Did the children of Hamelin set out for some sort of ill-fated mission dubbed The Children's Crusade in 1284? Is that the source material for the Pied Piper of Hamelin?
As I've shown in previous posts, the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin was based on a real historical incident, and some people have speculated that the disappearance of the children was due to an outbreak of the plague while others wonder if it could have been a case of the dancing plague. If you haven't read those posts, you definitely should because it is some CRAZY stuff.
So today, I bring you another theory...
Kids on a Crusade
One of the things I remember most vividly about the story of Robin Hood is that he was supposed to have just returned from the Crusades in the Holy Land when he discovered the wicked ways in which Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham were treating the common people. This memory comes chiefly from the 90's romantic flick Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves with Kevin Costner playing the leading man. While this story is completely made up and romanticized, in truth people actually were doing quite a bit of crusading during the early Middle Ages.
When we think of the Crusaders, we think of people like Robin Hood, heroic knights in shining armor, and the Knights Templar. What we don't think about are little kids strapping on swords and putting to death the infidels (i.e. in this case, non-Christians). But apparently, that's kinda, sorta what happened.
In the summer of 1212, a 12-year-old shepherd from a small town in France named Stephen had an epiphany. Jesus appeared to him in the dress of a pilgrim and asked for bread. After Stephen shared his food with the holy visitor, Jesus gave him a letter to take to the king of France, King Philip II. It is believed that the letter contained a call for the king to begin another crusade to reclaim the holy land for Christendom. Exhalted, Stephen began his journey to Paris, and as he traveled, he attracted hundreds--possibly thousands--of followers who wanted to share in his glorious quest. When he got to Paris, however, the king thanked him but otherwise blew him off. King Philip was not in any way interested in riding to the Middle East, and apparently, he wasn't into asking anyone else to do it either. The king told Stephen's followers to go home, and while some of them did, others flocked to the boy to join his crusade.
It's unclear what happened to Stephen at this point, but what is clear is that this grassroots campaign did not stop in Paris, and it did not stop with the young shepherd boy either. At around the same time, possibly in a separate movement or possibly in a continuation of the same movement, a young man named Nicholas of Cologne donned the mantle and became the new leader of the group.
Like Stephen, Nicholas was led by divine inspiration, and his belief was so intense that he thought when he and his followers reached the Mediterranean, God's hand would descend and part the sea just as it had for Moses as he led the Jews from Egypt. Also like Stephen, Nicholas attracted thousands to the cause with his charisma and piety. "Hundreds and then thousands of children, adolescents, women, the elderly, the poor, parish clergy, and the occasional thief joined him in his march south. In every town the people hailed the 'Crusaders' as heroes, although the educated clergy ridiculed them as deranged or deceived. In July 1212, despite the summer heat that had caused many to give up and return home, Nicholas and his followers crossed the Alps into Italy" ("Crusades," Encyclopedia Brittanica).
But something strange happened when the band of believers reached Genoa, Italy: nothing. God's hand did not reach down, the waters did not recede, and the waves continued to break against the shore. Many of Nicholas's followers turned from him in disgust and disappointment. However, "The Genoese authorities were impressed by the little band, and they offered citizenship to those who wished to settle in their city. Most of the would-be Crusaders took up this opportunity" ("Children's Crusade," Wikipedia). Other zealots returned to their homes in Germany. But some were not so lucky. For those still brimming with religious fervor and desperate to get to the Holy Land, "immoral merchants duped them into boarding ships bound for Alexandria, whereafter some were drowned in shipwrecks and others were sold into slavery" ("The Real Story of the Children's Crusade"). The remaining group traveled to Rome and appealed to the pope to release them from their crusading vows, which he did.
A Crusader in Pied Clothing?
So how likely is it that the children of Hamelin joined a group of religious zealots in 1284 and disappeared from their hometown forever?
I like a few things about this theory. First, the Children's Crusades occurred around the same time as the supposed disappearance of the children of Hamelin. These "crusades" happened in 1212, and Hamelin's children are said to have left in 1284, sixty-two years later. That is a gap in time, but as Bernard Queenan states in "The Evolution of The Pied Piper," "Some have seen the exodus of the young people of Hamelin as a distorted memory of an episode in the Children's Crusade of 1212." Note the word "distorted." Is it possible that the people of Hamelin, reflecting on events that had occurred over a hundred years before, made a mistake about the year when the children disappeared? I suppose it's possible.
Another thing I like about this theory is that it is a good reason for the children to have left Hamelin. They wanted to get in on the whole saving-the-world-for-Christianity action. And since we know that both Stephen and Nicholas were rounding up people to join their holy cause, this explanation is a logical one for why the children would disappear.
I also appreciate the fact that there is no dancing in this version. Remember that the original transcriptions make no mention of dancing, and the Children's Crusade does not mention dancing either.
In addition, the Children's Crusade occurred during the summer, and Hamelin's children were said to have left during the summer.
Finally, the original texts say, "130 children--born in Hamelin--were led out of the town by a piper wearing multicolored clothes." They didn't just leave; they were led out of town. Could this leader have been Nicholas of Cologne? We don't know what kind of clothing Nicholas wore, but I assume he was dressed in the patched and fraying clothing of a peasant. "Little is known about Nicholas except that he originated from the countryside near Cologne and carried a cross shaped like a T (the tau cross), which was his charismatic emblem" ("Children's Crusade," Encyclopedia Brittanica). Maybe the cross could have been confused for a pipe? Okay, I'll admit that's a bit of stretch, but it is a possible theory if the people of Hamelin's memory was truly "distorted." Even it was not Nicholas himself who was recruiting the children, however, this theory sees "the unnamed Piper as their leader or a recruiting agent. The townspeople made up this story (instead of recording the facts) to avoid the wrath of the church or the king" ("Pied Piper of Hamelin," Wikipedia). Pretty good theory, then, right?
The big problem with this theory is, of course, the time frame. If the children of Hamelin really disappeared in 1282, not in 1212, then they were probably not part of some doomed Children's Crusade. Besides, some of the children from the crusades survived and returned home, but there is no report of any of the missing children ever returning to Hamelin. In fact, they are said to have "disappeared forever," not just temporarily.
In the end though, I can't fully discredit this theory, and I certainly think it is one worth pondering.
In my next post, we will look at one of the more bizarre theories related to the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Prepare yourself for a pagan massacre.
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.