On June 26 1284, or so the original story goes, a young man, handsome in appearance and dressed in brightly coloured clothes entered the small town of Hamelin, Northern Germany. Standing in the middle of the town he proceeded to play a magnificent tune on his silver pipe, drawing the children of the town out of their homes. Once they gathered he continued to play his pipe as he then led the 130 children out of the town to the Calvary or Gallows hill, never to be seen again.
The Pied Piper is a story that has been adapted and told for centuries the world over. There is evidence of it being present within many different cultures from England through to Syria, each with their own reasoning for the pipers’ terrible deed. Hamelin, however, is one of the few that has evidence to support their age old tale. Sources say that the event was recorded in the town chronicle circa 1311 and a stained glass window in the town church of St. Nicholas. Though no one’s sure what happened to the missing chronicle it is known that two town officials found the tale behind the window embarrassing and had it removed in 1660. However, an entry in the town chronicle from 1384 states very simply, “It is 100 years since our children left.”, and although it’s faded away now, in 1556 a new gate placed on the Eastern entrance to the town was inscribed in Latin with “This gate was built 272 years after the magician led the 130 children from the city.” In fact, there are inscriptions engraved into buildings and chimneys all over the town in an effort to mark the children’s disappearance and some of these still survive today.
Textual evidence also exists and the manuscript pages of the Catena Auria written by Dominican Monk, Chronicler, and Historian, Brother Heinrich von Herford in c. 1370 seems to hold the earliest surviving evidence of the Pipers existence. Roughly translated out of its original Latin the entry reads,
To be noted is a marvellous and truly extraordinary event that occurred in the town of Hamelin in the diocese of Minden in the year of the Lord 1284, on the very feast-day of Saints John and Paul. A young man of 30 years, handsome and in all respects so finely dressed that all who saw him were awestruck by his person and clothing came in by way of the bridge and the Weser Gate. On a silver pipe which he had, of wonderful form, he began to play through the whole town, and all the children hearing him, to the number of 130, followed him beyond the eastern wall almost to the place of the Calvary or Gallows field, and vanished and disappeared so that nobody could find out where any one of them had gone. Indeed, the mothers of the children wandered from city to city and discovered nothing. A voice was heard in Rama and every mother bewailed her son. And as people count by the years of the Lord or by the first, second and third after a jubilee, so they have counted in Hamelin by the first, second and third year after the exodus and departure of the children. This I have found in an old book. And the mother of Herr Johann de Lude, the deacon, saw the children going out
So what actually happened to the children?
Well there are a few different theories on this.
1) They were caught up in the Children’s Crusades of the time. Yes, you read that correctly. There is documented proof that in 1212 AD more than 7000 men, women, and children rose up under the leadership of a boy named Nicholas and took off across the Alps for Genoa. Once in the port city they hoped to secure transport to the Holy land to fight in the wars against the Saracens, however, by the time they reached the Italian city many of the crusaders had lost heart in their cause and left the march. Very few of those who left Germany actually returned, some went to Rome, others were captured and sold to the Saracens as slaves, while others still died of hardship and starvation, misplaced in a foreign country. Nicholas, it is said, did actually go over to fight in Acre and returned back home afterwards.
2) The children aren’t necessarily children per se, but rather young people belonging to the town hence “the towns children”, and they emigrate to another country. In the 13th C it wasn’t uncommon for the Holy Roman Emperor or other European nobility to encourage the youth of towns to relocate to their newly acquired lands in order to build the population up. It’s been suggested that the Piper was actually a recruiter sent by the Count Nicholas von Spielenberg of Pomerania to offer the towns people the chance to relocate to his lands. The Emissary may have also been from Emperor Rudolph von Hapsburg, who was looking to encourage settlement in his newly acquired lands of Moravia. Both lands just happen to offer new opportunities in the year of 1284. Transylvania has also been put forward as one of the destinations the Hamelin-ers may have been kidnapped and transported to in order to colonise.
3) The children were taken up to the top of the mountain and were caught up in landslide or natural disaster of sorts. This is supported in a document written in 1394 that has since, unfortunately, been lost, however, copies of the document have survived. The text roughly translated from its original Latin states,
Mary, hear us, for your Son denies you nothing.. 1284 is that year when members of both sexes languish (through weakness), the year of the day John and Paul, which the 130 dear children of Hamelin swept away and not without doom. It is said that Calvary swallowed them alive. Christ, protect the guilty so that no similar evil fate overtake them.
The text clearly indicates that the younglings were killed in a natural disaster though there is no other record of this occurring.
4) Finally, it is thought that the children may have become victims to one of the many instance of disease, such as Plague, that occurred during the 13th C. In this case the Piper wouldn’t be a physical being but rather an emissary of death who was often pictured during this time playing his pipe, calling out souls. They could have also been victim to a phenomenon known as the Dancing Madness or, St. Vitus’s Dance. Brought on by rye fungus, St. Vitus’s Dance would cause mass hysteria and uncontrollable dancing and jerking. It is said that when music was played to the victims of the ailment they would look relieved so musicians or pipers would be hired to accommodate the ill. Dancers could dance themselves into unconsciousness and even death. The most common age group for this ailment to strike was 4-14 year olds and the illness was prolific through out Germany. The only issue lies in the fact that aside from the odd medieval episode, it isn’t noted to have occurred until between the 14th and 17th Centuries.
Still, whatever the cause may be, whether it be based on fact or entirely built on fiction, the tale of the Pied Piper has managed to captivate scholars and storytellers alike, and today marks the 731st anniversary of the event.
The sources used to research and write this article can be found below.
Adamson, Mary Troxclair 2013, “The Legend of the Pied Piper in the Nineteenth and Twelth Centuries: Grimm, Browning, and Skurzynski”, in The Looking Glass: New Perspectives on Children’s Literature, Vol. 17 No. 1 (2013) Viewed on 25 June 2015
Ashliman, D.L The Piper of Hameln and related legends from other towns viewed on 25 June 2015 http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/hameln.html
Munro, Dana C. 1914, “The Children’s Crusade”, in The American Historical Review, Vol. 19 No. 3 (April 1914), pp. 516-524
Pied Piper viewed on 25 June 2015 http://www.hameln.com/education-culture/culture/museum/permanent-exhibition/PiedPiper.htm
Pollmann, Judith 2012, ‘Of Living Legends and Authentic Tales: How to Get Remembered in Early Modern Europe’, in Transactions of the RHS, Vol.23 (2013), pp. 103-126.
Queenan, Bernard 1978, “The Evolution of the Pied Piper”, in Children’s Literature, 1978, vol. 7, pp. 104-114
Scutts, Julian 2014. “Documentary Time Line of Versions of the Pied Piper Legend”, viewed 25 June 2015 https://www.academia.edu/7062392/Documentary_Time_Line_of_Versions_of_the_Pied_Piper_Legend
The Pied Piper of Hamelin: A Medieval Mass Abduction, viewed June 25 2015, http://www.medievalists.net/2014/12/07/pied-piper-hamelin-medieval-mass-abduction/