Home History The Pied Piper Story: What Really Happened to the Children of Hamelin?

The Pied Piper Story: What Really Happened to the Children of Hamelin?

The Pied Piper leads the children out of Hamelin. Illustration by Kate Greenaway for Robert Browning's "The Pied Piper of Hamelin" Supplied via Wikimedia Commons

The Pied Piper of Hamelin is a classic story which has been retold and adapted time and again. As a result, this story one of the most familiar and beloved fairy tales around. The following is yet another brief retelling of the story for readers who need a refresher. This version of the story includes the basic details which tend to be consistent across most variations.

The Story

Once upon a time, in the town of Hamelin, a terrible infestation of rats plagued the townsfolk. All throughout Hamelin, no sack of flour or wheel of cheese was safe from the rats’ unstoppable appetites. Rats ruled the streets, chasing off even the village cats which failed to cull them. Before long, nobody could eat in peace, for the rats had already taken their share. Nobody could enjoy Hamelin’s cobblestone streets for the rats had overrun them. Indeed, one could not even sleep in peace for the rats squeaked and scurried incessantly all through the day and night.Desperate, the mayor of Hamelin began to worry that he would be unseated. No trapper or exterminator seemed able to make a dent in the ever-growing rat horde. One afternoon, as the mayor and city council discussed their woes, a strange fellow clad in colorful clothing came into the chamber. He was certainly not from Hamelin, as nobody recognized his sharp gaze nor his unusual manner of dress. In his hand was a delicate musical instrument.

“Fellows!” The stranger cried, “I have heard of your troubles and I believe that I have the solution.”

“These are no ordinary rats,” replied the mayor, “They cannot be exterminated by any trapper, much less a traveling performer.”

“What about by magic?” Asked the stranger, “For you see, my instrument is magic. When I play it, I can lure any creature with its tune. I can lead all of the rats into the river where they will trouble you no further. All I ask is that you pay me one thousand guilders, which is a fair price to return your city to its former glory.” The council began to laugh deep hearty laughs. The mayor alone composed himself to reply,

 “One thousand guilders is a small price to pay to witness such magic. Go ahead and play your magic pipe!”

With that, the piper smiled. He raised his pipe to his lips and began to play a simple melody. Within an instant, the main street was flooded. An undulating sea of rats hopping, skipping, and dancing began to follow the piper. He paraded the rats through the city square, outside of the walls, and down the road. Before long, the rat parade came to the banks of the mighty river. With a musical flourish, the piper beckoned the rats who merrily leapt into the frothing water. When the piper returned to the city, the people were running through the streets, ringing bells, dancing, and shouting their joy for all to hear. The piper turned to the mayor. 

“I see that Hamelin is satisfied with my work. I’d like to collect my fee now,” the piper stated with a gentle smile.

“You must be joking!” The mayor replied, “I am grateful for your work, but one thousand guilders is a small fortune. Let us give you food and drink and some coins to line your pockets, besides, the rats have died. You cannot set them upon us now that your work is done.”

“Are you quite certain?” Asked the Pied Piper. Then, he raised the pipe to his lips once more. As the people of Hamelin watched, dumbfounded, their children came streaming into the streets. Boys and girls of all sizes, some even carrying those too small to walk, began twirling and skipping to the piper’s merry tune. As he led them from the city, the town held their breath. Instead of sending the procession into the roiling river’s current, though, the piper turned in the direction of the mountains. Their relief turned to horror as the adults of Hamelin watched the Pied Piper open a mysterious crevice in the mountain face. The children filed into this opening one by one and two by two. The piper followed behind and as soon as he crossed the threshold, the mountain face was blank. It was as if the rock had swallowed them up. The only child left in the entire town of Hamelin was a young boy with a weak leg who could not keep up with the others.

And so, the people of Hamelin were freed from the rats, but paid a terrible price for their failure to keep their word. To this day, singing, dancing, and merry-making is prohibited on the main street of Hamelin town.

While most people have some familiarity with this story, most would be surprised to learn that it’s actually based on true events. (2)

Is the Pied Piper of Hamelin a True Story?

The Pied Piper story is believed by many historians to be, at least partly, true. This is because the barest details of the story date back to the middle ages. The people of modern Hamelin live with constant reminders of this story which is a major contributor to the local economy via tourism. Yearly reenactments occur on the date of the children’s supposed disappearance. The English meaning of the name of Hamelin’s main street even supports the veracity of the Pied Piper story: “the street without drums.” (3)

Hamelin Pied Piper Fountain
New Pier Piper Fountain, Hamelin Supplied via Wikimedia Commons

In the town records of Hamelin, which is a real town in Germany, evidence of the Pied Piper event begins in the year 1300. According to town records, a since destroyed stained glass window was installed in Hamelin’s church in 1300. The window is said to have depicted the Pied Piper leading a group of children. This depiction is thought to be the first memorialization of the Pied Piper event. Not that, despite this detail featuring in most retellings, the church window includes no mentions of rats. The window has been recreated as faithfully as possible, however the original is unfortunately lost to time. (4)

The story that the window tells could simply be written off as local legend if not for a snippet of the town’s record from 1384 which states that it had been “one hundred years since our children  left.” This date would have been the 26th of June, 1284. It is worth noting that the 26th of June is the feast day for Saints John and Paul as well as the date of the pagan Midsummer celebration which many communities observed in thirteenth century Germany. Both celebrations are frequently cited as potentially significant evidence in the children’s mysterious disappearance.

