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Is the Pied Piper of Hamelin Based on an Actual Event?

Niki Acker
Updated May 23, 2024
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Historians agree that the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, recorded in the 19th century by Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm, is based on an actual occurrence in 1284 in which most of the children in Hamelin disappeared. However, no one knows for sure the exact reason for the disappearance. Many scenarios have been postulated, some more likely than others.

The story of the Pied Piper was first depicted in a stained glass window from about 1300. The earliest written account dates from the mid-15th century. The Grimm brothers' version from the 1800s is the one that most people are familiar with, and the folklorists drew on 11 different sources for their tale.

In the Grimm version of the story, the Pied Piper, also known as the Rattenfaenger, or rat catcher, appears in the town of Hamelin in the middle of a rat infestation and offers to rid the town of vermin. He uses an enchanted pipe to lure the rats into a river, where they all drown, but the townspeople refuse to pay him a shilling per rat, as promised. He leaves Hamelin, but returns a few weeks later to seek revenge. On his second visit to Hamelin, the Pied Piper uses his magic pipe on the children of the town, leading them into a hole in a mountain on the edge of town and sealing them inside. Only two children remain in the town, one blind and one lame, because they could not follow the piper.

Some suggest that the cause of the children's disappearance was an accident of an epidemic. These theories make sense of some of the elements of the Grimm brothers' version, as being sealed inside a mountain could refer to a major landslide, or the rats could be a reference to plague. However, the European Black Death epidemic did not begin until the 14th century, and rats do not appear in versions of the Pied Piper story before the late 16th century, so the plague theory is unlikely.

Another branch of the epidemic theory postulates that the children fell prey to some sort of disease that caused them to dance, such as Huntington's disease or another form of chorea. As Huntington's disease is a genetic disorder, however, it is not likely that all the children in the town would have been affected. It has also been suggested that the dancing in the Pied Piper story is an example of the widespread medieval theme of the Danse Macabre, or Dance of Death, with the piper as Death, in the lead. Death was often portrayed in multicolored or pied garb in the Middle Ages.

Another theory holds that the children left as part of a military campaign or a Children's Crusade, in which case the Pied Piper represents their leader or recruiter. This was the most widely accepted explanation until the 1950s. Today, most historians believe that it is most likely that the children of Hamelin left in great numbers to found their own colonies in Eastern Europe, again with a leader personified by the Pied Piper. However, there is still some disagreement about where precisely they settled.

The Grimm brothers' story, as well as Robert Browning's 1842 poem on the subject, relates that the children of Hamelin became the founders of Transylvania. More recent historians have suggested that the children formed colonies in Maehren, Oelmutz, or Ueckermark in Eastern Europe. Place names in areas east of Hamelin, as well as the documentation of many cities being founded around this time, corroborates this theory.

Exactly what happened in Hamelin in 1284 is probably forever lost to history, but whatever it was, it appears to have been traumatic enough for its witnesses to willingly forget the particulars. The various legends inspired by the event are the only concrete record we will likely ever have.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Niki Acker
By Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a Language & Humanities editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of interesting and unusual topics to gather ideas for her own articles. A graduate of UCLA with a double major in Linguistics and Anthropology, Niki's diverse academic background and curiosity make her well-suited to create engaging content for WiseGeekreaders. "

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Discussion Comments
By anon961969 — On Jul 21, 2014

If the pied piper did exist in real-life, what sort of instrument would he have used to lure the children away? Many depictions portray him with a trumpet or a horn of some sort, sometimes it is bagpipes or a flute. If we look at medieval instruments, I am not certain as to exactly what kind it would be?

By anon229860 — On Nov 15, 2011

Another aspect that is against the disappearance of the children being due to plague is that it wasn't known that rats were the primary host and that the rat fleas were the vector until 1898.

By anon159651 — On Mar 13, 2011

Many years ago I was traveling in rural Romania in the region of Toplita where I was trying to make contact with the family of a friend on mine who had fled to Australia from here at the outbreak of WW2.

At one point I began to have engine trouble and, seeing a worker in a nearby field, I approached him for assistance. When he caught sight of the German number plate on the car he addressed me in German, which I speak fluently, but only to say he had never seen a VW up close before and so he couldn't help but ask.

What was remarkable, however, was that he was speaking in the unmistakable accent of the region in the then North-East (Germany being still divided), centered below the city of Hildesheim, which has Hamelin some 40 km to the west.

I have since mused on this at some length and come to the only possible conclusion that he was a descendant of the group of children resettled here at some point in response to religious persecution or plague or whatever. -Harzer

By JulianScutts — On Sep 15, 2010

For an authoritative statement on the origins of the Pied Piper legend, one does well to read the findings of the director of the Burg Museum in Coppenbrügge only eight miles due east of Hamelin.

By JulianScutts — On Sep 15, 2010

It is said two Greek philosophers debated on the number of teeth a horse might possess. Somebody ventured to suggest that instead of theorizing on this subject they should inspect the horse's mouth and count the teeth to be found there.

In much the same way, any serious research into the Pied Piper legend involves doing some field work or, in this case, hill climbing in the vicinity of Hamelin. Some relevant sites contain a transcript of an interview with the director of the Burg Museum in Coppenbrügge only a few miles due east of Hameln (Hameln). Coppenbrügge recalls the word 'Koppen' to which the original versions of the Pied Piper story refer.

Is this a coincidence? Herr Hüsam, the director of the museum, supplies plenty of evidence that it is not during an interview recorded on video camera by Mr. John E. Holland and translated into English by me.

Herr Hüsam refers to the well documented fact that a major and sinister role in the pied Piper story was played by Count Nicholas von Spiegelberg, who owned the castle that now houses the museum.

By anon7820 — On Feb 03, 2008

I agree this is fascinating and I liked your idea about the poisoned rye and believe such things really happened. But I understand that beer back then is not as beer is now (probably nasty fermented water) and everyone drank it from infants to oldsters. I think the Piper was the first remembered serial killer and lured children away for evil purposes.

By anon2242 — On Jul 04, 2007

When I was younger, I was always fascinated by the Pied Piper of Hamelin, or Hameln, as it is really called. I read every story book I could get my hands on, and though they were based on some fact, that wasn't good enough for me. I wanted the real truth.

During my research, I have read many theories and even come up with some of my own. My best theory is the following:

The rye that the people of Hameln harvested to make beer, etc., became poisoned. But at the time, the citizens of Hameln were under siege, and there was a wall around the city, so they had no real form of communication. Slowly, the citizens became poisoned by the rye and began to go crazy. But, what about the children? Because the children never drank the beer, they were not affected by the poison.

Hameln's attackers were growing uneasy as they heard stories of the citizen's madness. Inside the walls, the people were killing each other. So, the children managed to escape from the city, explaining their disappearance. But what about the Piper? I'm uncertain if he really existed, but the bodies of some children were found in a forest, close to Hameln. So maybe the Piper really did exist, someone who lured the children away and murdered them. We may never know the real truth of the mysterious Pied Piper of Hameln...

Niki Acker
Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a Language & Humanities editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide...
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