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.

My adventure in traditional publishing

A long, long time ago, in the days of yore, even before the internet and all its offshoots were anything more than a gleam in a mad scientist’s eye, I was traditionally published. Furthermore, the publishing company actually paid me for the right to publish my book. It’s called an advance. Come what may afterwards, my book had earned money and people would read it. So far so good.

The book was about the favourite mistress of King Edward IV, and I called it The Merry Harlot because… well, that’s what she was. My editor didn’t like the title because she was afraid my readers wouldn’t know what a harlot was!  She suggested The King’s White Rose. Who was I, a young housewife with three rambunctious kids, to argue with someone of such vast experience? So I agreed to the name change. After all, I consoled myself, a king figured prominently in the story and one of his heraldic symbols was the white rose.  So there was some relevance.

As an aside, in creating a certain scene I mentioned a pincushion. The copy editor discovered that this object hadn’t been invented until the 16th century and as my book was set in the 15th, the pincushion had to go. The point of this, in case you missed it, is that my readers were viewed as so stupid they wouldn’t know what a harlot was, yet so smart they would know that the pincushion hadn’t been invented until in the 16th century!

Fast forward to my second book, which I didn’t have a title for. It was set in the Holy Land during the second crusade. My editor suggested The Sultan’s Red Rose.

“But,” I sputtered, “there isn’t a sultan in the story!” There wasn’t a red rose either, but that didn’t seem quite so important.

“What about this fellow, Zengi?” said she.

“He’s an atabeg,” I retorted, “which is like a military governor.”

So she thought about this for a while and finally came up with a stunning solution.

“Why not have Zengi compare our heroine to a rose growing in the sultan’s garden?”

I know you would like to hear that I stuck to my ideals, that I didn’t prostitute my art for the almighty dollar, that I told her if she persisted in this tacky, tasteless design she could take a long jump off a short pier. Don’t be ridiculous! Of course, I didn’t.

Very soon after that book came out, my burgeoning career went down the toilet. My agent went into furniture sales and my publishers sold out to another company. My contract was sold as part of the package, but they were not interested in me. It was back to square one. I was dismayed, disheartened and discouraged.

A sad story, isn’t it? But put the tissues away, it has a happy ending. The next time I was published I did it myself as an ebook and, rightly or wrongly, chose my own titles.

I can honestly say I would never wish to be traditionally published again.

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