Pied Piper of Hamelin

The Disturbing True Story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin

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When, lo! as they reached the mountain-side, 
A wondrous portal opened wide,
As if a cavern was suddenly hollowed;
And the Piper advanced and the children followed,
And when all were in to the very last,
The door in the mountain-side shut fast.

Robert Browning, The Pied Piper of Hamelin: A Child’s Story

Many are familiar with the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Few realise however, that the story is based on real events, which evolved over the years into a fairy tale made to scare children.

For those unfamiliar with the tale, it is set in 1284 in the town of Hamelin, Lower Saxony, Germany. This town was facing a rat infestation, and a piper, dressed in a coat of many coloured, bright cloth, appeared. This piper promised to get rid of the rats in return for a payment, to which the townspeople agreed too. Although the piper got rid of the rats by leading them away with his music, the people of Hamelin reneged on their promise. The furious piper left, vowing revenge. On the 26 th of July of that same year, the piper returned and led the children away, never to be seen again, just as he did the rats. Nevertheless, one or three children were left behind, depending on which version is being told. One of these children was lame, and could not keep up, another was deaf and could not hear the music, while the third one was blind and could not see where he was going.

The earliest known record of this story is from the town of Hamelin itself depicted in a stained glass window created for the church of Hamelin, which dates to around 1300 AD. Although it was destroyed in 1660, several written accounts have survived. The oldest comes from the Lueneburg manuscript (c 1440 – 50), which stated: “In the year of 1284, on the day of Saints John and Paul on June 26, by a piper, clothed in many kinds of colours, 130 children born in Hamelin were seduced, and lost at the place of execution near the koppen.”

The oldest known picture of the Pied Piper

The oldest known picture of the Pied Piper copied from the glass window of the Market Church in Hameln/Hamelin Germany (c.1300-1633). Image source: Wikimedia.

The supposed street where the children were last seen is today called Bungelosenstrasse (street without drums), as no one is allowed to play music or dance there. Incidentally, it is said that the rats were absent from earlier accounts, and only added to the story around the middle of the 16 th century. Moreover, the stained glass window and other primary written sources do not speak of the plague of rats.

If the children’s disappearance was not an act of revenge, then what was its cause? There have been numerous theories trying to explain what happened to the children of Hamelin. For instance, one theory suggests that the children died of some natural causes, and that the Pied Piper was the personification of Death. By associating the rats with the Black Death, it has been suggested that the children were victims of this plague. Yet, the Black Death was most severe in Europe between 1348 and 1350, more than half a century after the event in Hamelin. Another theory suggests that the children were actually sent away by their parents, due to the extreme poverty that they were living in. Yet another theory speculates that the children were participants of a doomed ‘Children’s Crusade’, and might have ended up in modern day Romania, or that the departure of Hamelin's children is tied to the Ostsiedlung, in which a number of Germans left their homes to colonize Eastern Europe. One of the darker theories even proposes that the Pied Piper was actually a paedophile who crept into the town of Hamelin to abduct children during their sleep.

One of the darker themed representations of the Pied Piper of Hamelin

One of the darker themed representations of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Credit: Lui-Gon-Jinn

Historical records suggest that the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin was a real event that took place. Nevertheless, the transmission of this story undoubtedly evolved and changed over the centuries, although to what extent is unknown, and the mystery of what really happened to those children has never been solved. The story also raises the question, if the Pied Piper of Hamelin was based on reality, how much truth is there in other fairy tales that we were told as children?

Featured image: An illustration of the Pied Piper of Hamelin . Credit: Monlster

Comments

It is interesting, and adds credit to the reality of the story, that ancient Etruscans, that disappeared 1000 to 1500 years before this story, had a way of luring animals from the woods and streight into set up nets, by playing music, usually on type of pan flutes. In my oppinion many medieval stories echo more ancient stories or have elements reminiscent of earlier times in human history...for example Legend of Arthur, The Holy Grail and round table, in Serbia there are medieval poems that reflect the Troyan war, ancient astronomy, beliefs and such, I'm guessing there are a lot of similiar examples around Europe too...

I know this is going to come off as childish but I think it offers a descent reason even if there is no factual basis. I think in the anime in English sub or dub of Mondaiji-tachi ga isekai kara kuru sou desu yo episodes 8-10 deal with a possibility of pied piper of Hamelin. They show how the false tale of rats, storms, and the plague are all untrue and that there could have been a reason to it all. They suggest that maybe the children wanted to leave on their own. I know this sounds stupid but I think even if you do not enjoy anime/manga this is at least an interesting take on a cause to this age old tale. The episodes are free on daily motion too

Moonsong's picture

I have always been fascinated by the origins of fairytales. Many writers and psychologists claim that the basis for every fairytale are popular psychological fears and archetypes. Here there are definitely echoes of Jung’s theories. However I personally believe that there is at least a kernel of truth in each story. At the time, the normal people hardly knew how to read and write, and stories were the only way they had of relating events and passing them on to future generations. Stories where the way they told their history to their children, the way they taught them to be cautious and about the facts of life. In this case, they even had a commemorating window about the event, which is just proof that it actually happened.

 

- Moonsong
--------------------------------------------
A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world ~ Oscar Wilde

Original folk tales were dark and spooky tales but they conveyed moral attitudes and warnings such as trust and caution and danger. In those days most people couldn't read or write and many people still believed in God and black magic, and so storytelling on winters nights or before bed was the way the world was explained to young children. These stories only became fairy tales about beautiful maidens and handsome princes when the Victorians rewrote them for the burgeoning children's book market.

Hansel and Gretel is said to have originated from the Great Famine of 1315. After years of drought and then a year of floods there was no food available in Europe, and parents unable to feed their children turned them out to fend for themselves. After this mass abandonment many kids were never seen again, many assumed murdered and eaten. It warns of uncertainty, self-reliance, hunger, stranger danger, deceit, having a plan etc., and in its original form it must have had an impact on most kids.

Patricia Goodwin's picture

Fascinating article and comments! I realized, too, that there may not have been as many children as the illustrations show. In a small village, maybe a dozen. Yes, people had a lot more children in those days, but not many survived. Fewer children would make the story more plausible, though not any less horrifying. I was also frightened by this tale, way over in the U.S., so I can only imagine how scary it was for children living in the area now! The many colored clothing also reminds me of the villain clown of Stephen King’s “It” and It’s precurser, the derelict clown in Willa Cather’s “The Song of the Lark” both of whom killed children in the town. A timeless terror!

   

Patricia Goodwin

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