If you watch enough horror movies, sooner or later you’ll hear a character utter a variation on the phrase, “Every legend has a basis in fact.” Whether or not that statement is true, it is a fact that many of our most outlandish fables and fictions are rooted, at least somewhat, in actual history, and that truth often is stranger than fiction.
Chances are, most of us have encountered some variation on the fairy tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. It is one of many folktales recorded by the Brothers Grimm, and has appeared in the writings of Robert Browning and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, not to mention worked its way into popular culture from A Nightmare on Elm Street, to Bill Willingham’s Fables tie-in novel Peter & Max, to the TV show Lost Girl.
The story generally goes that the town of Hamelin was plagued by an unusual number of rats, and a stranger from out of town, wearing multicolored (or “pied”) clothes, showed up and offered to get rid of the rats in exchange for payment. The stranger then produced a flute or pipe and began playing a tune, at which time all the rats in town followed him out through the gates of the city and either to a nearby mountain or into the river, depending upon which version you encounter.
When the townsfolk saw how easily the piper had rid the town of rats, they regretted the amount that they had offered him and reneged on their deal. The piper vowed revenge, and later—according to one Brothers Grimm account it was on June 26, 1284—he returned and once more walked through the town playing his pipe. This time, all the town’s children—130, according to one of the earliest written accounts of the event—followed him out through the town’s east gate and up to the nearby mountain which, in most accounts, opened wide to swallow them up and they disappeared, never to be seen again.
The story is a familiar one, but what most of us probably don’t know is that it has its feet at least somewhat planted in an apparently true event that took place in the real-life town of Hamelin, Germany in 1284. The earliest accounts of the story don’t include the rats, which wouldn’t show up until around the year 1559, but they do include the piper, dressed in his “clothing of many colors.”
Our first clue about what really happened in the town of Hamelin comes from a stained glass window that stood in the town’s Market Church until it was destroyed in 1660. Accounts of the stained glass say that it alluded to some tragedy involving children, and a recreation of the window shows the piper in his colorful clothes and several children dressed in white. The date is set by an entry in Hamelin’s town chronicle, which was dated 1384 and said, simply and chillingly, “It is 100 years since our children left.”
While there is not enough historical data to ascertain for certain what happened in the town of Hamelin in 1284, there is little doubt that something occurred there which left a heavy mark on the town, and on world folklore. Theories advanced over the years include that many of the town’s children died of natural causes that year; or possibly drowned in the nearby river; or were killed in a landslide, thus explaining the recurring motif of the rats being led into the water, or of the mountain opening up and swallowing the children. The pied piper himself is considered a symbolic figure of death.
One other explanation is that the children may have died of the Black Plague, which could be why the rats were later added into the story, though the Black Plague didn’t hit Germany until the 1300s, making its arrival probably too late to be the source of the legend.
Other theorists hold that the story of the pied piper actually refers to a mass emigration or even another Children’s Crusade like the one that may have occurred in 1212. Many individuals have posited that the children may have emigrated—or even been sold—to places in Eastern Europe, including Transylvania or Poland. Linguist Jurgen Udolph has performed research suggesting that surnames from Hamelin may have found their way into modern-day Polish phonebooks.
Whatever the facts of the story, it is far from forgotten in the town of Hamelin. In the 16th century, when a new gate was built in the wall around the town, it was inscribed with the following legend: “In the year 1556, 272 years after the magician led 130 children out of the town, this portal was erected.”
Today, the town of Hamelin, which is now home to a population of around 56,000, maintains information about the legend of the pied piper on its website, and during the summer months actors perform interpretations of the story in the town square. The road along which the children supposedly passed on their way out of the East Gate, never to be seen again, is called the Bungelosenstrasse, or “street without drums.” According to an article published in the Fortean Times, it is against the law to play music or dance on that street to this very day.