The pied piper of Hamelin: fact of fairy tale?

Like many stories from our distant past the pied piper appears to be a mixture of both with a good deal of theory thrown in.  We know how the fairy tale goes.  Hamelin, a town in Saxony was overrun by rats.

Along came a piper who claimed he could get rid of the rats if the town would pay him.  He played his pipe and led the rats to the River Weser, where they drowned.  But then the town refused to pay him.  Using the power of his pipe, he lured the children out of the town and they were never seen again.  Two were left behind, one lame and one blind, who couldn’t keep up. That’s the fairy tale.

Here are the facts. The picture below is based on a stained glass window that was once in the church in Hamelin. The window has since disappeared but we know it existed because it was mentioned in several writings before its destruction in 1660.  Furthermore there is a brief but sad entry in the town chronicles for 1384 which states, ‘It is 100 years since our children left.’

The theories. If we discount the fairy tale, we are left with several that range from a plague that picked off the children; or they were drowned in the Weser or killed in a landslide or sinkhole, none of which appear to me to account for the wording of the chronicle: ‘…our children left us.’ Some theorize they were lured away by a religious sect, or perhaps they became part of another children’s crusade, and the piper was some kind of recruiter.  Or perhaps the region was overpopulated, stricken by famine, and the children were sold.  It did happen in those days.

My favorite theory is one in which nothing nasty happened to the children. They weren’t small children, but were in fact young people who emigrated voluntarily when new land opened up.  After all, I still refer to my children as children even though they are middle-aged. This is what the town of Hamelin’s official website has to say.

‘Among the various interpretations, reference to the colonization of East Europe starting from Low Germany is the most plausible one: The “Children of Hameln” would have been in those days citizens willing to emigrate being recruited by landowners to settle in Moravia, East Prussia, Pomerania or in the Teutonic Land. It is assumed that in past times all people of a town were referred to as “children of the town” or “town children” as is frequently done today. The “Legend of the children’s Exodus” was later connected to the “Legend of expelling the rats”. This most certainly refers to the rat plagues being a great threat in the medieval milling town and the more or less successful professional rat catchers.

Yes, it’s plausible,  All that can be said with certainty is that something happened in Hamelin one June day in the late thirteenth century.

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