The History Behind The Pied Piper Story


In 1284, something occurred in the German region of Hamelin that gave birth to the famous story of the Pied Piper, popularized in the 19th century by the Brothers Grimm and Robert Browning. The problem is that centuries of embellishment and creative license separate us from the vague original incident. It all began with the simple documented statement that around 130 youths were led away from Hamelin by a piper. By the 15th century, the tale had taken on a supernatural, evil tone, and during the 16th century, the story was expanded with the ideas that the piper was a ratcatcher (and possibly the Devil) and that he could magically have children swallowed up by a mountain. The growing and refining of the tale through the centuries, however, has been heavily studied by scholars of both history and literature. In order not to tread on trampled ground, we will simply lay out the earliest (and tamest) sources that began the Pied Piper legend, as these are the pieces of evidence that are likely closest to the truth.

The four seemingly most important sources for what occurred in Hamelin in 1284 include a decorated window from the local Market Church and an inscribed wooden beam (both of which are dated to about 1300), as well the account of Heinrich von Herford (died 1370) and the entry for year 1384 in the Chronicle of Hamelin. In regards to the church window, which was reportedly lost around 1660, those who saw the artwork before its disappearance claimed the artwork showcased a scene of endangered children, which, on its own is not much help. The Chronicle of Hamelin (apparently also lost) was more direct, but incredibly brief, stating in its entry for year 1384 that “it is 100 years since our children left” (source 1), meaning that a notable mass exodus of youths had occurred in 1284. When it comes to detail, the inscribed beam (from the so-called Rattenfängerhaus “Ratcatcher’s House” of Hamelin) was much more wordy. The inscription, which reads like a commemorative plaque, stated “In the year 1284 on the day of John and Paul, the 26th of June, 130 children born in Hamelin were led away by a piper dressed in many-coloured clothes to Calvary close to the Koppen and were there lost” (source 2).  In agreement with the inscription, but more embellished and dramatic, was the account of Heinrich von Herford in the second half of the 14th century (which might have been edited by a 15th-century hand). The text stated:

“…in the town of Hamelin in the diocese of Minden, in the Year of Our Lord, 1284, on the Feast of Saints John and Paul. A certain young man thirty years of age, handsome and well-dressed, so that all who saw him admired him because of his appearance, crossed the bridges and entered the town by the West Gate. He then began to play all through the town a silver pipe of the most magnificent sort. All the children who heard his pipe, in the number of 130, followed him to the East Gate and out of the town to the so-called execution place or Calvary. There they proceeded to vanish, so that no trace of them could be found. The mothers of the children ran from town to town, but they found nothing. It is written: A voice was heard from on high, and a mother was bewailing her son. And as one counts the years according to the Year of Our Lord or according to the first, second or third year of an anniversary, so do the people in Hamelin reckon the years after the departure and disappearance of their children. This report I found in an old book. And the mother of the deacon Johann von Lude saw the children depart” (source 1).

From these earliest and least folkloric sources, the most that can be deduced is that some authoritative, well-dressed figure with an instrument entered Hamelin in 1284, and when he left, 130 youths accompanied him and never returned—to the distress of their loved ones. Unfortunately, there is not enough information to confidently determine what happened next; all we can do is theorize and hypothesize. Was the piper a military recruiter who marched Hamelin’s sons of fighting age off to die in a war? Were the 130 youths instead led off to settle some newly conquered land? Had the young people been swallowed up by a mountain rockslide? Good or bad, the mystery of the Pied Piper remains.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (The Pied Piper of Hamelin illustrated by Kate Greenaway (1846–1901), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


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