Painting of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

The Legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin

The Pied Piper of Hamelin is the medieval legend of a town plagued by rats. It’s about the wandering bard who showed up during the height of the infestation. This bard wore vibrant clothes and promised to rid the town of rats in exchange for gold. The townspeople were desperate, and they agreed, but then the story takes a darker turn.

A legend is a historical but unverifiable story. In this case, there are records of a bard who called himself the Pied Piper showing up in the small German village of Hamelin in the year 1284. There are also records of 130 children being led astray and going missing. It’s reasonable to think that some parts of this legend might be true.

Pipers were wandering musicians who could be hired during festivities. They were of a lower class, often despised, and sometimes considered dangerous. They often wore pied (multicoloured) clothes.

The tale has been interpreted in different ways over the centuries. I’ll explain everything at the end.

The Legend

In 1284, there was a severe rat infestation in the small town of Hamelin. These rats killed the cats that were supposed to hunt them, nibbled on babies as they slept, and wrought havoc upon the food stores.

The townspeople were terrified. They convened at the Town Hall, threatening to oust the Mayor if he couldn’t find a way to get rid of the rats, but the Mayor had already tried everything. There was nothing left to do.

It was then that a mysterious figure appeared. He was a wandering bard dressed in a coat of many vibrant colours. He called himself the Pied Piper, and he said he had a secret charm that could rid them of their rats. All he asked in return was a thousand gold coins. The Mayor agreed at once.

The Piper took out his pipe, played a hideous song, and danced down the street. Rats streamed from the sewers, squeezed their bodies out from under doorways, and appeared from every nook and cranny, swarming around the Pied Piper.

The Pied Piper skipped down the road and into the river Weser, wading in deeper and deeper until he was soaked to the neck. The rats followed him in, but they could not swim, and their corpses were carried away by the current.

The townspeople rejoiced. The weight of desperation lifted from their shoulders. The nightmare was over. And they realized a thousand gold coins was much too steep a price for such a simple solution. When the Pied Piper returned to the Town Hall, the Mayor reneged on the deal, offering fifty gold coins instead. The Piper warned the townspeople of dire consequences if they did not fulfill their promise, but what could a lowly piper do? They summoned the guards and shooed him away.

The Piper began to play his pipe once more, filling the air with another strange melody, but this time it was the children who followed him. The townspeople were too enchanted by the music to stop him.

One hundred and thirty children disappeared that day, leaving only three behind. The first was lame and could not keep up. The second was blind and could not find the way. The third was deaf and couldn’t hear the music. He followed the others all the way to a cave, but when they went in, he felt afraid and didn’t follow.

The townspeople rushed to the caves, but there was no trace of the Pied Piper or their children.

What Really Happened?

Hamelin is a real town in Lower Saxony, Germany. 130 children really do seem to have gone missing there in 1284. The town church had a stained-glass window with an inscription describing the despair the town fell into when the Pied Piper led the children away.

There was also the tragic Children’s Crusade of 1212, where a German preacher boy named Nicholas gathered as many as 30,000 boys, adolescents, and peasants to march on the Holy Land, hoping to convert Muslims to Christianity. Two out of every three of the crusaders died or were sold into slavery. That fits well enough, except that the Children’s Crusade took place 73 years before the events of the Pied Piper.

Some speculate that the Pied Piper was a foul thing—too foul to be called a man—who abducted children in their sleep. Others speculate that the children died from the plague, or that they were taken away from a plague-infested town. But the Black Death only began in 1347.

That brings us to the rats. An infestation of rats is plausible, but that part of the story seems to have been added later. There’s little record of it until the 16th century. I doubt the Pied Piper was a rat catcher.

Here’s my guess at what really happened. At the end of the 13th century, German colonizers were trying to gain a foothold in Eastern Europe. It was common for recruiters to venture into unfamiliar towns, seeking out young settlers. Maybe the Pied Piper was one of these recruiters, trying to convince the young men and women of Hamelin to follow him east. Or perhaps that’s what he pretended to be.

Similar Legends

If you like the legend of the Pied Piper, you may like other legends with roots planted in truth. Here are some of my favourites:

Or, if you’re willing to stray a little further from history, you may like the myth of How Odysseus Survived the Sirens.

Juan Artola Miranda

I am Juan Artola Miranda, a fabulist living in the Mexican Caribbean. My friends know me by the name of my father's father, but that name grew into something bigger, my writing reaching tens of millions of readers. It was too strong for me to control. Artola Miranda is the name of my mother's mother. It's a better name for a fabulist.

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