History Mystery: The Pied Piper of Hamelin

oldest-known-picture-of-the-Pied-Piper I was surprised recently to find out that there’s a little more to the old fairy-tale The Pied Piper of Hamelin than just a tall tale to tell children.

The story has a number of versions, but the version I was familiar with is as follows:

The town of Hamelin had a pest problem, and when a mysterious man appeared and offered to rid the city of its rats in exchange for a sum of money, the town agreed. The man took a fife out of his pocket which attracted all the rats and mice, who surrounded him. Once he had gathered them all, he led them to a nearby river and walked into the water. The pests followed him and drowned.

Now that the town was free of its problem, they no longer wanted to pay the mysterious stranger for his deed. Turned away without payment, he left, only to return with his fife. Only this time, it was not pests that were drawn to him, but the town’s children. He led the children away from the town and into the mountains, never to be seen again.

The Pied Piper is said to have visited Hamelin in 1284. The citizens of Hamelin recorded the event in their town register and even had the following inscription in the town hall:

In the year 1284 after the birth of Christ
From Hameln were led away
One hundred thirty children, born at this place
Led away by a piper into a mountain.

And on the new gate was inscribed: Centum ter denos cum magus ab urbe puellos
duxerat ante annos CCLXXII condita porta fuit.

[This gate was built 272 years after the magician led the 130 children from the city.]

In 1572, the Mayor ordered the story to be portrayed in the church windows and a coin was minted in memory of the event. The stained window was destroyed in 1660, but several written accounts have survived:

“In the year of 1284, on the day of Saints John and Paul on June 26, by a piper, clothed in many kinds of colours, 130 children born in Hamelin were seduced, and lost at the place of execution near the koppen.”

The following is the very first statement in the written records of Hamelin:

It is 100 years since our children left.

The tale was retold by the brothers Grimm in 1816, a preview of which can be seen here. Versions of a similar story can be found from Brandenburg, Erfurt, the Island of Ummanz, Austria, Denmark, England and Syria.

Given the repeated recording of this event in history, and the naming of the street Bungelosenstrasse (street without drums), you have to wonder: did the people of Hamelin encounter something that evolved to the tale we know today? Is there more to this fairy-tale than a spooky story to frighten children?


The Epidemic Theory

darker-pictures-of-Pied-Piper-of-Hamelin One theory suggested by historians is that the children became ill, and were buried by the townspeople in a large common grave – referred to as the “mountain” in the story.

It’s possible that the reason rats are present in the story we know today is because the children suffered from a disease spread by rodents – perhaps an early version of the Black Death.

There are a couple of problems with this theory – namely, if the children were sick, how did the adults manage to evade illness so successfully that a single instance isn’t recorded?

The Crusades Theory

In another disputed even from history, The Children’s Crusade refers to a crusade in 1212 by European Christians to expel Muslims from the Holy Land.

Traditionally, these stories take place after a young child claims he has been visited by Jesus and instructed to lead a Crusade to convert Muslims to Christianity.

It’s possible that a young person in Hamelin successfully convinced the majority of children to follow him or her on an ill-fated crusade.

While the existence of the Children’s Crusade has been debated since the 70’s, the consideration of such an event is important in the tale of the Pied Piper.

The Emigration Theory

By the 13th century, the area was over-populated, resulting in the eldest son inheriting the land and power, leaving the rest of the family without.

Historical records show the people from Hamelin did help settle parts of Transylvania, and it’s possible “the children of Hamelin” refers not only to the youngest, but to all former citizens.

There has also been some speculation that the “Pied Piper” sold the children to a recruiter from the Baltic region of Eastern Europe – not an uncommon practice at the time. This could possibly explain why an emigration was not explicitly recorded.

“After the defeat of the Danes at the Battle of Bornhöved in 1227,” explains Udolph, “the region south of the Baltic Sea, which was then inhabited by Slavs, became available for colonization by the Germans.” The bishops and dukes of Pomerania, Brandenburg, Uckermark and Prignitz sent out glib “locators,” medieval recruitment officers, offering rich rewards to those who were willing to move to the new lands. Thousands of young adults from Lower Saxony and Westphalia headed east. And as evidence, about a dozen Westphalian place names show up in this area. Indeed there are five villages called Hindenburg running in a straight line from Westphalia to Pomerania, as well as three eastern Spiegelbergs and a trail of etymology from Beverungen south of Hamelin to Beveringen northwest of Berlin to Beweringen in modern Poland.

Additionally, genealogist Dick Eastman discovered a trend in the Polish phonebooks:

Linguistics professor Jurgen Udolph says that 130 children did vanish on a June day in the year 1284 from the German village of Hamelin (Hameln in German). Udolph entered all the known family names in the village at that time and then started searching for matches elsewhere. He found that the same surnames occur with amazing frequency in Priegnitz and Uckermark, both north of Berlin. He also found the same surnames in the former Pomeranian region, which is now a part of Poland.

Udolph surmises that the children were actually unemployed youths who had been sucked into the German drive to colonize its new settlements in Eastern Europe. The Pied Piper may never have existed as such, but, says the professor, “There were characters known as lokators who roamed northern Germany trying to recruit settlers for the East.” Some of them were brightly dressed, and all were silver-tongued.

So while the magical instrument and lure of a lone mysterious man may not have occurred, the history we are able to piece together suggests that a large group of people – not necessarily only children – did leave Hamelin at the same time as the Pied Piper is said to have arrived.

Was the Pied Piper the citizens’ symbolic way of recording Death, after losing their children to sickness or starvation?

Was he a recruiter, a pagan who sold or took their children away?

Or was a town ambiguously recording a mass emigration after a serious over-population problem?

Magic or not, history and written records support that the people of Hamelin did in fact leave or go missing in considerable numbers in the 13th century, a truth that makes the fairy-tale all the darker.

Further Reading


The Pied Piper of Hamelin (and related legends from other towns)

The Disturbing True Story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin

Hamelin – Tourism

History vs Myth – Pied Piper


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