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.
Word and Book Lover.