As I discussed in my last blog post, historic records indicated that something happened in Hamelin, Germany in 1284 leading to the disappearance of 130 children, something possibly sinister. The question is what exactly happened. Did a fellow with a pipe and bad fashion sense really charm the children away with his magical pipe? Well, probably not. The truth is that we don't really know what happened, but as with any good mystery, that fact doesn't keep people from guessing.
In this post, I begin by looking at one of the many theories surrounding the tale of the pied piper of Hamelin.
The Black Death
Rats, missing children, the Middle Ages...it all but screams bubonic plague, right?
Black Death is the name given to a highly infectious illness otherwise known as bubonic plague that broke out everywhere from China through Europe during the Middle Ages. Giovannio Boccaccio, writing in the Decameron, describes the appearance of the disease this way: "in men and women alike it first betrayed itself by the emergence of certain tumors in the groin or the armpits, some of which grew as large as a common apple, others as an egg . . . which the common folk called gavoccioli. From the two said parts of the body this deadly gavocciolo soon began to propagate and spread itself in all directions indifferently; after which the form of the malady began to change, black spots or livid making their appearance in many cases on the arm or the thigh or elsewhere, now few and large, then minute and numerous." The blackening of the skin as a result of the buboes (infected lymph nodes) is what inspired the name "Black Death."
The plague is transmitted by infected rats. As you probably know if you have a cat or dog, fleas like to hang out on hairy animals where they can hide in the layers of fur and take their sweet time sucking out as much blood as they want. Unfortunately for them and the rats (and later the humans as well), plague is a fast-acting killer. It only takes about a week or two between the time of infection to the time of death. So as the rat population diminished, the fleas who had been sucking the plague-infested blood from the rodents' bodies had to turn to a new host. And that happened to be the humans (and doubtless other animals) living nearby. "Thus, from the introduction of plague contagion among rats in a human community it takes, on average, twenty-three days before the first person dies" (HistoryToday).
The Black Death ended up killing about 30-60% of the European population. Some regions were hit harder than others. About 40% of Egyptians were killed off, half the population of Paris, and 60% of Hamburg (Germany) and London. If a similar catastrophe hit the United States today, it would kill about 144 million people. That would be like losing everyone in the the seven most populated states in the U.S.--California, Texas, Florida, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Ohio--everyone suddenly gone in less time than it takes for a freshman to flunk out of college.
But it wasn't just a matter of numbers. Real people were affected. Boccaccio writes, "The fact was that one citizen avoided another, that almost no one cared for his neighbor, and that relatives rarely or hardly ever visited each other--they stayed far apart. This disaster had struck such fear into the hearts of men and women that brother abandoned brother, uncle abandoned nephew, sister left brother; and very often wife abandoned husband, and--even worse, almost unbelievable--fathers and mothers neglected to tend and care for their children, as if they were not their own." According to author J.F.C Hecker, so many died that "[t]he church-yards were soon unable to contain the dead, and many houses, left without inhabitants, fell to ruins. In Avignon, the Pope found it necessary to consecrate the Rhone, that bodies might be thrown into the river without delay, as the church-yards would no longer hold them" (History-world.org). People were surrounded by death, in their cities, in their neighborhoods, in their very homes. So pervasive and devastating was the Black Death that it inspired a morbid artistic conceit known as the Danse Macabre, or Dance of Death.
Rats, dancing children a la the "Dance of Death," a menacing piper who himself personifies death--it seems that every detail of the Pied Piper fairytale points to Black Death as source material. Could the story be an allegory for those lost in the town of Hamelin during the plague?
There is one VERY BIG problem with this theory, attractive as it may be. Black Death did not arrive in Europe until 1347...Okay, so I have to interrupt here because the story of how it arrived is pretty creepy and must-be-shareable. On an otherwise ordinary day in October 1347, twelve ships floated into the docks of Messina, in Sicily. But there was something very strange about those ships--most of the sailors on board were dead, and those still living were gravely ill. "The Sicilian authorities hastily ordered the fleet of 'death ships' out of the harbor, but it was too late: Over the next five years, the mysterious Black Death would kill more than 20 million people in Europe–almost one-third of the continent’s population" (History.com).
