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.
Word and Book Lover.