Dear Straight Dope: I was recently reading A World Lit Only by Fire (1992) by William Manchester. In it he makes a passing reference to the Pied Piper of Hamelin. According to Manchester the piper was a psychopath and a pederast who was involved in some sort of mass child killing. I realize that many of our children’s stories are based on real events, many of them sinister and certainly not the type of thing you would want to lull your child to sleep with, but this seems especially grim. I was wondering if this was true, and if so what’s the whole story? S. Johnson, Dallas TX
The quote in question comes from page 66 of Manchester’s book and reads :
The Pied Piper of Hamelin . . . was a real man, but there was nothing enchanting about him. Quite the opposite; he was horrible, a psychopath and pederast who, on June 24, 1484, spirited away 130 children in the Saxon village of Hammel and used them in unspeakable ways. Accounts of the aftermath vary. According to some, the victims were never seen again; others told of disembodied little bodies found scattered in the forest underbrush or festooning the branches of trees.
Manchester doesn’t footnote this passage and although he does give a long bibliography at the end of the book, the reader can’t readily determine where he got it. The official website of the German town of Hamelin makes no mention of it, which is no surprise, since they still make a ton of hay on the legend and have an official town “Pied Piper” to this day. Our own research suggests that Manchester got some of the details wrong–among other things, he appears to be off about 200 years on the date. But he didn’t just make the whole thing up.
The legend of the Pied Piper has probably as many variants as it does tellers. The most popular versions derive from the poem by Robert Browning and the fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. In pretty much all versions, rats infest Hamelin and the town hires a traveling rat catcher to exterminate them. When he does so, the king, mayor, or whoever decides not to pay him, so he extracts his revenge by spiriting away the town’s children. This is where the different versions of the tale begin to diverge. Some say that the children were just taken to a nearby cave and never seen again. In other versions, the cave is actually a tunnel leading to Transylvania. The most popular versions have the piper taking the kids into a mountainside from which they are taken to a land where they will be happy away from the cruel adults for the rest of their lives. Some versions add a little lame boy who is denied entrance because of his disability. The Disney version magically cures the little lame boy and the children are transported to a magical wonderland full of merry-go-rounds and candy and gumdrops and other things that don’t promote good dental hygiene.
Rats were a definite problem for German towns, including Hamelin. Whether the problem was so extreme that they would hire a rat catcher is unknown. According to medical historian Stanley Aronson, rats were more of an annoyance than an actual health hazard until the mid 1300s. They were known for burrowing into grain and other human food supplies, but “were also destructive of wooden structures and clothing and would occasionally attack sleeping young children.” There was a bounty on dead rats in some German town and rat tails briefly became a form of urban currency. The real problem began in 1347 when a ship from Asia docked in Sicily carrying many stowaway black rats. Although rats on ships were common enough, these rats carried with them a disease then endemic to Central Asia–the bubonic plague that came to be known as the Black Death.
But that was far in the future for Hamelin. The Pied Piper story goes back earlier and seems to have its root in an event that happened on June 26, 1284. Hamelin historian Martin Humberg states that around 1300 a stained glass window was added to the central market church in Hamelin showing “an old figure of a man in colored clothes and surrounded by a crowd of children.” The inscription around this window has been reconstructed and reads:
In the year of 1284, on John’s and Paul’s day
was the 26th of June.
By a piper, dressed in all kind of colors,
130 children born in Hamelin were seduced
and lost at the calvarie near the koppen.
Scholars disagree on the meaning of “the calvarie near the koppen” but most agree that it refers to a place of execution near an as yet undetermined hill. There are many other references to the story in Hamelin itself, including a street named “Bungelosen Strasse," literally “the street without the sound of drums," allegedly so named because dancing was forbidden in that street in memory of what had happened to the children.
Taken at face value, the inscription suggests that Manchester was right–130 kids came to a bad end at the hands of a deviant. But there is no corroborating record of any mass execution of children in the vicinity of Hamelin, which would seem to be an important event if it really happened. The window with the inscription was replaced in 1660 and is now lost, so we’re relying strictly on secondary evidence and not much of that. From what I can determine there’s no factual basis for Manchester’s lurid tale of "disembodied little bodies [presumably he means ‘dismembered’] found scattered in the forest underbrush or festooning the branches of trees."
The earliest versions of the tale make no mention of the piper’s skill as a rat catcher–that part of the story doesn’t show up in literature until about 1550. It appears that the final tale was a mixture of the true story of whatever happened to the children in Hamelin plus various European rat catcher legends. Stories of an itinerant rat catcher similar to the one in Hamelin show up in Austria, France, Poland, Denmark, England, and Ireland. Duke Froben von Zimmern (1556) was the first to put the legends together into the tale we know today. Fifty years later Richard Verstegan was the first to tell the tale in English and introduce the name “The Pied Piper” in his book A Restitution of Decayed Intelligence.
But there is still too much speculation and not enough evidence to say what actually happened to the children of Hamelin in 1284. A typical conjecture: "The Pied Piper was a charismatic leader who, in the eyes of the ecclesiastical as well as secular authorities, misled a group of young people in a revival of pagan worship. He and his group were therefore captured and killed.” Cite, please? The Black Death has also been mentioned as a possible suspect, although the plague post-dated most of the legends and would have affected adults as well as children. Earthquakes and the Children’s Crusade have also been mentioned as possibilities, but are far from convincing.
One currently popular interpretation comes from Jurgen Udolph and focuses on the variant that the children emerged from the cave either in Transylvania or somewhere in eastern Europe. Udolph believes that the phrase “children of Hamelin” should be interpreted figuratively and not literally. He thinks the tale may refer to an eastward migration of people from Hamelin into the area between Berlin and the Baltic. The theory has root in German historian Wolfgang Wann’s conjecture that Bruno von Schaumburg, who was then Bishop of Olmutz, recruited some residents of Hamelin to settle in Moravia. This would have happened in 1281, three years before the date in question.
Udolph rejects this particular idea but thinks something along the same lines may have occurred. He uses place names to fortify his speculation, on the theory that people who relocate to a new land tend to name their new homes after the places they came from. Therefore, it should be possible to trace new settlements by establishing the origins of their names. In an article in Time International, Ursula Sautter reports:
After the defeat of the Danes at the Battle of Bornhoved 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.
I like Udolph’s explanation. Like most legends, the Pied Piper story most likely has its origin in something more prosaic than fantastic. But the fantastic does make a much better fairy tale.
Christoph Wilkening, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin–Germany’s Mystery of Missing Children," World and I, August 2000, p. 178
Ursula Sautter, “Fairy Tale Ending.” Time International, April 27, 1998, p. 58.
Stanley Aronson, “A Tale of Rats, Plagues, Pipers and People.” Providence Journal, October 28, 2002
Machester, William, A World Lit Only by Fire, 1992.
Jonas Kuhn’s Pied Piper Homepage (www.ims.uni-stuttgart.de/~jonas/piedpiper.html)
Hamelin Information : The Pied Piper Legend (www.hameln.com/english /info/pied_piper_of_hamlin.htm)
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