Maybe the loss of 130 children from Hamelin, Germany in 1287 has a perfectly innocent explanation. Could the Pied Piper merely have been a recruiter who persuaded them to immigrate to Eastern Europe?
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.
In the early decades of the 13th century (early 1200's) King Canute VI of Denmark (ahem, a viking, ahem) conquered parts of Eastern Europe. The armies of the Holy Roman Empire retaliated, and the struggle culminated in the Battle of Bornhoved in 1227. Remember that at this point in time, there were no missiles, canons, or even guns, so warfare was intimate, it was face to face, and it was bloody. "[T]he carnage was so great, that its combatants are said to have fought knee deep in blood. The King of Denmark had one of his eyes shot out, and had several horses killed under him" ("The Battle of Bornhoved"). The Holy Roman Empire triumphed over the Danes, and suddenly Eastern Europe was safe for Christendom, i.e. the Catholic Church.
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").
The Mongols' intent, however, was not to colonize new lands. It was to spread terrorism and collect the spoils of war. So they didn't stick around. What they left behind was sheer devastation. It is said that the Mongols left so many dead that forests sprouted up in areas that had previously been populated, removing about 700 million tons of carbon from the atmosphere ("Genghis Khan the Green"). Not really a form of environmentalism I would recommend, and let's hope it never comes to that :-O
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.
Sachsenspiegel-Ostsiedlung, Sachsenspiegel, showing the German Ostsiedlung. Upper part: the locator (with a special hat) receives the foundation charter from the landlord. The settlers clear the forest and build houses. Lower part: the locator acts as the judge in the village, This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 100 years or less.
So what does any of this have to do with the Pied Piper of Hamelin? The thing is that the piper himself may have been a pitchman for Eastern immigration, a lokator hired by a prince to go out and collect bodies to settle unpopulated areas of Eastern Europe. "In 1284, Rudolph von Hapsburg, as Holy Roman Emperor, had recently acquired by conquest extensive new possessions in Moravia. The Pied Piper of Hamelin may therefore in fact have been one of Rudolph's emissaries, clad in a colourful tabard carrying the heraldic blazon of a coat-of-arms, and blowing flourishes on his trumpet to attract onlookers" (Bernard Queenan "The Evolution of the Pied Piper). Or he could have been representing some other nobleman, of course.
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.
Could the children of Hamelin have been born-again pagans? Were they not quite down with the Catholic Church? During the Medieval period, EVERYONE in Europe was Catholic...well, almost everyone. Those who weren’t Catholic were subject to suspicion, torture, burning at the stake, wicked stares, or the Spanish Inquisition, and as we are all aware--
No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!
So let’s delve into the theory that the Hamelin-ites were dirty, foul, wicked, crystal-loving, antlers-wearing, body odiferous, wildly hairy, icky-poo PAGANS!
And a pagan is...what exactly?
First, let’s think about what a pagan is exactly. In the U.S., we have negative connotations of the word, but in actuality, a pagan is…
...any person who practices a religion other than Christianity, Judaism, or Islam.
(This definition is derived from Wikipedia, the ultimate fount of crowd-sourced wisdom, and thus should be taken with a grain of salt and maybe a smidgen of applesauce).
So according to the definition, a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Sikh, and pretty much anyone else who practices any religion other those listed above would be considered a pagan. That’s a pretty broad definition and one I assume most people would object to (or at least those who practice a religion other that the BIG THREE would object to).
Generally, when we think of a pagan, we think of someone who worships nature, like someone who practices Wicca, also known as Pagan Witchcraft.
In regards to the Pied Piper of Hamelin and the Middle Ages, what we have to consider is the fact that the ONLY religion acceptable in Europe was Catholicism. And that was the ONLY form of Christianity since Protestantism hadn’t been invented yet.
Mind-bending fact: The Catholic church is far older than the Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Mormon, and every other Christian church. In fact, Catholicism began in the second century AD/CE (although some say it’s older and can be dated all the way back to Jesus and his Apostles), and Protestantism didn’t begin until the 1500’s when Martin Luther nailed his Theses to the door of the Wittenberg for the world to see.
The Pagan Piper of Hamelin?
Now for something completely different…
...Let’s get back to this theory that the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin originated with a pagan massacre...crazy stuff, man.