There are two other problems with this theory. The first problem is that people didn't understand that the fleas that rats carried could spread the plague until the late 1800's, far after the rats became a part of the story. So why would they include rats in a story about Black Death if they didn't even know that rats spread the disease? Speaking of which, the rats did not make their appearance in the Pied Piper's story until 1559. Since they weren't even implicated in the original historical record, it is highly unlikely that rats and the plague killed off 130 children in Hamelin in 1284.
So maybe Black Death was not the source of the fairy tale, but there are a few other details about the plague that are frightening yet fascinating at the same time:
Next week we'll look at another theory--Was the dancing induced by the piper's pipe actually a form of fungal poisoning? We'll take a looksy in my next post.
There is often a grain of truth in those things we find fantastic. Take the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, for instance. It is not, as one might imagine, merely a fairy tale. It is actually based on fact.
I've scoured the Internet for references to the story in the historical record, and while many sources of information simply repeat each other, other ones are confusing and refer to different names for documents as well as different dates. I've pieced together the information as best I can.
Let's start with the Rattenfangerhaus, which literally translates to "The Rat Catcher's House"--ah, those hilarious Germans and their place names. This building in Hamelin dates to 1602 and has these words inscribed in stone: "A.D 1284--on the 26th of June--the day of St. John and St. Paul--130 children--born in Hamelin--were led out of the town by a piper wearing multicolored clothes. After passing the Calvary [the execution place] near the Koppenberg [hills] they disappeared forever."
Execution place? Seriously? This is what inspired a fairy tale meant for children? No sugarplum fairies and unicorns for these German tots--they get tucked in bed with tales of dead kids. But to be fair, the story of the Pied Piper was popularized by a Brit in 1842, the poet Robert Browning, to be specific.
The graffiti on the rat catcher's house is not the only evidence of the existence of the pied piper, however. In ye olde medieval days ("die alten mittelalterlichen Tage" in German--i.e. a mouthful of phlegm) a church in Hamelin was decorated with a stained glass window, circa 1300, complete with the image of a piper along with these words: "In the year 1284, on the day of John and Paul, it was the 26th of June, came a colorful Piper to Hameln and led 130 children away." The window was described several times between the 1300's and 1600's, so either it really existed or German eyewitnesses thought it would be funny to play a trick on us by claiming it existed. Whatever the case may be, we can't actually check the original text because the window was destroyed in 1660. Reports are contradictory as well. In fact, I also found this possible transcription: "On the day of John and Paul 130 children in Hamelin went to Calvary and were brought through all kinds of danger to the Koppen mountain and lost," which is very similar to the stone at The Rat Catcher's House. Below is a reproduction of the original window done by Augustin von Moersperg in 1592, before the window was destroyed, and since I can't make out the letters at the top of the image or read old German, I can't translate what it actually says. But the date is definitely noticeable--1284--which seems to confirm the first translation, which would make the second reported transcription the work of a liar, liar, pants on fire.
The Hamelin town scribes were also in on the story. A reference to the tale of the pied piper was recorded in the register for the town of Hamelin in 1384. It reads, "It has been 100 years since our children left." Just as we date years according to the birth of Christ--A.D. stands for "anno Domini," or "in the year of the Lord"--Hamelin bases the dates in the town record according to the year 1384 when the children left. What's interesting--and may allude to what actually happened to the "children"--is the fact that it's written the children "left" rather than "went missing" or even "were kidnapped."
And now for something completely different (but not really)--If you remember, in the fairy tale, the Pied Piper lures the children away with the music from his pipe, and the children follow him dancing. A street in Hamelin is named Bungelosenstrasse ("street without drums" or the thing that you do before someone says "Bless you"), where both music and dancing are banned. When a public parade passes the street, all the musical revelry goes silent and resumes once the street has been passed.
