I guess almost all of us were told fairy tales when we were children, little stories that parents use to amuse their young ones. There are thousands of such tales, of course, many of them featuring fantastic creatures like elves, goblins, dragons and, as the name implies, fairies. Others just feature ordinary people doing strange, magical or wonderful deeds. Snow White, for example, is a fairy tale and so are the Pied Piper and Cinderella — but have you ever wondered where these stories came from and how they started?
Snow White’s origins are obscure. Some say the tale stems from the story of Margaretha von Waldeck, who was born in 1533 in Germany and who was courted by a Spanish prince but died at the age of only 21. Others say it is based on Maria Sophia Margarethe Catharina, Baroness von und zu Erthal in the early 18th century, a girl who was dominated by her stepmother.
The first written account of Cinderella was published in Italy and dates from 1634. Some versions of the story are much older though and one, the tale of Rhodopis, who married the King of Egypt, a man so entranced by finding her slippers he searched until he found her, dates back to 600 years before the birth of Jesus.
There is little evidence to prove the origin of most of these folk tales but, when it comes to the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, there is a lot more.
To begin, the town of Hamelin is a real place in Lower Saxony, Germany. It’s not large — less than 60,000 people — but it is an ancient town that was founded around a monastery about 1,150 years ago.
The story of the piper dates back to the early years of the town and, surprisingly, we not only know the year it occurred, but the precise day as well. It was June 26, on the feast of St. John and St. Paul in the year 1284 and it was said that the townspeople had been suffering a plague of rats. The mayor is supposed to have asked for help in getting rid of the rodents and a stranger said he could do it. The man was a piper and wore multi-colored clothing, the old term for which was ”pied” — hence he was the pied piper.
He claimed to be able to solve the rat problem and allegedly the town’s mayor told him that if he did so they would pay him a thousand guilders. The piper agreed and, playing his pipe, he lured the rats from the town to the nearby River Weser where they all drowned. It seems the mayor didn’t believe in the old saying that a deal’s a deal. His reasoning apparently was that the rats were dead and the piper couldn’t bring them back so why should they pay him? The piper was furious at being cheated. He left the town, swearing to get revenge.
That revenge came on the feast day, June 26, when all the adults were in church. The story goes that the piper returned, now dressed all in green, and began to play his pipe again. This time he’s supposed to have entranced the town’s children and 130 of them are said to have followed him to a cave where they all vanished. There are other versions that say he took them to the top of a hill, he drowned them in the river like the rats or he returned them after receiving his fee.
The Hamelin story says that there were three surviving children. One was lame and couldn’t keep up with the others, one was blind and couldn’t see where they were going and the last was deaf and thus couldn’t hear the music of the piper’s pipe.
It’s a good story, probably told to teach children to pay their debts and not to be ensnared by strangers, but there is evidence that it is based on a real event.
The first mention seems to be accounts of an expensive, stained-glass window that was put in the Church of Hamelin around the year 1300. It is mentioned several times over the following 300 or 400 years until the church was destroyed and is said to have depicted the piper and several children dressed in white. Later, the official town records from the year 1384 state “It is 100 years since our children left.”
From this it seems to be true that something happened to the children of Hamelin on that day, but what? The part of the story about the rats didn’t appear in any account until nearly 300 years later, so we can discount that. There are several theories about what did happen. One is that the children died, either of starvation or because they were victims of some disease and others say they were playing in the river and drowned or were caught in a landslide.
One theory for which there is a lot of evidence is that the “children” were in fact young adults who were encouraged to emigrate to eastern Europe. In support of this, it’s known that there were men called “lokators” who were sent out to recruit settlers for lands that were won from the Danes in the early 13th century. At that time, it was common for the eldest son to inherit and for the other children to get nothing, so the promise of land would have been a big temptation for younger siblings.
Several place names in the eastern part of Germany and Poland are the same as those around Hamelin and a study has been done which has identified many of the surnames that were common in Hamelin at the time. These were compared to names elsewhere and the results showed the same names now occur north of Berlin and in the Pomeranian area of Poland.
It seems from this that the fairy tale of the Pied Piper may have come down to us as a result of a 13th century emigration and land grab, not that the people of present-day Hamelin care. They still remember the story and hold a festival to celebrate the event called “Rat Catcher’s Day” each year. There is a Rat Catcher’s House that has an early inscription of the legend and there is a street called “Bungelosenstrasse” or the “street without drums” which is supposed to be where the lost children were last seen. A local law bans the playing of music or dancing there. It makes one wonder what other fairy tales may also have a hidden history.