Sometimes you hear a really creepy fairy tale and you’re glad that’s all it is. Then sometimes you find out that it’s actually a really creepy legend and it makes everything seem a lot creepier.
Such is the case with the famous story of the “Pied Piper of Hamelin”.
Ah, I bet you thought the story of the Pied Piper was just a fairy tale as well. How thoroughly we’ve all been fooled.
Now, the story of the Pied Piper has come down to us from a couple of different sources. The first non-cinematic version I ever encountered was the poem by Robert Browning. Apparently, though, there’s also a version published by the Brothers Grimm. Don’t look for it in your copy of The Complete Grimms’ Fairy Tales, though. Apparently, it was published in another volume entitled German Legends, which is a bit hard to get a hold of here in the United States (at least, for less than $80). There’s even a version that appears in the “Legends” section of von Schonwerth’s The Turnip Princess.
A basic summary of the story states that a man dressed in multi-colored clothing appeared in the town of Hamelin, offering to deal with a rat infestation. The town agrees to his terms. So, this pied man takes out a musical pipe and starts playing. This causes all the town’s rats to follow him. He leads them all to the Weser River and drowns them. The Piper asks for his pay, but the town refuses. The piper returns later, this time dressed as a hunter and wearing a red cap. He starts to play a different tune and all the children of Hamelin now start to follow him. He leads them into the mountains and up to a cliff side where a great door opens up. The Piper and 130 children disappear inside never to be seen again. Depending on which version of the story you hear, anywhere from 1 to 3 children actually get left behind by the Piper. They’re generally agreed to be a deaf child who could not hear the music, a blind child who could not see where everyone else was going and a lame child who could not keep up with the rest.
It’s a suitably eerie tale, but it’s really only the latest version. The earliest account of this story takes us back to around 1300 and a stained glass window erected in the church in Hameln (modern Hamelin). The window depicts a motley-clad fellow and a group of children. The inscription reads: “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.”
For a more official sort of record, there is one of the town’s oldest records dated at 1384 that states “It is 100 years since our children left.”
About a hundred years after the stained glass window in what’s known as the Luneburg Manuscript, a monk named Heinrich of Herferd states that a man of about 30 years old came to town playing a flute and led the children out.
And yet, still no mention of rats. However, it is established that something happened that caused the town of Hameln to lose 130 people. What was it?
The Black Death theory- One theory is that because of the presence of rats in the legend that evolved, that the city of Hameln lost 130 of its children to the famous medieval plague. In this case, the Pied Piper on the stained glass window was likely a personification of death. This seems like a fair enough theory except for a couple of problems. For one, the rats didn’t become part of the legend until 1559. Also, the Black Death was most severe in Europe from 1348-1350, more than 50 years after the children supposedly disappeared.
The Kidnapper Theory- A theory not mentioned by most sources, but espoused by historian William Manchester in his book A World Lit Only by Fire, suggests that the Pied Piper was actually a maniacal pedophile that abducted children during their sleep. I have my doubts about this. It seems doubtful that your average criminal could be behind this unless the numbers had been inflated. 130 children would be an awful lot to abduct.
The Human-Trafficking Theory- By the 13th Century, this area of Germany was overpopulated. Only the oldest son would inherit land and money from his parents. It was not uncommon during this time to sell children who were either orphaned or illegitimate to recruiters from the Baltic regions.
The Children’s Crusade Theory- One of the most commonly held theories is that the children were the members of a failed Children’s Crusade. The story of the first Children’s Crusade occurred around 1212. The story basically says that a 12-year old boy has a vision in which Jesus Christ tells him to go to the Holy Land and convert Muslims to Christianity. The stories rarely end with them succeeding in their plans, either just never making it to the Holy Land or being sold into slavery. Still, the imaginations of writers at the time were fired by this idea. The idea of hundreds of children going off on a Crusade makes for a great story. This is also supported by the idea that the Pied Piper himself might have been one of the wandering poor that often accompanied these Crusades. In this case, the Piper’s pied clothing is not motley but ragged clothes that would have been patched with cloth of many colors. It’s even suggested that the children travelled to the East and settled in what would eventually become Transylvania. This brings us to the final theory . . .
The Mass Exodus Theory- This theory is the one espoused by the Hameln Tourism Board. Basically, it’s that 130 people who were probably recruited by landowners from other parts left Hamelin to settle in other places. In this case, we have to take the phrase “Children of Hamelin” as more of a metaphor. In this case, it doesn’t mean actual children but “People of Hamelin”. The people who left Hamelin likely settled in places like Pomerania, East Prussia, Moravia and the Teutonic Land.
We may never know what really happened to the 130 people who disappeared from the Town of Hameln. However, the story that has grown around this occurrence has spread around the world and been translated into numerous languages. There is no doubting that the Pied Piper of Hamelin is The Stuff of Legends!
Ancient Origins. “The Disturbing True Story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.”
How Stuff Works. “Was There Really a Pied Piper of Hamelin?”
Statd Hameln. “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”
Top Secret Writers. “The Truth Behind the Legend of the Pied Piper.”
The Medievalists. “The Pied Piper of Hamelin: A Medieval Mass Abduction?”