Our friend Wikipedia gives this as theory for the origin of the Piper: “Another modern interpretation reads the story as alluding to an event where Hamelin children were lured away by a pagan or heretic sect to forests near Coppenbrugge (the mysterious Koppen 'hills' of the poem) for ritual dancing where they all perished during a sudden landslide or collapsing sinkhole” (“Pied Piper of Hamelin”).
People love their crazy theories, don’t they?
Julian Scutts has a related theory, which he details in his book The Pied Piper of Hamelin At the Crossroads of History, Religion and Literature (available on Amazon) and in a record of an interview he has posted online (“Interview with Gernot Husam”), which serves as the basis for the theory described below.
According to Scutts, Gernot Husam, the one-time director of the Museum of Coppenbrugge, has done his own research into the legend of the Piper. The Coppenbrugge the museum refers to is a region of Germany, and near it is the small town of Hamelin (now spelled Hameln in Germany). This region is punctuated by hills, where Husam (the museum director) came across carved stone figures. Husam was excited by the appearance of these carvings and connected them to a dissertation written by a woman named Waltraut Woller, who had connected the Coppenbrugge to the Piper legend.
In case you missed it--or just don’t want to go back and look it up--the Rattenfangerhaus (“Rat Catcher’s House) has an inscription in stone that reads, in part, “After passing the Calvary [the execution place] near the Koppenberg [hills] they disappeared forever."
Husam connects the “Koppenberg” of the inscription to the Coppenbrugge region. He believes that the “Calvary” mentioned in the inscription “should really be translated as skull or skull cover” (“Interview”). He then connects this description to the word “head,” “which is what ‘Koppen’ means” (“Interview”). His train of thought about the semantic origins of the term “koppen” ends with this thought: “in the Middle Ages itself the concept of Calvary referred exclusively to the head or skull surmounting the jaws of Hell” (“Interview”).
I found this word origin theory intriguing and looked it up. It turns out the translation for “head” in German is “kopf,” not “koppen.” However, one of the northern dialects does use “koppen” as the term for “head,” so Husam is not out of his koppen when he makes this connection.
Husam believes that because of the geographical features of the hills of Coppenbrugge, they were a prime location for certain nature rituals. There are “long approach lanes for marchers, the extensions of which spiral round the dome at the summit,” (“Interview”), similar to the features of the Blocksberg, which is a place in the Harz mountains “where witches are said to perform occult rites” (“Interview”).
I’m going to break away from dear old museum director Gernot Husam for a minute because as an ignorant American, I had never heard of the Blocksberg or the Harz mountains or how they were associated with witches, but I can’t help investigating further. I mean--witches!--that’s like trying not to eat chocolate that’s dripping down your face.
Steenie Harvey in her article “Season of the Witch” has a lovely, evocative description of the mountains:
“Wandering through Germany's Harz Mountains, it's impossible not to realize that you have entered a domain of enchantment, a place where landscape conspires with legend to create a sense of lurking mystery. A terrain of craggy peaks, gloomy forests, and river valleys banked by towering cliffs, the mountains remember folk beliefs dating from pre-Christian times. . . . they are steeped in tales of witchcraft, magic, and apparitions. Stories collected in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries show that the region's mythic reputation reached beyond Germany. From France to Scandinavia, countryfolk traded fireside yarns of strange happenings on the Brockenberg (Brocken Mountain), the Harz's highest peak at 3,747 feet. Rumor had it that Europe's witches gathered there on Walpurgisnacht, May Eve” (“Season of the Witch”).
The drawing below by Johannes Praetorius from 1668 illustrates the fear people had of the Blocksberg. You can see the devils dancing around as the celebrants wind their way around the hill itself, in the same way Husam described the Koppenberg above.
Getting back to the interview with Herr Husam--
If the idea of witches dancing around a hillside wasn’t weird enough, Husam actually claims to have witnessed the aftermath of a pagan ritual. He says, “I have indeed experienced such an occasion myself at the Wackelstein (a boulder that rocks or wobbles, not being firmly fixed to its pivotal base). I went up there on midsummer’s night, the 21st of June, in fact while it was still twilight and almost dark. When I reached the Wackelstein, what should I see but tea-light candles adorned with flowers on this dish-shaped stone. They were still burning, mark you. There in the middle lay the severed neck of a swan, a remarkable sight, and then there was a rock at the side and this also had niches in it and even here tealight candles had been placed. I think I must have arrived at the spot immediately after the celebration of an occult rite” (“Interview”).
