Once upon a time, a town called Hamelin was overrun with rats. They lined the streets, raided homes and businesses, and even attacked babies in their cribs. The town was at loss for what to do, so the mayor offered a reward to the brave individual who could help rid the town of the rats.
Not long after, a stranger dressed in pied arrived in town and offered to clear out the rats for the reward. With him he had a pipe and claimed that he would use it to help the town in their hour of need. The town, while sceptical, had no one else to turn to so they gave him a chance.
He started to play a beautiful tune and immediately the rats took notice. He danced as he played through the streets of Hamelin and rats left the cribs, the homes and businesses, gathering in the streets to follow the Piper as he danced and played and played and danced. He went to the edge of the town, hopped into a boat and cast off across the river Weser. The rats continued to follow the music and cast themselves into the murky water, only to drown. The Piper had succeeded in his task.
He returned to the village in triumph. However, the mayor and the townspeople refused to pay up. The job was done, so why pay such a handsome fee? The Pied Piper warned them that they must keep their word or they would pay dearly. They laughed him out of town.
The next day the Pied Piper returned to Hamelin with a new tune. While the adults were in mass, he danced and played the new tune through the streets, and all of the town's children flocked to him, dancing and laughing and laughing and dancing. He wound his way through the streets and up into the mountains where a crack in the mountain appeared. The Pied Piper stepped through. The children followed him and the cave closed behind them - never to be seen again.
The only child left behind was a young disabled boy who could not keep up with the children. He was the only witness and told the townsfolk what happened. In the end, the town paid the Pied Piper dearly indeed.
So imagine my shock when one night while chatting with my other half he casually says to me that he always thought it was weird that the Pied Piper was based on actual events. (I think my reaction was something along the lines of “Fuck off!”) However, a quick search proved that it was based on actual events. Well… sort of.
Here’s what we do know:
There is a town called Hamelin in Germany. There are written references between the 14th - 17th Century to a church window from the 1300s that depicted the story. (The window having been destroyed in 1660.) The window is described as having a piper dressed in pied, (the word pied means “Of 2 colours” and usually meant black and white and is actually what the pie in Magpie stands for) surrounded by several children dressed in white. Not much to go on right? However, there are also the town records, the earliest of which is dated to 1384, which says, “It is 100 years since our children left”.
There is also an account from a 15th Century manuscript which reads, “In the year 1284 on the day of [Saints] John and Paul on 26 June 130 children born in Hamelin were misled by a piper clothed in many colours to Calvary near the Koppen*, [and] lost”
*Koppen in this instance refers to a knoll or a mound.
Chilling right? So obviously my interest was piqued.
As a child I always found this story incredibly sad. I empathised primarily with the child left behind. Why didn’t anyone help the other child to join in the magic? What if this happened in my town? Would I have been able to keep up? Would I have been left behind? So I think maybe the moral of the story was lost on me. (Although the fear of being left behind, metaphorically speaking, has been a major issue I have had to deal with well into my adult life.)
I mean, there are a lot. The most prevalent one is probably that it is just a fairy tale and has no deeper meaning, but we’re not going to let that get in the way of a good story.
The Pied Predator
In his book, A World Lit Only By Fire, William Manchester, posits that “The Pied Piper of Hamelin . . . was a real man, but there was nothing enchanting about him. Quite the opposite; he was horrible, a psychopath and pederast who, on June 24, 1484, spirited away 130 children in the Saxon village of Hammel and used them in unspeakable ways. Accounts of the aftermath vary. According to some, the victims were never seen again; others told of disembodied little bodies found scattered in the forest underbrush or festooning the branches of trees.”
So this is one that feels a bit of our time. A grown man wanting to hang out with 130 kids. Must be a paedophile. However, I should point out that there is reportedly no real evidence to any paedophilia with regard to the Pied Piper and the years do not match up to the records that we do have. So not much stock is taken in this by researchers. It does add an extra YUCK factor to the story though and for the more morbid people among us, when telling the “real” story it tends to be the jumping off point. (No judgement here - for I am one of you.)
The Child Crusades
I know, recruiting children to fight in the crusades - pretty grim. There are accounts of two
separate groups of youths (one German, one French) who, fuelled by religious fervour, went on a mission to convert Muslims to Christianity armed only with crosses, banners and an almost fanatical devotion to the pope*. Spurred on by a vision from God, Stephen of Cloyes,
aged 12, led The Children's Crusade, believed by scholars to be a kind of mass hysteria (Pun completely intended). While there are very few written accounts of the The Children’s Crusade, some scholars believe that the children of Hamelin may have also joined in.
*A poor attempt at Monty Python humor. In fact they never even received permission to go on the crusades, they just did their own thing.
The Dancing Plague
Speaking of mass hysteria, between the 14th and 17th centuries there were a number of outbreaks of “The Dancing Plague” also known as St. John’s Dance. These occurred in mainland Europe, affecting men, women and children with the need to dance, usually until collapsing. This may sound fantastical but it was a very well documented occurrence that is said to have affected 1000s of people and was not an isolated incident.
The ACTUAL Plague
They died. That’s it. The Pied Piper is like a colourful, child-friendly version of the Grim Reaper, who led the children who died from the plague up the “mountain” never to return again. The music and dancing could also be seen as a tie in with the Danse Macabre, Totentanz, or Dance of Death; which was a common allegory in medieval European artistic storytelling, as a stark reminder of the fragility of life. (Also known as Memento Mori.)
In his book The Pied Piper: A Handbook, Wolfgang Mieder suggests that colonisation might be an explanation for the strange entry in the town records in the 1300s. He suggests that there are records that show many Hamelin natives in fact settled in Eastern Europe and there are accounts of surnames from Hamelin showing up with some frequency in the various regions. Furthermore, there is also some belief that “children” in this case refers to any townsfolk born in Hamelin, making them “The Children of Hamelin”.
Due to the lack of written information, it is hard to say which is the most believable of the theories. It could well be a morality tale told over the years by the well educated as a means to explain consequences that was later written down as fact. Or perhaps a way of explaining away the tragic death of so many children; the townspeople choosing to believe that they were taken away to a beautiful, magical place rather than facing the horrors of death due to plague.
Either way there is no happy ending to this story. Regardless of what the answer is, 130 children went missing from their homes, never to return. We are probably not going to solve this mystery. The information we have is too vague, diluted through the centuries to nothing more than myth; and perhaps that is what makes the story of The Pied Piper of Hamelin so resilient?