The Pied Piper was a semi-legendary figure in the history of medieval Germany. Various versions of the stories surrounding the Pied Piper exist.
Most of these versions place the Pied Piper in the 13th century.
It is possible that the story of the Pied Piper is based on actual events. The story itself is closely associated with the German town of Hamelin in Germany.
According to the standard version of the story, the town of Hamelin became infested with rats in 1284. The townspeople and the mayor wanted to put an end to the infestation. Then a piper appeared who was attired in multicolored clothes, the word for which is ‘Pied’ in German.
The piper claimed that he could rid the town of the rats upon which the mayor promised to pay him a certain amount of gold if he did. The piper played a tune that lured all the rats from the town and towards a nearby river where they drowned.
Upon the success of his task, the Pied Piper asked the mayor for payment. However, the mayor refused to pay which greatly incensed the piper.
The piper then left the town only to return later on Saint John and Paul’s Day. All the adults were at the church on the day. The piper was dressed in green like a hunter and played a tune that attracted all the children of the town.
In all, nearly 130 children followed him as he played his tune and led them away from the town.
Different versions exist as to what happened to the children once they had gone away from the town. In some narrations, the Pied Piper led the children into a cave from where they never returned.
In other versions, the children were led to the top of the Koppelberg Hill from where the Pied Piper took them to a legendary beautiful land.
Another account says that the Piper drew the kids towards a river and like the rats, had them drowned. A fourth version states that the Piper is later able to negotiate a larger payment from the mayor and returns the children.
It is interesting to note that the incident which gave rise to this legend may have actually happened. There are several pieces of evidence from history that corroborate the incident.
One is a historic inscription in Hamelin dating back to 1602 that narrates the incident. An older piece of evidence is the town records of Hamelin which date all the way back to 1384.
One entry in the town records states ‘It is 100 years since our children left.’ Another manuscript from the 15th century mentions the incident.
In all of these sources, the date of the incident is given as ’26 June 1284’ and the number of children who vanished is given as 130.
Given the several historic mentions of the Pied Piper story, it is actually possible that an incident took place which bore a close resemblance to the legend.
Some scholars have surmised that the townspeople from Hamelin may have emigrated to other regions for colonization. It was common for a town to call its people ‘children’, so the reference to children may have been to townspeople.
Another possible explanation is that the children were led away during a fit of ‘dancing mania’, a curious condition that afflicted different areas of Europe from the 11th century onwards. The mania resulted in endless dancing involving large groups of people, eventually leading to exhaustion and even death.