And apparently Husam is not the only one to happen upon such grisly leftovers. A forestry official also “once came across chickens’ bones amid flowers and candles” (“Interview”).
What does this have to do with the story of the Pied Piper?
If you look at the picture of above, you will see three stags (deer) in the middle underneath the trees. Husam equates these stags to three brothers, the counts of Spiegelberg. The brothers “took the stag as the emblem shown on their coat of arms” (“Interview”) and were thought to have taken measures to stop the heathen practices occurring in the hills around their castle.
So according to this theory, on a summer’s day, the youth of Hamelin walked away from town led by a piper in colorful clothing so that they could get their paganism on. What they didn’t know was that the counts of Spiegelberg weren't down with their heathen ways--this was the Catholic middle ages, after all--and when the kids showed up, they were slain by Nikolaus and his men.
“Count Nikolaus of Spiegelberg with the help of his two younger brothers, in order to get into the good books of the Church and civil dignitaries, organized a massacre of youthful miscreants execrated as dancing devil-worshippers who allegedly performed forbidden rites on the Koppenberg” (“Fieldwork on the Pied Piper”).
Thus, the children of Hamelin had indeed met their Calvary, their Golgotha, and were never to return to their homes or their families, their whereabouts forever unknown except for suspicions cast upon the Spiegelberg brothers.
And what happened to the good count? “As to Count Spiegelberg, he disappeared from historical records only weeks after the 26th of June, his last location being Stettin on the east German border. According to which theory you choose, he was either about to embark on an ill-fated voyage in the Baltic and drown with his youthful followers or he was on the run after instigating a bloodbath” (“Fieldwork”).
There you have it--the Hamelinites were killed for being too witchy. “Oooooh, witch-ay woman, see how high she fli-i-ies. Oooooh, witch-ay woman, she got the moon in her ey-hi-hi-eys” (The Eagles “Witchy Woman”).
So which theory do you think is most likely--the children of Hamelin died from the plague, they suffered from the dancing mania, they left for an ill-fated children’s crusade, or they were cut down by a bloodthirsty count?
In my next post, we’ll explore the scenario that experts believe is the most likely, so put on your traveling shoes!
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.
We've explored the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, discovering that it is based on historical fact and that while it might appear to be a case of plague run amok, it actually is not. If you've not read those two posts, go back and read them now.
So now we move to a new theory, something most of us sitting in our living rooms might find far-fetched but those who attend raves on a regular basis might find completely normal...
Medieval Dance Madness
On a warm summer day in 1518 in Strasbourg, France, a young woman named Frau Troffea stepped into the street and started to dance. Hours passed, but she did not stop. As she spent the long day leaping and throwing herself around the street, she drew a crowd. Finally, in utter exhaustion, she fell to the ground. But the show was not over, folks. As soon as she had rested, she jumped up and began to caper about the streets once more, and she continued to do so, day after day, until about a week had passed, and oddly enough, by that time, about 34 people had joined in the massive party experiment. By month's end, the berserker who had originally caused the crazed dance had been joined by 400 other "dancers" ("Mass Hysteria in Germany 500 Years Ago").
This incident may seem like a strange blip in history, but it's actually an example of a larger epidemic. If people who are not of European descent think that white people are crazy, well, here's the proof. Dancing madness popped up across Europe repeatedly throughout the Middle Ages. According to Wikipedia (and if it says it on Wikipedia, then it must be true, right?), the first outbreak of chorea (from the Greek word for "dance")--also called Dancing Mania, Dancing Plague, St. John's Dance, and St. Vitus' Dance--was in the seventh century (the 600's), and it lasted through the 17th century (the 1600's) ("Dancing mania"). So for a thousand years, people would gather in the streets occasionally and begin convulsing and jerking their arms and legs around until they collapsed from exhaustion.