Several subsequent manuscripts recall the story of the disappearance of Hamelin’s children, however very little details are added until several hundred years later. The earliest versions of the story state simply that the children disappeared and that they may have been drawn away by a mysterious man with a flute of some sort. It was not until the sixteenth century that rats were even mentioned in this tale.

Between the manuscripts, inscriptions, and the glass window of the church, the basic details seem to be that a quantity of roughly 130 children vanished from Hamelin on June 26th, 1284. Most versions also include a “pied” or colorfully dressed musician leading the children away. While there are certainly some who doubt the veracity of the early records, it does seem likely that some sort of traumatic event occurred in Hamelin on the day of the feast of Saints John and Paul in 1284. The consistent emphasis on this date is too strange to be discounted completely. The lack of greater details have led to the proliferation of many varying theories.

Read More Strange History: The Bizarre and Mysterious Travel Memoir from the Middle Ages

Who Was the Pied Piper

Some see the Pied Piper as the embodiment of death; a colorful grim reaper which led the town’s children into the afterlife. It is proposed by those who support this theory that Hamelin may have suffered from an outbreak of plague. This theory connects the rats to pestilence and suggests that when the plague finally abated in Hamelin, 130 children had perished. Issues with this theory include the fact that no records mention a plague outbreak in connection with this event. In fact, it would have been decades before the actual Bubonic plague would strike in this area. Additionally, the rats are a major piece of evidence for this theory but they were only added to the narrative centuries after the earliest accounts. Finally, a plague or illness would be unlikely to strike in such a way that the children would be remembered as departing on one specific date. If the plague had troubled Hamelin, why would records mysteriously indicate that only children had been lost so abruptly, and why would the infestation of rats occur as a later addition and not one of the original details of the story? (5)

Perhaps the least credible theory is that which casts the Pied Piper as a sinister individual who kidnapped the lost children and likely slew them. While this does align well with the fairytale itself, it is extremely unlikely as an explanation for the Pied Piper event. Even the most prolific killer would struggle to capture or control 130 children. If the Pied Piper story did refer to a serial offender, then the single date of the event and the sheer volume of children said to be involved would be unfathomable. This version of events is improbable.

Some historians have pointed out that emigration recruiters during this period often wore eye-catching costumes or played musical instruments in order to attract migrants to new settlements. This theory suggests that able-bodied young people, note the exclusion of the weak-legged child in many versions of the tale, would be highly desirable recruits for new settlements. Supporters of this theory point to regions surrounding Berlin where surnames from Hamelin are remarkably common compared to the rest of Germany. Some versions of the tale even suggest that the children of Hamelin mysteriously resurface in Transylvania and other Easter regions of Europe. While much more likely than most other theories, issues with this one include the fact that no adults seem to have been drawn away by the Pied Piper figure. A recruitment effort focused solely on children seems somewhat farfetched. (6)

Other theories focus on the specificity with which the date of June 26th is often singled out. Some have suggested that the children were led away to participate in Pagan midsummer festivities, with a few even suggesting that the children mistakenly followed a migration recruiter believing it to be part of the festival. In almost all versions of the midsummer festival theory, the children are speculated to have encountered a dangerous misadventure of some kind. Some think that midsummer traditions involving setting hills aflame may have caused the children to perish, others think that the party may have encountered a Christian sect which killed the children or spirited them away to various monasteries. (7)

Still more theories propose that the children were borne away to participate in a “children’s crusade” in which hordes of children and youths would attempt to reclaim Jerusalem. An unsuccessful children’s crusade took place decades earlier in 1212. This incident is reported to have involved up to 30,000 children from Germany and France. The original Children’s Crusade is said to have ended in the deaths of many children via a shipwreck, or alternatively, the sale of the underaged army into slavery in Tunisia. If the Pied Piper incident was, indeed, a children’s crusade, it would explain the sense of shock and confusion in Hamelin’s town records, as well as the general bizarreness of so many kids disappearing in a single day. (8)

Further theories include a “dancing fever” like that which would occur several centuries later in Strasbourg, a mass incidence of poisoning, a mass drowning, and many more far-fetched proposals.

Amongst historical mysteries, that of the Pied Piper is perhaps the most enduring. In spite of this, most people don’t realize that there is any mystery at all. The Pied Piper event was so impactful that it has had the dubious privilege of being remembered as a legend; a folk tale of magic and enchantment with a neat moral to tie up its loose ends. Having read Hamelin town’s own account of June 26th, 1284, one can only assume that such whimsy was far from the minds of its citizens. Something happened to Hamelin. Something which led its city chronicler to write of the loss of over one hundred children. We will likely never know what fate they met.

1 Comment

  • Alex June 2, 2024

    Children can hear high frequencies that most adults become unable to. Also animals can do this. Additionally, children are more susceptible to music, especially in an age when music was not as ubiquitous as it is today. And even nowadays, youth flock to major concerts and create staunch fandoms. It would not be a surprise if someone who knew this could have enchanted them into following him.

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