Updated: Mar 13, 2021
Each and every one of us is familiar with the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, a mysterious man who lured the village children away into the mountains, never to be seen again. However, it is thought that elements of this whimsical tale could contain some level of historical accuracy.
The tale is set in a rat-infested Hamelin, Lower Saxony, where the town’s mayor promises to pay an outsider, the now infamous Pied Piper, to rid the town of vermin as disease was spreading and there was no medicine available to combat it. Due to the fact that he simply lures the rats away be playing his magical pipe, the mayor decides not to pay up and as revenge, the furious Piper bewitches the children in the exact same manner.
However fantastical and ridiculous this story seems, there may be more truth to it than is first expected. In the year 1248, 130 children disappeared from the town of Hamelin in Lower Saxony without a trace. This bizarre event is the point at which the town’s records start, indicating it’s historical, rather than fictitious nature. This incredibly eerie entry in Hamelin’s town chronicle was published in 1384 and simply states “It is 100 years since our children left us”. Up until this day, it is illegal to dance or play music on Bungelosenstrasse (street without drums), on which the children are said to have last been seen.
Whilst it is unlikely that a piper from out of town actually hypnotised the rats and children with his magic music, historians have a number of theories about how the disappearance could have happened. One theory is that the original Piper was actually a heretic who lured the children away, only for them all to die from exposure and related causes on the mountain. Other historians claim that the disappearance was actually a mass emigration. It was not uncommon in those days for children from smaller towns to be sold to recruiters with the aim of settling new territories, mainly in Eastern Europe, rather like the Children’s Crusade of 1212.
Another theory regarding mass migration blames primogeniture, whereby a family’s land and business was given in its entirety to the eldest son, leaving the remaining children with nothing. It is therefore thought that these children who lacked any inheritance found they had no reason to remain in Hamelin and consequently emigrated to find a new life elsewhere. However, the term “children” in this time period could be referring to another group of people. The “children of the town” often referred to its population in general, rather than just the youth. Therefore, the same migration could have taken place but with adults as well as children, as they searched for a new place to inhabit.
Was the reality of one of our most beloved tales a sinister kidnapping or perhaps the result of forced resettlement and colonisation? The original story is up for debate as it has been told so many times that any historical accuracy has likely been twisted and transformed into what, ironically, can only be described as a children’s bedtime favourite.