Was There a Real Pied Piper of Hamelin?

Image credit: Kate Greenaway/duncan1890/Getty Images

Chances are you had heard the story of the magical ratcatcher who rid a German village of their rat problem, only to lure the children of the town away when the townspeople refused to pay him for his duty. The tale dated back to the Middle Ages and became famous when the Brothers Grimm included it in their collection of German folktales in the 1800s.

Over the years, scholars have debated the truth behind the legend. Documents show that there was possibly a massive drop in the child population of the village of Hamelin in the modern German region of Saxony. Some hold the belief the piper to be a metaphor for an actual event, while some state the piper was a stand-in for an actual event of child abduction.

The Legend

The year is 1284, and the village of Hamelin is suffering from a rat infestation. The vermin were destroying food stores and spreading disease. Then one day, a man dressed in a pied outfit (“pied” was a term meaning “multicolored”) claimed to be a ratcatcher and would rid the village of their problem. The mayor offered the Pied Piper a hefty reward, in some versions 1,000 guilders (over 500,000 dollars today) to solve the rat problem.

The piper then took out his pipe and began to play. The rats, hypnotized by the music, followed the piper out of the town and into the nearby Weser River, where they all died. The townspeople rejoiced and celebrated their deliverance from the rats.

The Pied Piper, having completed his service to the village, approached the mayor for his reward. Some tellings of the story have the mayor accusing the piper of bringing the rats to the town himself in an extortion attempt. However, the mayor changed his mind and reduced the amount he was willing to pay the piper, in some versions lowering the reward to 50 guilders. The angered Pied Piper left the town but vowed he would return to get his revenge.

Several days later, the Pied Piper returned while the adults were in church. Dressed all in green like a hunter, the piper began to play again. However, instead of luring rats out of the city, 130 children followed him out of the village, never to be seen again. Only three children remained in some tellings: a deaf child who could not hear the music, a blind child who could not see where they were going, and a lame child who could not keep up with the others. These children later recounted to the adults what had happened.

There are different tellings on what happened to the children who left with the Pied Piper. In some versions, they follow the piper into a cave in a mountain, and the entrance disappeared behind them. They were transported to a beautiful land. Other versions state they were exiled to Transylvania, where there were pockets of German settlers. More gruesome endings say they were drowned in the river like rats. A few versions include a happier ending where the children are returned after the villagers pay the agreed amount or a higher reward.

Historic Background

The earliest known record of this story and event is from a now-gone stained glass window at the Church of Hamelin from around the 1300s. It was destroyed in 1660, but a modern recreation was made, which survives. It shows a piper in bright clothing being followed by children dressed in white.

The window is believed to commemorate some tragic event, though written records from the period are scarce. A chronicle from the town records in 1384 states: “It has been a hundred years since our children disappeared.” The rats do not appear until a 1559 account.

The oldest surviving written account of the event is the Luneberg manuscript, which dates from about 1440. This account states that 130 children were lured by a piper to Calvary near Koppen (Hills) and disappeared.

For centuries scholars have attempted to find the historical event that the chronicle references to no avail. Several explanations have been given for what may have happened.

Natural Causes Theory

Some scholars think the Pied Piper is a stand-in for the personification of Death. The stained glass window depicts a Dance Macabre, a familiar image during the Middle Ages in which death leads the souls of the dead to the afterlife.

This art motif was widespread in the years during plagues, especially the Black Death. At this time, the infant mortality rate was very high, so it is possible that an epidemic outbreak could have wiped out a large number of children.

Others who believe the deaths were from natural causes believe a natural disaster may be to blame. Perhaps a flood of the Weser River resulted in a mass drowning, or a landslide in the nearby woods could have killed children playing in the forest.

Another more modern interpretation states that the children may have participated in a pagan ritual in the woods, as pockets of paganism still existed in Germanic lands during this period. While taking part in dance, either a landslide crushed them, or a sinkhole opened up beneath them.

Emigration Theory

During the 13th century in Germany, overpopulation and inheritance laws often resulted in the eldest son inheriting property and the other siblings being resorted to serfs working the land. As a result, it was a fairly common practice for children to be sold to recruiters for settlement in the Baltic region. Orphans, illegitimate children, and other children that were a “burden” on the town may have been sold and sent to these regions further east.

There is some evidence that supports this theory, primarily that they were settled into the region of Transylvania. After several invasions from Mongol hordes, the part of Transylvania was highly depopulated and was desirable for German settlers. Records of surnames of these 13th-century settlers are similar to people from the area of Hamelin. Another contender is modern Poland as the destination for these children.

If these children were indeed sold to settle other areas of Europe, it could explain the incomplete records of the event. Parents likely did not want to remember that they sold their children off to a faraway place, where they would experience new hardships and never see their homes again.

Mass Hysteria Theory

Another theory is that the children suffered from a mass psychological event. During this time, there are records of what was called dancing mania. This phenomenon occurred around Europe between the 14th and 17th centuries. It featured groups of people spontaneously dancing erratically until they collapsed from injury or exhaustion.

Scholars have not been able to explain the cause of dancing mania. Still, some believe it could have been an example of social hysteria where others followed the lead of others. Musicians often accompanied the dancing, as it could help calm the dancers but often did the opposite.

There is an account from 1237 of a group of children getting caught up in dancing mania. They danced the 12 miles from Erfurt to Arnstadt. Could it be possible that the children of Hamelin were caught up in a similar mania and either traveled too far from home to find their way back or suffered some tragic fate?

Children’s Crusade Theory

During the mass disappearance of the children of Hamelin, Europe was swept in the period of the Crusades. Christians went to the Middle East to attempt to reclaim Muslim territory for Christiandom. It is possible the children were swept up in this further and were either recruited for a pilgrimage, military campaign, or a surged Children’s crusade.

The Children’s Crusade was an event that occurred in the year 1212. Two boys led separate groups on a mission to peacefully convert Muslims to Christianity, both claiming visions from God. Stephen of Cloyes led a group from France, while Nicholas of Cologne was recruited in Germany. While accounts of the event vary and are shrouded in myth, most reports say that many of the children ended up abandoning the cause and going home or being sold into slavery at Tunis.

The church and local rulers were against the idea of Children Crusades, and some who allowed their children to participate were excommunicated or punished by their kings. If this theory were true, the families might have invented the tale to cover up the event. The piper was a recruiter for the campaign.

Mass Kidnapping Theory

One final theory comes from William Manchester’s 1992 book A World Lit Only By Fire. His theory states that the Pied Piper events took place in 1484. The piper was actually a psychopathic pedophile who did unspeakable acts to the children. Their remains were later found in the forest.

While the book was well-received and became a New York Times Bestseller, the historian community was more critical. Manchester’s theory is unlikely true, and many scholars have discredited his book as a whole. For example, he placed the event over a century after mentioning the disappearance in town records. While it is plausible that someone could have kidnapped and murdered some of the children, it is unlikely one many could have made off with over 100 children without raising some suspicion even if the adults were at church.

So What is the True Story?

It is unlikely we will ever know for sure what happened to the children of Hamelin unless contemporary records are discovered. While some theories are more plausible than others, the tale of the Pied Piper is seen today as a lesson in honoring your bargains or suffering the consequences. The term “pied piper” has entered our lexicon as a metaphor for a charismatic leader or one who makes foolish promises.

The modern people of Hamelin celebrate the legend that has made their home famous. The Ratcatcher’s House is a popular tourist attraction, and a Pied Piper-themed restaurant is on the site. June 26th is celebrated at Ratcatcher’s Day in remembrance of the event.

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