Was there really a Pied Piper of Hamelin?

Artist: Kate Greenaway (1846-1901)

Everyone knows the story of the Pied Piper -- but how much of this legend is factual? Learn more about the fact and fiction behind the story of the Pied Piper in this podcast from HowStuffWorks.com.

Artist: Kate Greenaway (1846-1901)

Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from howstuffworks.com.

Candace Gibson: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm editor, Candace Gibson, joined by staff writer, Jane McGrath.

Jane McGrath: Hey, there.

Candace Gibson: Hey, Jane. I have a question for you.

Jane McGrath: Shoot.

Candace Gibson: What was your favorite fairy tale growing up?

Jane McGrath: Growing up, I think it had to be Cinderella.

Candace Gibson: Nice choice.

Jane McGrath: Yeah? What about you?

Candace Gibson: Snow White.

Jane McGrath: That's a good choice. I like that.

Candace Gibson: Definitely. I liked the Disney movie with her little bobbed dark haircut. I think she was the only Disney princess that I could think of who had short hair.

Jane McGrath: That is interesting. I never thought about that. I love Cinderella because of the whole magical enchanted mice and everything, which I thought was hilarious when they did it in Enchanted, if you saw that, with the real mice coming in and trying to clean the apartment.

Candace Gibson: Oh, yes. Well rodents are really no laughing matter as we will soon see. But first a little background on fairy tales. As most of you probably know, fairy tales weren't always as light and fluffy and bedtime storyish as they are today. They started out with the Brothers Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm, and they were pretty dark. And there's a specific reason for that, and that's because back when Jacob and Wilhelm were around in the 1800s, they were trying to do more of a historical and cultural thing rather than a literary movement when they recorded Germany's folklore. This was not an initiative that they came up with on their own. They had a friend who was compiling a lot of local Germanic tales and they decided they would be cultural anthropologists and go out and collect their own stories, too. But their friend was moving a bit too slowly for their taste, so by 1812 they published a volume on their own under the name Brothers Grimm. And it was called Children's and Household Tales.

Jane McGrath: This was really popular, right?

Candace Gibson: It was. It was hugely popular. At first the stories weren't geared toward children, it was again more of a matter of historical relevance and writing down German folklore. But they toned it down once they saw how popular it was with children. And the reason they were trying to be so authentic in their recording of these tales is that Napoleon was sweeping throughout Europe at this time, and they thought Germany would lose its identity if it wasn't recorded. So if you look at these tales that the Grimm brothers wrote down, they have very pressing historical and cultural significance. And we're going to study one in particular in just a minute - but we'll go ahead and finish out the Grimm brothers' story. As the Napoleonic invasions came throughout Germany and Europe, their professions changed a bit, too. They took a stab at law school and decided that wasn't going to work out. So Jacob actually became a diplomat for a while and Wilhelm became a secretary to a librarian. And around this time they put out the second volume. Next came small edition, which was a collection of the fairy tales that their brother Ludwig illustrated. But if you think that the Grimm brothers were all fairy tales, you're mistaken because they were philologists, too. And if you aren't up to speed on philology, essentially its linguistics and it puts a lot of emphasis on a culture's history and identity and how speech patterns illuminate that. So they spent some time in their retirement compiling a German dictionary. And Jacob is credited for a pretty significant linguistic contribution called Grimm's Law. And I'm no linguist or expert, but as far as I can understand it, what Grimm's Law boils down to is the alteration of sounds and particular words as the Germanic language became more and more disparate from other European languages. I don't have a really good example for you guys, but you can Google Grimm's Law and see lots of illustrated examples of how it works. I think there's one online that shows how it works within the context of a Grimm brother's fairy tale. And speaking of fairy tales that is what we are going to talk about today. And the very scary possibility that one of the most fr ightening Grimm brothers' fairy tales might actually be true.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And we're talking about the Pied Piper of Hamelin. And this was a popular story as soon as it came out. And one famous poet, Robert Browning, even did a popular English version of the story. But to go back to the original Grimm story - are you ready for story time?

Candace Gibson: I am. I've got my cookies and lactose free milk.