In his article "The Evolution of the Pied Piper" (1978), Bernard Queenan mentions a manuscript called the Catena Aurea belonging to a person named Heinrich von Herford from 1370. Queenan writes, "Although the existence of this Luneburger Manuscript was noted in other textual references, the text itself was lost for centuries until located by Dr. Spanuth himself in 1936." I have found references to Decan Lude's chorus book as well as something called the Lueneberg manuscript. This description from Queenan seems to conflate the two while other sources see them as distinctly separate. Or, since I am wrong 99 times out of 100, I could very well just be misunderstanding what Queenan is talking about.
Whatever the case may be, the account from Herford's 1370 manuscript is translated as follows:
"To be noted is a marvelous and truly extraordinary event that occurred in the town of Hamelin in the diocese of Minden in the year of the Lord 1284, on the very feast-day of Saints John and Paul. A young man of 30 years, handsome and in all respects so finely dressed that all who saw him were awestruck by his person and clothing came in by way of the bridge and the Weser Gate. On a silver pipe which he had, of wonderful form, he began to play through the whole town, and all the children hearing him, to the number of 130, followed him beyond the eastern wall almost to the place of the Calvary or Gallows field, and vanished and disappeared so that nobody could find out where any one of them had gone. Indeed, the mothers of the children wandered from city to city and discovered nothing. A voice was heard in Rama and every mother bewailed her son. And as people count by the years of the Lord or by the first, second and third after a jubilee, so they have counted in Hamelin by the first, second and third year after the exodus and departure of the children. This I have found in an old book. And the mother of Herr Johann de Lude, the deacon, saw the children going out."
Deacon Lude, mentioned above, died in 1378, so would it be possible for his mother to have actually witnessed the event in question in 1284? Well, probably so. If Lude was born, say, between 1305-15 or so, and his mother was in her thirties when she had him, she could have been anything from a toddler to an adolescent in 1284. Other accounts I have read, however, say that the text refers to Lude's grandmother rather than his mother, which would be even more plausible. However, as you can see by the numbers, his mother could very well have witnessed the event--whatever "the event" was--as a young child.
The tale of the Pied Piper has been repeated over and over again since that earliest reference in the stained glass window of the church in Hamelin, and eventually it became a fairy tale made famous by the Brothers Grimm and Robert Browning.
So, in essence, we don't know who the Pied Piper was or what exactly happened although we can be certain that something happened in the town of Hamelin in summer of 1284, something so terrible that it was remembered for hundreds of years. So in essence, I have not answered the question in the title of this post: Who was the real pied piper of Hamelin? In fact, we don't even know if there was a pied piper of Hamelin. (And what the heck does "pied" mean anyway?) All we really know is that 130 "children" left Hamelin in the late 13th century.
But, luckily for you, the story doesn't end here. Even though nobody really knows what happened to those kids or if the piper actually existed, that doesn't stop people from coming up with all kinds of off the wall theories, and I'll be describing them in the next few posts. So stay tuned...
If you absolutely cannot wait until my next post to dig deeper into the legend of the pied piper, you can check out these websites for more information:
Ancient Origins: "The Disturbing True Story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin"
Dark-Stories: "The Pied Piper of Hamelin."
Reader's Digest: "The Real Pied Piper" (one page only)
Wikipedia: "Pied Piper of Hamelin"
Mental Floss: "The Enduring Legacy of the Pied Piper of Hamelin"
Project Gutenberg: "The Pied Piper of Hamelin"
How Stuff Works: "Was There Really a Pied Piper of Hamelin?"
Chapter the First,
In Which We Meet Our Courageous Heroine
Alice Carroll could think of a hundred places she’d rather be than staring at an old dead woman on a Sunday afternoon.
Not that she was actually staring. In fact, she was trying to keep her eyes away from the front of the room where the old woman lay in her coffin. She was looking at the bald head of the old man in front of her instead. Until then, she’d never realized that the back of someone’s neck could be so wrinkly.
She shifted her eyes and looked around. Bad idea. Viewing the living at a funeral was almost worse than viewing the dead. The church was full of old people, with their wrinkles and their age spots and their loose skin. They were like skeletons shuffling around. She grimaced as she caught the eye of an old man with whiskers coming out of his nose. He smiled at her with his stained teeth, and Alice shifted closer to her mother.
