The Pied Piper of Hameln – An HML Post


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.

Oldest picture of the Pied Piper, reproduced from the painting on the glass window of the Market Church in Hameln. Image in Public Domain.

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 A historical document called the Luneberg Manuscript (published in the 1400’s) also gives this exact date this yet later records give the date of 22 July 1376.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.

Re-enactments of the Pied Piper story take place annually in Hameln. Image in Public Domain.

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 🙂

NM 🙂

LITERATURE

The Pied Piper of Hamelin(poem) by Robert Browning

The Pied Piper of Hamelin by the Brothers’ Grimm

MOVIES 

The Pied Piper of Hamelin(1957) –(dir.) Bretaigne Windust

The Pied Piper(1986)(Original Czech title: Krysar)- (dir.)Jiri Barta

REFERENCES

Facts and Fallacies, Readers’ Digest, pages 354-355. Readers’ Digest Association. USA.1988.

http://www.hameln.com/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pied_Piper_of_Hamelin

http://www.forteantimes.com/features/articles/3805/the_lost_children_of_hamelin.html (MJ Perez Cuervo)

ALL IMAGES TAKEN FROM WIKIPEDIA COMMONS.

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25 thoughts on “The Pied Piper of Hameln – An HML Post

  1. Raj says:

    Interesting story.
    Just 2 observations:
    1. Rathaus is the German word for a town hall. It has nothing to do with rats. Every German town and city has a Rathaus.

    2. While the market church may date back to 1300, such old buildings undergo constant renovation. Alternatively, since most German buildings were destroyed during WW2, it could be a completely new building built on the site of the original. Many of these new buildings are designed to look old, just like the originals. So photographs can be misleading. Either way, the stained glass depicting the pied piper might not be part of the original design from 1300.

    • Nisha says:

      Thank you for that, I didn’t realise Rathaus meant town/council hall. 🙂

      You are right, many of the buildings in ‘Old’ Hameln were destroyed and subsequently renovated but the picture I posted is not a photograph, its a reproduction of a painting that’s dated from 1592. The artist apparently copied it from the original window of the Market Church.
      (By the way, I just checked Hameln’s offical website, there seems to be another stained glass window with a different depiction, a more modern one. Obviously, depictions on watercolour paintings and glass windows won’t look exactly the same but I have a feeling that old picture might be the closest thing to what the original window looked like.)

      • RecursiveRaj says:

        Is it possible that the Pied Piper in the stained glass is actually a depiction of the angel Raphael, who is sometimes drawn holding a trumpet? Also, since the stained glass Pied Piper seems to pre-date the actual story, could the artistry have given rise to the story?

        Another possibility of the missing children could be slave traders, although I can’t see how 130 children could have been kidnapped as slaves on a single day. Or, it could have been something as mundane as a school fire.

      • Nisha says:

        The exact date of the stained glass is not certain but the building itself is 14th century-if the earliest date for the disappearance (1284) holds true, then it doesn’t actually pre-date the story. Unless the event happened much later on…

  2. DebE says:

    Certainly some interesting potential links there. And stories/songs have always been the best way to remember historical events. They’re bound to change with retelling – especially once a skilled storyteller gets their mits on them … Suddenly a factual story becaose less so, but sounds a whole lot more interesting … I wonder which version people would prefer to hear?
    For for thought, though. Thanks for doing a little research and letting us in on it!

    • Nisha says:

      Excellent points there Deb, that’s the biggest problem with stories and the telling of them-whether fact or fairytale, the older the tale, the blurrier the details become. I’ve noticed though, that a lot of these types of mysteries, people favor the supernatural element- in this case the haunting music that influences the rats and children.
      Thanks for commenting 🙂

  3. Barb says:

    Wow, very interesting. Isn’t it amazing 130 children can disappear and no actual proof exists? Proof we need to keep writing our stories.

    • Nisha says:

      That’s what confounded me the most, that the town has made an effort for centuries to preserve their memory yet choose not to mention(in any way) the cause of their disappearance.
      True Barb, we need to keep writing, however on the plus side, it’s mysteries like these that help fuel our imaginations and make us want to write in the first place. Well, for me anyway 😉

  4. nelle says:

    You really outdid yourself here. Excellent read, excellent research, you had me fascinated all the way. Meanwhile, I have the (modern) song in my head now. #earworm

    • Nisha says:

      Oh wow, thank you Nelle! The HML posts in general, as enjoyable as they are to work on, can be tedious and hectic with all the information and theories to sift through. Especially with this one but I’m chuffed that you enjoyed it! 😀

  5. I love this post. I am going to sit on the fence over the truth but I love RB’s poem of it. I also took Will to see a children’s opera of it when he was younger – it was fabulous. Will also played Sebastion in Frank and Ferdinand which is a play inspired by the P.P. So it keeps popping up for us. More like this please.

  6. Lois says:

    I used to know Browning’s poem off by heart! An interesting post!

  7. WordsFallFromMyEyes says:

    What a FASCINATING, EXCELLENT article – research & all.

    I am glad you recounted the tale in the beginning because I completely forgot that children disappeared. All I remembered of the tale was the rats into the water. But after you recounted it, to then bring in history & the stained glass window & the records – my gosh, truly children disappeared? Bizarre. Utterly bizarre. There are so, so many mysteries in this world, unseen.

    Thank you for an enormously interesting read.

    N.

    • Nisha says:

      It is very bizarre, and sad considering that little kids were involved.

      Glad you enjoyed this post, and thank you for the lovely comments. You’re very sweet 🙂

  8. Fantastic article! I had always assumed the story of the Pied Piper was pure invention so it’s great to know that there’s a kernel of truth in it. How odd, though, that we now know the story of a man with a magical flute leading them away rather than the truth!

    Thanks for sharing this.

    • Nisha says:

      Oh wow, how lovely to see you here James! Glad you liked this, and yes my thoughts precisely. How strange the emphasis on the disappearance yet nothing on the actual reasons for it.
      Thanks for commenting, and do stop by again! 🙂

  9. beckyday6 says:

    Wow this is so interesting! 🙂 I had never considered that there could be some truth behind the Pied Piper, but then I suppose there is often some small grain of truth behind these stories. Some great theories here, great post!

    • Nisha says:

      Yeah, because it’s such a well-known ‘fairytale’, people see it as just that, a fairytale. But I’m sure if we delve deeper into most traditional childrens’ stories we’d find some evidence of truth behind it. Glad you enjoyed this post, Beckster! 🙂

  10. Hello, I arrived at the site via the stunningly beautiful old drawing of the Pied Piper and the very old (tiny!) map of Hameln. I wanted to provide another film adaptation of the legend: Jacques Demy’s English-language film, “The Pied Piper” (1972). The role of the Pied Piper is played by the well-known British folk singer, Donovan. It is an UK production, and the cast features many well-known stars of British cinema.

    The BFI link: http://ftvdb.bfi.org.uk/sift/title/46426
    IMDB link: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0069086/

    The film is available on DVD and streaming in the United States.
    Happy viewing!

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