As we have seen in previous posts, the fairy tale we call the Pied Piper of Hamelin was inspired by actual historical events. The events in question, however, are a mystery. Were the children of Hamelin victims of the Black Death, could they have danced themselves to death, might they have become religious zealots itching to begin a Children's Crusade, or could they have been the victims of a pagan sacrifice? Well, maybe none of the above. Maybe they were just the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to be free...maybe they were simply immigrants.
War--Good God!--What is it good for?
If there's one thing we know about human beings, it's that they are a violent species. Scratch that. We are a violent species. And we really, really like to conquer other people's lands. In the early medieval period, Europe was wracked by one invasion after another. One warlord calling himself a king (which sounded nicer than egomaniacal murderer, I suppose) would storm another one's land, take it over, get pushed back, and then invade again. That's the pattern we see in Eastern Europe as well.
But not for long. These were the middle ages, after all. One group was always attacking another to gain territory or plunder, but to top it off, the Mongols began attacking Eastern Europe during the 1200's. The Mongols were a tribe from East Asian, mostly modern day Mongolia, who conquered vast areas throughout Asia and Eastern Europe. They were kind of like what we think the Vikings were like except instead of being giant blonde people wearing helmets with horns, they looked like the Han Chinese and wore furs. Their greatest and most well-known leader was Genghis Kahn, who lived from 1162 to 1227, right as our story about the Pied Piper and Eastern immigration begins.
The Mongols were just as vicious as any good Viking, too. "Mongols were occasionally referred to as Tatars (or Tartars) by the people they terrorized. This was originally derived from Tata, a name the Mongols call themselves. However, when people realized this sounded a lot like Tartarus, Roman mythology’s variation of Hell, they started calling Mongols Tatars—'people from Tartarus,' meaning demons from hell" ("10 Amazing Facts about the Mongols"). It's little wonder that people imagined the Mongols were actually demons from hell. In 1241, a "Mongol invasion killed half of Hungary's population" ("Mongol Invasion of Europe"). When local populations resisted them, the Mongols slaughtered everyone around, and when local populations did not resist, "they forced the men into servitude in the Mongol army and the women and children were killed or carried off" ("Mongol Invasion of Europe"). They were even known to hurl the rotten remains of diseased bodies into the areas occupied by their enemies ("Destruction under the Mongol Empire").
In the end, Eastern Europe was wide open for settlement. Also, the princes left behind in their walled cities after the Mongols gave up and went back home were hungry to develop the uninhabited land for one very good reason: taxes. Mongols may have brought death, but the princes and dukes brought taxes.
To persuade folks from the more heavily populated areas of Western Europe to leave everything behind and cut down the forests and build settlements in Eastern Europe, princes had to find salesmen, and they did so in the form of lokators. Lokators had a big job to do. They had to wander around Germany looking for suckers willing to resettle in Eastern Europe. On top of that, they were "responsible to a territorial lord or landlord for the clearing, survey and apportionment of land that was to be settled" ("Lokator"). Wikimedia describes them as medieval subcontractors ("Lokator"), and like a contractor, they got the job done.
Imagine the piper coming to the town of Hamelin in the summer of 1284 with his funky, colorful clothes, playing music on his pipe and drawing all kinds of attention to himself. Then, he offers his sales pitch--free land in the East. Who wouldn't want to follow him? He seems like a pretty cool guy, right?
On top of free land, lokators had other incentives to entice would-be immigrants: "The attractions they could offer included special legal privileges and exemptions from dues or taxes for a number of years . . . The size of land allocated to farmers was also on a more extensive scale than in old Europe" (The German Myth of the East). It's sort of like the propaganda used in the United States to encourage settlers to move West during the 1800's and then in the early part of the twentieth century to settle "Indian Territory," i.e. Oklahoma.
Go East, Young Man...and Woman
It's theorized that the historical records in Hamelin are referring to the townspeople, not children at all, when it says, "130 children--born in Hamelin--were led out of the town by a piper wearing multicolored clothes."
Researchers have also dug up evidence that indicates Hamelinites may very well have made the trek to Eastern Europe. Here's what linguistics professor Jurgen Udolph discovered: "130 children did vanish on a June day in the year 1284 from the German village of Hamelin (Hameln in German). Udolph entered all the known family names in the village at that time and then started searching for matches elsewhere. He found that the same surnames occur with amazing frequency in Priegnitz and Uckermark, both north of Berlin. He also found the same surnames in the former Pomeranian region, which is now a part of Poland. Udolph surmises that the children were actually unemployed youths who had been sucked into the German drive to colonize its new settlements in Eastern Europe" ("Pied Piper of Hamelin--History--Emigration Theory"). The evidence is not limited to people's names either: "The settlement, according to the professor's name search, ended up near Starogard in what is now northwestern Poland. A village near Hamelin, for example, is called Beverungen and has an almost exact counterpart called Beveringen, near Pritzwalk, north of Berlin and another called Beweringen, near Starogard. Local Polish telephone books list names that are not the typical Slavic names one would expect in that region. Instead, many of the names seem to be derived from German names that were common in the village of Hamelin in the thirteenth century. In fact, the names in today's Polish telephone directories include Hamel, Hamler and Hamelnikow, all apparently derived from the name of the original village" ("Pied Piper of Hamelin--History--Emigration Theory").
And the winning theory is...
So there you have it, folks, the children of Hamelin were just settlers who moved from Germany to Eastern Europe looking for a better life...or were they? This seems to be the theory most cherished by researchers, but do you buy it? Or do you think the kids were killed by the plague, victims of the Dancing Mania, crusaders defending Christendom, or pagans killed by bloodthirsty counts? The truth is that we will probably never know, so you can entertain whichever pet theory you prefer.
In my next post, we'll look at some interesting trivia about the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.