We have all heard the old children's story about the Pied Piper, a mysterious musician who, in 1284, was hired by the people of Hamelin, in Lower Saxony, Germany, to take care of the town's rat infestation. The piper, according to the legend, successfully completed his task, but the people of the village refused to pay him. As revenge, he used his magical flute to lure the town's children away, never to be seen from again.
As strange and upsetting as this story is, we have to wonder if, like most fairytales, the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin has some basis in truth.
The brothers, Grimm and Robert Browning brought the legend of the Pied Piper to the English-speaking world in the 19th century—but what if this 800-year-old tale is actually true?
Scholars generally agree that something horrible happened in the town of Hamelin to spawn the story. Though there might not have been a piper with magical musical talents, we can safely assume that some tragedy ensued. And, as you might expect, the scholars are basing this on more evidence than just the Grimm brothers' story itself.
A now-destroyed stained glass window from 1300 of a church is among the first known records of the Pied Piper story, though there is also a supposed eyewitness account from the time, which states in Latin that, "On the day of John and Paul, 130 children in Hamelin went to Calvary and were brought through all kinds of danger to the Koppen mountain and lost." Interestingly, this inscription did not mention anything about a piper. The window was described in several accounts between the 14th and 17th centuries. It was destroyed in 1660. Based on the surviving descriptions, a modern reconstruction of the window has been created by historian Hans Dobbertin. It features the colourful figure of the Pied Piper and several figures of children dressed in white.
Also, Hamelin town records apparently start with this event. The earliest written record is from the town chronicles in an entry from 1384 which reportedly states: "It is 100 years since our children left."
In what is known as the Lüneburg Manuscript, which was written more than a century after the window is thought to have been constructed, a monk by the name of Heinrich of Herford gives an account of what happened. He wrote that a man who was about 30 years old came to the town playing the flute and led the children out.
By 1603, the town erected the façade of what is known now as the Pied Piper House. On the façade, there is an inscription which was included in later editions of the original Grimm's fairy tales which said in gold letters, "In the year 1284 on the Day of John and Paul, the 26th of June, a piper wearing clothes of many colours abducted 130 children, born in Hamelin and lost at Calvary on the Koppen." This inscription is similar to the one put on the church window but this one does mention the existence of the piper.
But the suggestion of rats having anything to do with the tragedy did not come until later. It is not too far-fetched that rats would be connected to the incident; rat infestations were certainly a problem around the 13th century and the ratcatcher was a common profession.
The townspeople of Hamelin and particularly the children were probably stricken by a horrible event in the 13th century.
Several theories suggest that children died of some natural causes such as disease or starvation and that the Piper was a symbolic figure of Death. Analogous themes which are associated with this theory include the Dance of Death, Totentanz or Danse Macabre, a common medieval trope. Some of the scenarios that have been suggested as fitting this theory include that the children drowning in the river Weser, getting killed in a landslide or contracting some disease during an epidemic.
The nature of this disease is disputed. Because rats are featured in the story, scholars think it might have been a disease that spread from rodents, like the bubonic plague. Some even suggest an early version of the Black Death infected them. The Piper's pied clothing might have evolved from the idea that the visitor had splotchy skin lesions brought on by the disease.
Some theories have linked the disappearance of the children to mass psychogenic illness in the form of dancing mania. Dancing mania outbreaks occurred during the 13th century, including one in 1237 in which a large group of children travelled from Erfurt to Arnstadt (about 20 km), jumping and dancing all the way, in marked similarity to the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, which originated at around the same time.
Another modern interpretation reads the story as alluding to an event where Hamelin children were lured away by a pagan or heretic sect to forests near Coppenbrügge (the mysterious Koppen "hills" of the poem) for ritual dancing where they all perished during a sudden landslide or collapsing sinkhole.
'A World Lit Only by Fire' an informal history of the European Middle Ages by American historian William Manchester proposes that the Pied Piper was a psychopathic paedophile and murderer who snatched up the children, killed and scattered their mutilated bodies.
Other theorists suggest that the story of the Pied Piper actually refers to a mass emigration or even another Children's Crusade like the one that may have occurred in 1212 where thousands of children set off for the Holy Land with many dying on the way or sold to slavery in the process. But the theory does not explain why the story is set so firmly in Hamelin. Besides, the Children's Crusade occurred some seventy years before the alleged incident in Hamelin.
Many individuals have posited that the children may have emigrated—or even been sold—to places in Eastern Europe, including Transylvania or Poland. Linguist Jurgen Udolph has carried out research which suggests that surnames from Hamelin may have found their way into modern-day Polish phonebooks. Also, fairy tale scholar Jack David Zipes substantiates this notion with documents that show evidence that someone came to Hamelin around that time looking for recruits to colonise areas of eastern Europe. The modern-day website of the town of Hamelin invokes this interpretation, arguing that the "children" in the legend were actually citizens of the town who were willing to emigrate.
In this version of events, the Pied Piper is not a single person, but instead represents the call of territorial rulers who recruited citizens of the town to resettle in Moravia, East Prussia, Pomerania, and other places.
Speculation on the emigration theory is based on the idea that, by the 13th century, overpopulation of the area resulted in the oldest son owning all the land and power (majorat), leaving the rest as serfs. It has also been suggested that one reason the emigration of the children was never documented was that the children were sold to a recruiter from the Baltic region of Eastern Europe, a practice that was not uncommon at the time. In her essay "Pied Piper Revisited", Sheila Harty states that surnames from the region settled are similar to those from Hamelin and that the selling of illegitimate children, orphans or other children the town could not support is the more likely explanation.
She states further that this may account for the lack of records of the event in the town chronicles.
The date chronicled in all the local documentation pinpoint 26 June as the day the children disappeared. This day is also the date of pagan midsummer celebrations. The document emphasized that the youth followed the Piper to the Koppen, commonly translated as "hills", which suggests another explanation. There were regions in Germany where midsummer was celebrated by lighting fires on the hills. All that leads to one particularly macabre reading of the Pied Piper legend. Perhaps the Piper, emblematic of a pagan shaman, playing his flute, was leading the youth of Hamelin to their midsummer festivities when the local Christian faction, hoping to cement conversion of the region, waylaid and massacred the group.
But all these theories neglect one specific key to the Hamelin mystery. They do not explain the very particular date cited for the loss of the children, and the local sense of trauma. Did something happen that the officials were covering up? Something so traumatic that it was transmitted orally for so long in the town's collective memory, over decades and even centuries?"
Today, the town of Hamelin maintains information about the legend of the Pied Piper on its website, and during the summer months, actors perform interpretations of the story in the town square. In addition, each year the city marks June 26 as "Rat Catcher's Day". On the Bungelosenstrasse, the street where the Pied Piper House is located (and where the children were supposedly last seen), music is banned as a sign of respect. But in the rest of the town, rat iconography is everywhere. An automated clock tower tells the tale three times a day, there is a Pied Piper statue and bars that serve "rat's blood" cocktails and "rat's tails" (pork, sliced thin). Twice a day, the bells chime the Pied Piper melody.
Whatever the cause of the eerie disappearance back in 1284, it seems to have been traumatising enough for the people of Hamelin to not forget it even centuries later. Even if scholars never uncover the truth, perhaps we would do well to simply heed the lessons in this cautionary tale.