This phenomenon may sound a bit disturbing and a whole lot hilarious, but it was actually quite deadly. "The unfortunate people who succumbed were described as dancing and leaping until the flesh was worn from their feet and the bone and sinew exposed" ("Mass Hysteria in Germany 500 Years Ago"). But it didn't stop with broken bones and ripped feet. "The people would continue vigorously jumping and dancing about, sometimes also screaming out or chanting, until completely exhausted at which point they would collapse and some would die from cardiac arrest or injuries suffered from their violent dance. Those who didn’t die, once exhausted, would often twitch around on the ground, foaming at the mouth and gasping, until they were able to once again get up and continue their dance" ("This Day in History, 1374"). By the end of Frau Troffea's dance party in Strasbourg in 1518, dozens were dead from exhaustion, heart attack, or stroke ("'Dancing Plague' and Other Odd Afflictions Explained").
Crazed Dancers Led by a Man in Patchwork Clothes?
You can probably already guess how the outbreak of hysterical dancing relates to the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. In the story, the Piper blows on his pipe, creating a music so enchanting that the children begin to dance.
There was a rustling, that seemed like a bustling
Of merry crowds justling at pitching and hustling,
Small feet were pattering, wooden shoes clattering,
Little hands clapping, and little tongues chattering,
. . . .
Tripping and skipping, ran merrily after
The wonderful music with shouting and laughter.
(Robert Browning "The Pied Piper of Hamelin").
It seems completely probable that the story is in fact based on an incident of the dancing plague. Perhaps it wasn't children, but townsfolk who actually succumbed to the madness. Perhaps it was both adults and children.
An incident from history has remarkable parallels to the story of the Pied Piper. In 1237 in the city of Erfurt, Germany, a large group of children set out for the town of Arnstadt, and what was strange about them is that they "appeared to have been dancing and jumping uncontrollably all the way" ("The Dancing Plague and a Raw Deal for the Pied Piper").
What's more is that musicians were often associated with these strange outbreaks of dancing. Some towns actually hired musicians to play during these interludes, matching the rhythm of their music to the pace of the dancers. Then, they would attempt to slow the music down in the hope that the dancers would naturally begin to slow their dancing as well and eventually stop. It didn't help, however. Sometimes the added music would just encourage other people to join in as well.
However, this idea of the dancing plague and the accompanying musician does seem to be a compelling origin story for the historical event and the fairy tale of the Pied Piper. Perhaps a man in motley clothing was hired to put an end to the madness gripping the town of Hamelin, or perhaps a man with a pipe led the children from Erfurt to Arnstadt, someone in Hamelin heard about it, and somehow the two stories became mixed up so that suddenly the man who was supposed to be curing the children of their mad dancing became the bad guy who killed them all.
It's a good theory, so obviously there must be something wrong with it, right? I actually can't find anything in my research that disputes the idea that the story of the Pied Piper was inspired by an incident of the dancing plague--after all, it seems to have been a popular pastime in Germany during the time--however, I can't find anything that confirms it either. The only problem I can see with it is that the journey from Erfurt to Arnstadt--and the dancing that ensued--happened in 1237, fifty years before the children of Hamelin were said to have disappeared. On the other hand, that doesn't necessarily mean that the epidemic of hysterical dancing hadn't put such a grip on the public imagination of the people in Hamelin that it gave rise to the claim that a musician had led their children astray either.
There is one more tiny glitch in this theory though. In the original quotes that I cited from my first post, there is never any mention of dancing. The children are said to have "disappeared," been "led away," been "lost," or simply "left." And actually, when I look at the different versions of the fairy tale, Robert Browning's is the only one I can find that even uses the word "dance." Of the child who was left behind when the Piper blew on his pipe, Browning writes, "One was lame, / And could not dance the whole of the way" (Robert Browning "The Pied Piper of Hamelin"). Then, later in his poem, Browning adds, "And Piper and dancers were gone forever" (Robert Browning "The Pied Piper of Hamelin"). Browning published his famous poem in 1842, roughly six hundred years after the children mysteriously disappeared from the town of Hamelin. So it appears as if the children who went missing were not seen dancing at all...at least not until Robert Browning put his particular spin on the tale.
So what did happen in Hamelin in 1287?
In my next post, I'll be looking at another theory behind the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, but before I do, here are some strange little factoids about the dancing plague, including the idea that it was caused by a fun guy. No, wait, that should be spelled "fungi."
So what do you think caused the disappearance of 130 children from Hamelin, Germany in 1287: the plague, the dancing plague, or something else? I'll discuss another theory in my next post.
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.