Jane McGrath: Well, don't lie down in bed because this is going to freak you out so you can't sleep afterwards. So this story is set in the German town of Hamelin. This is a real place that exists to this day. It starts back in 1284. So back then, according to the story, the whole town was suffering from this really bad rat infestation. While dealing with this, it doesn't know what to do. There's rats everywhere. So this motley clad fellow strolls in, promises the town people, "I can get rid of all your rats." And the townspeople are so happy about this that they're like, "Yes, please." And they promise as much money as the motley fellow wants. So he takes out his pipe and he starts playing it. And magically all the rats come gathering around him. They follow him wherever he goes. And eventually he leads them into a river near the town called the River Weser. And the rats follow him into this river as he goes, just blindly follow, and they all drown. So the townspeople are ecstatic. They are so happy to be rid of the rats. So the piper is like, "Okay, I did my deed. Where's my money?"

Candace Gibson: "Pay up."

Jane McGrath: And this probably where we get the term pay the piper as we'll see. The town refuses to pay the piper in this situation in the story. They say, "The rats are gone. What are you going to do? We're not going to pay you anymore. What are you going to do, bring them back to life or something?" So he leaves the town and he's mad, justifiably so. But he swears vengeance. And his vengeance - I don't know if it's quite as warranted. So he returns to the town a little later. And this time he's dressed a little differently and he's playing a new tune this time. And this time rats don't come, but children do. Every single child starts following him.

Candace Gibson: And not just the children, right? The mayor's grown daughter.

Jane McGrath: That's right. The Grimm story mentions the mayor's grown daughter. Maybe that's a little slap in the face to the mayor right there, who was probably responsible for him not getting paid. It's very interesting. So the kids gather around, dance around him, and follow him wherever he goes just like the rats do. And he doesn't take them into the river, but he does do something just as bad. He takes them to a cave in a nearby mountain. And they're never heard from again. And what's curious is that some say - in the Grimm story at least - that the kids went into the cave and came out on the other side, which happened to be in Transylvania. Either way, nobody heard from the kids again in the town of Hamelin.

Candace Gibson: So in the context of a fairy tale, that's disturbing enough because no one wants to see all of a town's children just vanish into thin air under the direction of some strange guy wearing multicolored clothes. It's pretty creepy. But the fact that it can actually be a real story - who the heck was this piper? And I think some historians have even gone so far as to suggest that he was a pedophile and he lured the children to a secret place and then he chopped up their bodies and scattered them everywhere.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, that's one theory. William Manchester writes - and it's a controversial book - it's called A World Lit Only by Fire. And that's what he says. But a lot of people question that. And there are other theories. And it's interesting because the story isn't the only reason people think this might've happened. There is a little bit more evidence that something terrible happened in Hamelin. And one piece of evidence is the idea of a stained glass window that the townspeople put up around the year 1300. And they put up this window apparently in a church, and it depicted a motley clad fellow with a group of children dressed in white. And the window doesn't exist today. If you go to Hamelin, you won't see it. It was apparently destroyed, but there are accounts that exist that are accounts of the window. People, who had seen it, wrote about it.

Candace Gibson: And it had a pretty telling inscription, right?

Jane McGrath: That's right. It had an inscription around it that said 130 children were brought into danger and lost. So it does beg the question if something did happen. And another piece of evidence that popped up was about a century after the window was put up. There's an account of this monk writing that a man playing the flute came into the town and led the kids out. Very curious! And by 1603, the town puts up a - 1603 is 300 years after the story would've happened. Around that year, the townspeople put up a façade of a building with another similar inscription about a pied piper bringing the kids into danger.

Candac e Gibson: And one of the issues that we've actually discussed before on an earlier podcast about Lady Godiva - another story that revolved around a monk's writings and a stained glass window - is that when we're talking about oral storytelling only so much can be trusted. And what's great about the Brothers Grimm is they finally took these oral stories and recorded them. But if they were in fact based in history, real events that occurred, who knows how many times the stories had been manipulated by word of mouth and by people who didn't quite understand what they were saying -

Jane McGrath: That's right.

