the villagers of Hamelin didn’t consider it a fictional account. Scholarly research confirms that this story, which dates back to the 1300s, was widely accepted as a genuine event in the town’s history.
Hamelin is in Germany, but the Irish tradition of deadly songs and incantations was even richer. All musicians might be dangerous, but Irish ones especially so. Elizabethan literature is filled with trigger warnings about Irish music and poetry. For example, there’s a strange line in the epilogue to Ben Jonson’s Poetaster, in which he boasts that bards in that land were deadly exterminators—and praises those who can “rhyme them to death as they do Irish rats in drumming tunes.”
Unless you know of this tradition, you can hardly understand many peculiar passages in old literary works. For example, Rosalind in Shakespeare’s As You Like It enthuses about Orlando’s wooing with these words: “I was never so berhymed since Pythagoras’ time, that I was an Irish rat, which I can hardly remember.” This is all a muddle unless you know that Pythagoreans believed in reincarnation and the Irish rhymed rodents to death—hence Rosalind is suggesting that she might have been one of those unlucky rats in a previous life.
“I’ll let you decide for yourself, but I miss the days when poets and musicians were sought out by witches and wizards for guidance.”
Some believe Shakespeare had heard the story of the late 6th century Irish bard Senchán Torpéist, who allegedly killed the rats that had devoured his meal with an improvised satirical poem. If we can believe the surviving accounts, a simple sung or chanted rhyme exterminated ten of them on the spot.
As the Pied Piper tale makes clear, not just rodents, but people were also at risk. In Reginald Scot’s Discovery of Witchcraft (1584), we are told that the Irish feared those who “can rhyme either man or beast to death.” In his An Apology of Poesy (1595), Philip Sidney draws on this legend in warning those who criticize the poet’s craft, but again notes that murder by rhyming was practiced solely in Ireland.
Some will even tell you that this tradition was kept alive by the two most famous Irish literary masters of the early 20th century, James Joyce and William Butler Yeats—but by the time they walked the streets of Dublin, this technique was more a matter of taunting or cursing invective.
In discussing the “Irish penchant for cursing,” scholar Thomas Waters cautions us that this is not the same thing as “swearing.” These curses are, rather, “maledictions for smiting evildoers.” The practice was so widespread, that Ireland’s parliament outlawed it in the Oaths Acts of 1635 and again in follow-up legislation from 1695—which specified that those who didn’t pay the fines were subject to whipping or pelting in the stockade. Yet even priests were guilty of this sin. According to a 1786 injunction from the Catholic bishops, “the most shocking curses and imprecations were delivered regularly from the pulpit.”
The Celtic literary tradition gave up its ties to the dark arts with great reluctance—and perhaps not entirely. Poet Robert Graves, who wrote a massive and controversial scholarly study of the old bards entitled The White Goddess (1948), celebrated this lost art. In the aftermath, he received many letters from various witches and magicians—and Graves didn’t hesitate to write back with advice related to their unusual vocations.
I’ll let you decide for yourself, but I miss the days when poets and musicians were sought out by witches and wizards for guidance.
Evidence that these practices survived into modern times is everywhere, if you know where to look. In 1920, medievalist Jessie Weston published a meticulously researched study of the Arthurian legends, From Ritual to Romance—acknowledged by T.S. Eliot as a major influence on his poem The Waste Land—which linked these stories to dark pagan rites and Celtic traditions. Weston even hinted in her footnotes that secret current-day Celtic cults continued to operate in her own time, and her dealings with these groups helped shape her interpretation of texts and events from a thousand or more years ago.
Weston is reluctant to offer specific details but boasts: “No inconsiderable part of the information at my disposal depended upon personal testimony, the testimony of those who knew of the continued existence of such a ritual, and had been actually initiated into its mysteries.” Alas, her disclosures go no further, and Weston scrupulously avoids providing names, places, dates or any of the other facts we usually expect from footnotes.
I note that initiates are usually sworn to secrecy. Hence I conclude that the famous medieval scholar Jessie Weston may have been a member of a Celtic cult that preserved the old rites. At a minimum, she somehow managed to learn things only initiates were supposed to know.
The killing power of old music and poems has, as we’ve seen here, often been cited, but there’s a parallel tradition of healing and cures brought about by songs and incantations. These, too, could be found everywhere in the British Isles, and according to folklorist Felix Grendon, writing in 1909, they frequently came with a strict order that “they be sung or written on certain parts of the body. The left side appears to have been preferred to the right.” In some instances the incantation is sung or chanted into the left ear, but in other cases, the left breast or thigh—or even the left shoe—is involved in the cure.
According to Thomas Waters, Irish cursing fell out of favor sometime during the middle decades of the 20th century. This same period saw a decline in religious belief and church attendance—so perhaps the two trends are connected, testifying to a more hard-headed empirical approach to practical matters. But, he adds, “in the 1990s and early 2000s countryside, in places like County Limerick and County Tipperary and even rural Ulster, there were still farmers and veterinarians who had seen strange things and experienced weird agricultural misfortunes. Guardedly, they talked about piseogs, the evil eye (‘blinking’), witchcraft and curses.”
I doubt anyone now relies on these techniques for getting rid of rats—or larger enemies, for that matter—but it’s hard not to wax nostalgic for a tradition that put such faith in the power of poetry and song. As for musicians, I know they want audiences to love them, but they ought not underestimate the value of being feared as well.