Her mother gave her a sad smile and patted her hand. Alice glared at her and crossed her arms, covering the bleeding apple on the front of her black t-shirt.
She didn’t know why her mother had dragged her to this stupid funeral to begin with. It’s not like she even knew the dead lady. Nellie Stephens or Simpson or “S” something or other. Alice had only seen the woman a couple of times in her entire life, and her mother hadn’t worked with her for years.
She’d tried to get out of coming. She’d even asked the neighbors if she could babysit their two little blobs that afternoon, but they’d given her a funny look and said they thought she was too young or maybe they were going to be home all weekend. They couldn’t decide which.
Thirteen years old was not too young to babysit; Alice knew for a fact that they’d had sixth graders babysit for them before. The real reason was that they thought she was a bad kid. Just because she wore black clothes and dark eyeshadow didn’t mean she was a juvenile delinquent. It’s not like she did drugs or punched babies; actually, she got straight A’s and had never even had detention. She just happened to like things that were slightly macabre. Except funerals, of course.
She pulled up her black knee socks and admired the pattern of skulls sewn into them.
“We’re going to a funeral, not a Halloween party,” her mother had said when she’d seen them.
Alice thought they went pretty well with the black and blue streaks she’d put in her hair the day before. Plus, she had been hoping the outfit paired with her crazy hair would make her mother so angry she would let Alice stay home. That hadn’t worked either.
She twisted a strand of hair around her finger and noticed that the people in front of them were standing and leaving their seats.
“What’s going on?” she asked her mother.
“It’s time for the viewing,” her mother whispered back.
“The what?” Alice asked.
“Shh. Come on.” Her mother stood, and before Alice could say anything, her mother had pulled her into the line of people moving down the aisle.
Alice looked around, but she had already figured out where they were going. One by one, each person walked by the casket and paid his or her final respects to the dead woman. She noticed a few who actually leaned over the body itself, and although she couldn’t see exactly what they were doing, she had a sneaking suspicion they were kissing the dead woman’s face.
She felt a gag forming in her throat. She clutched her mother’s arm as the line edged closer to the casket.
“Mom,” she hissed. “I don’t want to go up there. I think I’m going to throw up.”
Her mother shook her arm loose and shushed her. “Stop it, Alice. Don’t make a scene.”
“I’m serious, Mom,” Alice insisted. She was beginning to panic. “I want to go home. I don’t feel well.”
Her mother turned impatiently and looked her squarely in the eye. “Stop. It. Right. Now.” She hissed.
Suddenly they were standing right next to the casket, and Alice felt her eyes being drawn to the corpse, like an insect drawn to light. The old woman’s face was peaceful, as if she was asleep. A strand of white pearls lay across her neck, and someone had brushed her eyelids with violet eye shadow. As Alice stared at the corpse’s face, her vision began to waver. She blinked to clear her eyes, but the image continued to flicker. The skin on the woman’s face began to wobble and smooth out, the wrinkles disappearing one by one. A healthy pink glow crept into her skin, a blush entering her cheeks. The woman opened her eyes, which were clear and blue, and then she smiled, revealing shiny white teeth. Suddenly, Alice was looking into the face of a little girl. Then, just as quickly as it had appeared, the color seeped out, the eyes closed, and the youthful image was gone. Once again, Alice was looking at the pale, sunken face of a dead woman.
The vision could not have lasted more than a second, but it was long enough for both Alice and her mother to pass by the coffin. Alice felt her heart skittering in her chest.
“Mom,” she gasped. “I saw…I saw…”
“I know,” her mother cooed and put an arm around her shoulders. “I know it’s hard.”
“No!” Alice exclaimed and shook off her mother’s arm. “Listen, Mom. I saw—“
“What?” Her mother asked testily and grabbed Alice’s arm to steer her out of the church. “What exactly did you see, Alice?”
Alice crossed her arms and kicked a pebble. “Nothing,” she muttered.
“Then, let’s go,” her mother said. She stopped and with a smile pasted on her face, said hello to a woman in a long black dress wearing strappy black heels.
