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.
Word and Book Lover.