The Pied Piper of Hamelin is, at heart, the story of the disappearance of a great many children from the town of Hamelin (Hameln), Germany, in the Middle Ages. The earliest references describe a piper, dressed in multicolored (pied) clothing, leading the children away from the town never to return. In the 16th century the story was expanded into a full narrative, in which the piper is a rat-catcher hired by the town to lure rats away with his magic pipe. When the townsfolk refuse to pay for this service, he retaliates by turning his magic on their children, leading them away as he had the rats.
There is a fascination in the story of the Pied Piper which draws us in. For children, the fascination is wonder. They wonder at the magic that led those children away and they wonder about what those children must have found. For adults the fascination is that of horror. The loss of so many children in such a fashion is incomprehensible and the question of ‘What would I do?’ haunts the listener.
The earliest account of the story appears to have been on a stained glass window placed in the Church of Hamelin in 1300. On the glass was an inscription that read, "On the day of John and Paul 130 children in Hamelin went to Calvary and were brought through all kinds of danger to the Koppen mountain and lost" – there was no mention of a piper.
The window was described in several accounts between the 14th century and the 17th century. It was destroyed in 1660. Based on the surviving descriptions, a modern reconstruction of the window has been created by Hans Dobbertin. It features the colorful figure of the Pied Piper and several figures of children dressed in white.
The earliest written record is from the town chronicles in an entry from 1384 which states: "It is 100 years since our children left"
Although research has been conducted for centuries, no explanation for the historical event is agreed upon. Scholars generally agree that something horrible happened in the town of Hamelin to spawn the story. Though there might not have been a piper with magical musical talents, it’s safe to assume that some tragedy ensued.
A number of theories suggest that children died of some natural causes and that the Piper was a symbolic figure of Death. Death is often portrayed dressed in motley, or "pied" clothing. Various ecstatic outbreaks were associated with the Plague, such as the Flagellants, who wandered from place to place while scourging themselves in penance for sins that presumably brought the plague upon Europe. The rat is the preferred host for the plague vector, the rat flea. When the rats die, the fleas seek humans as a substitute host. Children might be especially vulnerable to the disease.
William Manchester proposed that the Pied Piper was a psychopathic pedophile and claims that on June 20, 1484, this criminal kidnapped 130 children from the Saxon village of Hammel and used them in "unspeakable ways." He adds that "some of the children were never seen again. Others were found dismembered and scattered in the forest underbrush or hanging from tree branches." No documenting support for this alleged incident has ever been found, and Manchester offers no references or citations for his asserted explanation.
Others have suggested that the children left the city to be part of a pilgrimage, a military campaign, or even a new Children's crusade (which occurred in 1212, not long before) but never returned to their parents. These theories see the unnamed Piper as their leader or a recruiting agent.
It has also been suggested that one reason the disappearance of the children was never documented was that the children were sold to a recruiter from the Baltic region of Eastern Europe. The selling off of illegitimate children, orphans or other children the town could not support was not uncommon at the time.
The theory with the broadest support is that the children willingly abandoned their parents and Hamelin in order to become the founders of their own villages during the colonization of Eastern Europe. Several European villages and cities founded around this time have been suggested as the result of their efforts as settlers. This claim is supported by corresponding placenames in both the region around Hamelin and the eastern colonies where names such as Querhameln ("mill village Hamelin") exist.
Last year, the town of Hamelin in Germany celebrated the 725th anniversary of this macabre event that has been kept alive through children’s fairytales for more than seven centuries. Beyond the musical Rats, the colourful souvenirs and tourist attractions, the town of Hamelin is full of references to a real tragedy – one recorded on the walls of the Rattenfängerhaus, or House of the Piper:
“In the year of 1284, on the day of Saints John and Paul, the 26th of June, 130 children born in Hamelin were seduced by a piper, dressed in all kinds of colours, and lost at the calvary near the koppen.”
There is said to be a long-established law forbidding singing or playing music in the street adjacent to the House of the Piper, Bungelosenstrasse: "street without drums”. This is the street where the children were said to be last seen. During public parades which include music, the band will stop playing upon reaching this street and resume upon reaching the other side. Though the source of the loss may never be known, the town of Hamelin will never forget the loss itself.