Alice felt like punching somebody, but instead, she just followed her mother to the parking lot and bit a strand of black and blue hair that had fallen across her face.
She refused to talk to her mother during the car ride; she couldn’t get the weird picture of the little girl’s face out of her mind. She was so distracted, she didn’t even notice when her mother passed by the street that led to their house and kept on driving. In fact, she didn’t even know what was going on until her mother put the car in park, and she looked up to find herself in the middle of a cemetery.
“Um, this isn’t our house,” she said.
“I want to go to the graveside service,” her mother answered. “It’s the proper thing to do. After all, I owe my complete livelihood to Nellie, and believe me that you wouldn’t be enjoying the life you have now without her help. The least we can do is see her off to her final resting place.”
“Why?” Alice asked. “It’s not like she’s going to know we’re there. I don’t think she’s sitting up in heaven keeping tabs on who came to her funeral.”
Her mother held up her hand abruptly and hushed her. “All right, Alice, that’s enough. If you don’t want to show your respect and gratitude, then you can just stay in the car.”
“Fine,” Alice shrugged as her mother got out of the car. She didn’t like the idea of sitting by herself in a graveyard, but it was better than standing around a hole in the ground while a bunch of old people blew their noses and cried. Besides, she was still peeved at her mother.
As her mother walked away, Alice cracked the car windows, turned up the radio, and started playing with her phone.
Even with the radio on, she was bored. It was also kind of hot, and her feet hurt. She took off her leather jacket and removed her boots, replacing them with a pair of her mother’s boring brown sandals laying in the back seat.
She watched as elderly people shuffled past the car and stared disapprovingly in at her. She squinted at them and gave them a closed mouth smile, wishing they would mind their own business. She reached over to turn the volume up on the radio and heard a tap at the window. She looked up to see a little girl with curly blonde hair smiling in at her. She was the exact image Alice had seen in the coffin.
“Hey,” Alice said. She fumbled with the car door to roll the window down, and when she looked up again, the little girl was gone.
That was strange, she thought. She wondered if the fumes from the hair dye were making her see things. She scanned the parking lot and saw an old man hobbling along with a cane, but there was no sign of the little girl.
Suddenly, the little girl’s blonde head popped up from behind a blue sedan.
“Hey,” Alice shouted through the open window. “Wait a second.”
The little girl grinned and covered her mouth with her hands. Then, she turned and darted into the graveyard. She stopped and looked back at Alice, motioning for her to follow.
Alice wasn’t keen on chasing a little kid around a graveyard, especially a little kid who looked just like the vision she’d seen in the casket earlier. But, she was pretty sure the little girl was flesh and blood; ghosts didn’t generally knock on windows. Weren’t they more into rattling chains or something? Besides, Alice figured she should probably grab the little brat before she tripped over a headstone or tree root and broke her leg.
She groaned and popped the door open. The little girl was standing on a hill looking at her, and when she spotted Alice climbing out of the car, she turned abruptly and raced down the other side.
“Wait,” Alice yelled after her. “Stop. You’re going to get hurt.”
She slammed the car door in irritation and reluctantly began to jog after the little girl. After a few seconds, she reached the top of the hill, stopped, and looked around. Miles of headstones and trees stretched in every direction. She couldn’t see the little girl anywhere. Then, out of the corner of her eye, she saw a flash of white, and turning her head, she spotted a white ruffled dress disappearing behind a tree.
“Hey,” she yelled. “Stop running. I’m not playing with you.”
She was starting to get angry at the little girl. Little kids could be so annoying.
She was panting a bit by the time she reached the tree where the little girl had disappeared. But when she looked behind the trunk, the child was gone again. That was odd. She’d had a complete view of the tree and the field surrounding it as she’d been running. There was no way the little girl could have snuck away without Alice seeing her.
She heard a giggle a few yards away. It sounded like it was coming from behind a headstone rimmed with weeds. She crept down to the grave marker, and when she reached it, she leaped around it.
“Ha! I’ve got you now, kid,” she said.
But the little girl wasn’t there. Instead, there was a large rectangular hole. Alice was moving too fast to catch herself, and she fell head first into the open grave.
Word and Book Lover.