Candace Gibson: - into the tale that it became. And you may recall and earlier podcast Jane and I did about the crusades, and Jane discussed the Children's Crusade. And that's another possibility, that these children followed one child in particular who may have claimed to have a vision from God that he was supposed to lead his fellow children into battle to avenge the Holy Land. And that could've been it.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, that is one possible theory. And it's a little convincing, I think. That could've happened because it was around that time, maybe a little bit later. But there is another real interesting theory that maybe the children were all suffering from some horrible disease and it caused them to die. And historians, they guess that perhaps it was an earlier form of the plague. We did an earlier podcast on the Black Death. And if you heard that, you'll know a little bit about that disease and how horrible it was.

Candace Gibson: And historians postulate, too, that the motley clad fellow who was the Pied Piper may not have been dressed in multicolored garments. Instead, his skin could've been motley. It could've had red splotches that were symptomatic of some sort of disease that he had. They could've been some sort of skin lesions. And the idea that he may have even been afflicted with Huntington's disease, which is a disease that manifests in people who are of middle age! And it can be characterized by mild bouts of dementia and people could act in exuberant ways. We know the piper came in dancing a little bit merrily, playing on his pipe and leading the children out in a very fanciful dance and song. So maybe he could've been demented in some way. We don't really know. I think there is enough historical evidence to suggest that there is a grain of historical truth to the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

Jane McGrath: That's true. It's interesting. And I do want to mention one last theory, which might be the most convincing for me, at least. Remember, I mentioned at the end of the story that some say that the kids came out the other side in Transylvania. And there is some evidence that a man came to the town of Hamelin around the right time of the story, and he was looking for people to help him colonize parts of Eastern Europe. So there's speculation at least that the kids might've come with him and taken them to a place around where Transylvania was! And that's what actually happened to the children.

Candace Gibson: And that may shed some light on the fact that the mayor's grown daughter - maybe she had some sort of special permission from her father as the leader of the town to go with them and help them colonize this new land.

Jane McGrath: That's right.

Candace Gibson: Can we really know? But what is really interesting - you may be thinking, "Thank goodness there's no more rats in the town of Hamelin, lest another Pied Piper come along and take all of their children?" Well, I'm very sorry to inform you that The Times actually reported on December 17, 2008 that Hamelin has a rat problem again. And the particular reporter who was covering the story used the phrase, rat catchers are in vogue again.

Jane McGrath: Oh, my goodness.

Candace Gibson: And they're attributing the rat problem to these allotment gardens around the periphery of the city. And they're sort of like community gardens. You can pay a fee to have a small parcel of land to grow flowers, vegetables, and fruits. And if they're not tended to, they beckon for rats to come and create a mess. So I think they were estimating that more than 200 packs of rats had been identified in the city as of December 2008.

Jane McGrath: Wow.

Candace Gibson: And rats are pretty productive in the boudoir as it were, and I think that one couple can breed up to 2000 descendents per year. So there's a debate right now over how they're going to kill all of these rats and do it in a humane way, which probably was not a huge concern back when the Grimm brothers would've been writing. They were a little bit less concerned about the humanity of killing rats correctly.

Jane McGrath: Sure. So I guess the story is a lot more alive today in Hamelin than they want it to be. But also, they do get a lot of tourism to this day. You can visit Hamelin - I guess it's spelled differently now, but it's the same town. And every Sunday in the summer, they act out the story. So they do carry in a lot of tourism for it.

Candace Gibson: They do. I think they even make rat shaped buns in local bakeries. They have a musical called Rats - not to dissimilar from our Cats over here. You can even take a rat catcher tour. And from what I understand, especially in Hamelin today, it's a pretty thriving profession. You can make a pretty penny off being a rat catcher. And back during the time of the Black Death and the plague it was a very esteemed profession because you're putting yourself in the line of fire, like a policeman would today. There's always that risk that you could die on the job. So anyway, Pied Piper - one of the oldest rat catchers in Grimm brother history!

Jane McGrath: So remember to pay the piper.

Candace Gibson: Exactly. Pay the piper. And for even more about fairy tales that have a grain of historical truth and other interesting characters from history, be sure to check out howstuffworks.com. And if you have any ideas about a historical topic you'd like to hear us discuss, email us at historypodcast@howstuffworks.com.

Announcer: For more on this and thousands of other topics, visit howstuffworks.com. Let us know what you think. Send an email to podcast@howstuffworks.com.

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Topics in this Podcast: myths, German history, fairy tales, literary history