The Pied Piper of Hamelin

Most Americans are familiar with the story of the “Pied Piper of Hamelin”, a fairy tale included in thousands of children’s storybooks. For those of you that have never heard the tale, or, if you’re a bit rusty on the details, the story goes like this:

In 1284, the town of Hamelin, Germany had a massive rat infestation. A stranger appeared in town, offering to get rid of the rats for a fee. The townsfolk agreed, and the man whipped out a pipe (the musical kind) and started playing a tune. The rats all heard the music and started following the piper, who then walked into the Weser River, causing all the rats to drown. For some reason, the townspeople then refused to “pay the piper” as it were, and the man vowed to get his revenge on the people of Hamelin. He came back a few weeks later and, when all the townsfolk were in church, the man piped a tune and lured 130 of the town’s children to a nearby cave, where they were never heard from again.

Like any folktale, there are several versions of the story. In many versions, only two of the town’s children survive – a crippled boy who couldn’t keep up with the others, and a deaf child who never heard the piper’s tune. In other versions of the story, the children are led to the Weser and drowned just like the rats. In still other versions, the piper takes the children to a cave and holds them hostage until the town either a) pays him the fee he was promised; or b) gives him a huge amount of gold as ransom.

But what you probably don’t know about the Pied Piper story is that most historians believe that it’s based on actual events!

Around the year 1300, the citizens of Hamelin installed a stained glass window in their local church depicting a piper leading the town’s children away (the “rat infestation” wasn’t added to the story until the 1560s). At the time, stained glass windows in churches were often dedicated to local tragedies; more “whimsical” use of stained glass (such as in the Shakespeare Memorial in London’s Southwark Cathedral) would come much later. Sadly, although there are several contemporary written accounts of the window, we don’t know what it actually looked like, as it was destroyed in 1660. Additionally, surviving town records indicate that there was, in fact, some such “tragedy” in the town in June of 1284.

But what, exactly, that tragedy was, no one seems to know. Here are a few “best guesses”:

– That an accident (such as a bridge collapse or landslide) killed the children.

– That some communicable disease arrived in Hamelin, and for some reason only children got sick. In this case, some believe that the children were led away from the town for purposes of quarantine; thus, the piper is a literal figure… some poor citizen who had to dress up as a clown and lure the children away to die. Others believe that a weak form of bubonic plague hit the town, and that this particular strain of the disease was only powerful enough to kill children. In this case, the piper is a figurative character, perhaps an angel or local spirit “taking” the kids away from the village.

– That the bodies of the children started turning up three or four at a time over the next few months. In some local versions of the tale, the Pied Piper thus becomes history’s first serial killer\mass murderer.

– That the children came down with Dancing Mania. Yes, there was an actual affliction called Dancing Mania. All over Europe, from 1300s until the 1700s, groups of people (sometimes thousands at a time) would suddenly begin dancing in a freakish, uncontrollable manner. Some foamed at the mouth and others spoke in tongues. The dance would go on and on, until the exhausted victim fell down, many times to die. This happened all over Europe and was witnessed by hundreds of thousands of people. It’s rather well documented, I promise. At least one incident – an outbreak at Aachen, Germany, on June 24, 1374 – was very likely ergot poisoning from the rye the townsfolk had eaten. Ergot is a fungus that grows on grains, and yes, it’s also the source for the drug LSD. Ergot poisoning can include LSD-like hallucinations, which could really have gotten out of hand back in those superstitious times. It’s also the same poisoning that some think caused the Salem Witch Trials in colonial Massachusetts. However, historians aren’t sure that ergot poisoning was the cause of every case of Dancing Mania, or even most cases.

– That the children were led away to be part of a pilgrimage, a military need or as part of a Crusade. It sounds impossible to believe, but in the year 1212 there was a Children’s Crusade in Europe.

As history tells it, a child (either in France or Germany) witnessed and\or performed miracles. The children of the village then followed him, moving from town to town, performing miracles and attracting a band of followers that grew with each city. The boy had plans to convert the Muslims of the Holy Land to Christianity by peaceful means with his “army” of faithful children. Unfortunately, the children never made it to the Holy Land and were sold into slavery.

Modern historical research paints a slightly different affair, however. There were in fact, two separate children: Nicholas, a shepherd from Germany, and Stephen of Cloyes, from France. Over time, their two stories slowly merged into one, as things in folklore tend to do.

Nicholas led a group of around 7,000 “children” across the Alps and into Italy. The waters of the Mediterranean failed to part at Genoa as promised by Nicholas. Since the group had no money for passage to the Holy Land on ships, the band simply broke up. Some tried to go back home, while others tried a new life in Rome, and still others went to Marseilles, where chances were great that they were, in fact, sold into slavery.

In Stephen’s case, he gained a crowd of 30,000 people by claiming to have received a letter for the King of France from Jesus, as well as performing a few minor miracles in Paris. However, the crowd disbanded by the order of King Phillip II, under the advice of the University of Paris. Most simply went home, and any “horror stories” in this case appear to have been minimal.

I also put “children” in quotes because there is some confusion over the Latin term pueri (“boys”) that was used to describe the crowds in the original stories. Pueri does, in fact, mean “boys” in classical Latin, but in this case, it is used as a slang term (much like “country boys” in American English). Thus, the crowds of “boys” in the stories were more likely to be young men in their mid to late teens and not actual “children”. This also fits economic patterns at the time, as only the eldest son inherited his father’s estate. There was therefore an “excess” of young men in the countryside during this time, making it much more likely that the “armies” were made up of 18 year-olds, not 6 year-olds.

– That the “children” (they could be teens now, remember?) may have simply been a part of the Ostsiedlung, a German territorial expansion from the German “heartland” into the relatively barren areas of Central and Eastern Europe. In this case, which historians consider most likely, a recruiter came to town dressed in a jolly outfit. Through smooth talking and excellent salesmanship, the recruiter got 130 young men to follow him away to begin a new life in Poland, what was Prussia, what is now the modern-day Czech Republic, or some other place in Hungary or Eastern Europe.

Whatever the case may be, it’s strange that this tale, of all of them, should be the one with the largest grain of truth, no? Although many of Grimm’s and other German fairytales were invented to get kids to “act right”, this story is based – in some way or another – on the truth.

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