Most of us are familiar with the Grimm Brothers’ fairytale, the Pied Piper of Hamelin.
The German town of Hamelin(or Hameln, the German variant spelling) is besieged by rats and the townsfolk are at a loss at how to deal with this pestilent problem.
One day a man appears, dressed in an outfit of many colours, and offers to rid the town of the vermin in exchange for a fee. The town elders agree on a price and the man takes out a flute and starts playing a strange tune. As he walks through the streets of Hameln, the sound of his music brings forth the rats, which follow him as he makes his way to the river Weser. He leads them straight into the water where they all drown.
Relieved as the people were to be rid of the rats, the town elders go back on their word and refuse to pay the Piper for his troubles. Seeking revenge for their treachery, the rat-catcher returns to the town the very next day. He plays a different melody but this time it is the children who become influenced by his playing and start dancing and following him through the streets. He leads them out of the town, to the base of a mountain where a cavern opens up. The children enter the mountain, the cavity closes, and they are never seen again.
No doubt a grim and morbid fairytale but did this incident really take place? Does this children’s story have a basis in fact?
Of course, the town of Hameln really does exist in the German province of Lower Saxony. And to this day the town still holds certain traditions and annual festivals in honour of the missing 130 children and two 16th century houses bear commemorative plaques mentioning the date in which they disappeared.
But what do the historical records say?
The commemorative plaques give the precise date of that fateful day as 26 June 1284. A historical document called the Luneberg Manuscript (published in the 1400’s) also gives this exact date this yet later records give the date of 22 July 1376.
It should be noted however that the earliest mentions only tell of the children’s disappearance. No reason or explanation is given. It’s only until the 16th century that mention of the Pied Piper is made and was popularized by English poet Robert Browning and the Grimm Brothers.
Interestingly, the Market Church in Hameln’s town centre has a stained glass window on which is a clear depiction of a colourfully dressed flute player leading a group of dancing children who are all dressed in white. The construction of the building dates back to the 1300’s.
The Symbolic Rat-Catcher
Where precise dates are given for the children’s’ disappearance, the figure of the Pied Piper seems to be shrouded in mystery. There obviously is a supernatural quality to the Piper but did such a person actually exist or was there someone who at least inspired the famous fairytale figure?
During the Middle Ages, rat-catching was a popular profession due to the outbreaks of bubonic plague and rat-catchers were often sought for their services. But no disgruntled rat-catcher with a grudge to bear has been noted. Perhaps the iconic Pied Piper was representative of, not so much the rats, but of the certain death that was brought on by the plague-some scholars feel he’s a representation of the Grim Reaper leading the children away into the afterlife…
The Missing Children
If the Piper really did represent Death, there is no historical proof to suggest that the children died of natural causes. There are no records stating that the plague was responsible. In fact the plague, or Black Death, only reached Europe in the 14th century.Due to the motif in the legend that the children were ‘dancing’ to their doom, some claim that the disease was not the plague but St.Vitus’ Dance, an infliction that was common during Medieval times and characterised by involuntary body movements due to the motor senses being affected.
Of course this is also conjecture as there’s no solid evidence to back this theory either. Up until the 19th century, two crosses stood erect at the base of the Koppelberg Mountain to mark the spot where the children apparently entered and were last seen. The original date when the crosses were erected could not be found but perhaps this is evidence that the kids had indeed left the town?
The Children’s Crusade
One of the more popular explanations given for the mass disappearance were the events that took place during the 13th century known as the Children’s Crusades.
In 1212, due to the European Christian Crusaders’ failure to capture Jerusalem, two armies, consisting of entirely children from France and Germany, marched on to the Holy Land. Convinced that God would protect them, the children were determined to fight the Muslim Crusaders but the mission was a disaster and many of the kids died along the way due to exhaustion and the rest never made it back home.
There have been some incidents recorded of travellers to Eastern Europe and North Africa, who met locals who claim to have been born in Germany and were separated from their families. Indeed the Grimms’ fairytale version (possibly an attempt to give the story a happier ending) has an itinerant come across a small village in Transylvania, whose residents spoke German and who claimed their forefathers were from a town in Germany.
The problem with the Children’s Crusades theory however, is that the earliest date given for the disappearance of the Hameln kids is 1284. The Children’s Crusades were well-documented and the well-established date of 1212 is given.
Whether a complete literary hoax or a legend based on fact, the origins of the Pied Piper will continue to be a mystery.
To this day, the town of Hameln celebrates its association with the legendary rat-catcher as re-enactments are carried out every year on 26 June, in honour of the 130 children who disappeared. There is even a street, named the Bungen-Strasse, which forbids the playing of music (the Bungen-Strasse was allegedly the route the Pied Piper had taken). If that isn’t enough, a bronze statue of the iconic flute-player stands proudly outside the Hameln Town hall.
So my perceptive readers, do you think the Pied Piper really existed? What of your thoughts on the children’s disappearance? If it’s all just a fairytale, how do you explain the preciseness of all the dates given? All thoughts are welcome
The Pied Piper of Hamelin(poem) by Robert Browning
The Pied Piper of Hamelin by the Brothers’ Grimm
The Pied Piper of Hamelin(1957) –(dir.) Bretaigne Windust
The Pied Piper(1986)(Original Czech title: Krysar)- (dir.)Jiri Barta
Facts and Fallacies, Readers’ Digest, pages 354-355. Readers’ Digest Association. USA.1988.
ALL IMAGES TAKEN FROM WIKIPEDIA COMMONS.