There's a lot of legend and folklore surrounding the figure of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, a colorfully dressed man with a pipe instrument who supposedly spirited away an entire town of children back in the Middle Ages. But while many assume the Pied Piper is simply a myth, historical evidence suggests that he is actually based on some collection of real events that occurred in 1248 CE in Hamelin, Germany.
The earliest depiction of the Pied Piper existed as a stained glass church window put up in Hamelin in 1300 CE. While the window was later destroyed, it's said to have featured a colorfully dressed man leading a group of children, and it was believed to have been made in memory of a tragic event. The earliest written town records of Hamelin also state, in 1348, "It is 100 years since our children left." The German Lüneburg manuscript, dating 1440-1450, recounts that on the 26th of June, 1248, "130 children born in Hamelin were led away by a piper [clothed] in many colours to [their] Calvary near the Koppen, [and] lost." From this evidence, most historians agree that the children of Hamelin did, in fact, go missing, but their theories about what truly happened differ dramatically.
The most popular story - and the one you've probably heard - is that the Pied Piper was a rat-catcher hired by the town of Hamelin to rid them of an unbelievably bad rat infestation. Although the Pied Piper purged the rats from their town (usually by luring them with his music into the river), the townspeople refused to pay the Pied Piper his due. So, in an act of revenge, the Pied Piper lured the children away with his music (either to a hill or into the water) and slew them all.
In support of this theory, one of the early manuscripts recounting the incident states the children were led away to the "Koppen," which translates to a knoll or domed hill, which is thought to be a reference to one of several hills that do surround Hamelin. Koppelberg hill and Kopperberg mountain as well as the river Weser have been written into many versions of the tale as locations where the children perished. And early depictions of the Pied Piper do show a man with some sort of musical pipe-like instrument as well as a group of children following him between the river and the mountain.
While rats were definitely a nuisance at this time in Germany, there is little evidence to suggest that the Pied Piper was a rat-catcher or that he was hired by the town. The earliest accounts offer no mention at all of rats, and it wasn't until the 16th century that this version of the story emerged.
The rat-catcher-turned-child-slayer theory also has some obvious holes in the simple logic of it. Are we to believe that a group of over 1,000 children went with this man because he was that damn good at playing the pipe? Also, where the hell were all the parents?
Perhaps the Pied Piper wasn't a jilted rat-catcher at all. Maybe, instead, he was just your average, everyday pedophile who snuck off with 100+ kids in the middle of the night. In historian William Manchester's book A World Lit By Fire, he describes the Pied Piper as a "psychopath and pederast" who might've left "disembodied little bodies... in the forest underbrush or festooning the branches on trees." Creepy, right?
Since the Pied Piper probably wasn't a rat-catcher, pedophilia might make a more plausible motive, because massive creeps have existed throughout human history.
One theory posits that the Pied Piper wasn't a real person at all, but was a symbol that represented death - more of an imaginative figure than an actual one. This idea suggests that the children of Hamelin perished of natural causes, and the Pied Piper was simply created as a symbolic figure to help the townspeople make sense of what would have been an unspeakable tragedy.
Cited as evidence for this theory is the similarly themed "Dance of the Dead," or "Danse Macabre," an artistic genre popularized in the 15th century. This dance symbolized death as a uniting force and depicted it as a person who summoned people from every social status to dance on the grave together. If the children of Hamelin had all tragically passed, the Pied Piper could be a coping mechanism in the same vein, with the added similarity of music. It would also make sense that the town decided to depict his image on the window of a church if he were a symbol of unity rather than a pedophile.
But if the Pied Piper wasn't actually real, then what happened to the children? Some have suspected starvation or disease, specifically pointing to the rats in the story to signify the Bubonic Plague. But the Black Plague didn't reach Europe until 1347, over 50 years after the children were said to have been lost. It's more likely that the rats were added to the story after the incident to make it relevant. And any mass illness or starvation probably wouldn't have taken place on one specific date.
The Children's Crusades of 1212 were (supposedly) failed efforts led separately by a French boy and a German boy to convert Muslim kingdoms to Christianity and reach the Holy Land. In the German story, the boy "Nicholas" recruits a large group of children to travel with him on the crusade, and most end up perishing along the way or migrating to different areas.
So, could Nicholas have been the Pied Piper? This would mean a mass exodus of children that probably never returned, and while the dates don't match up perfectly, factual and accurate data on the Children's Crusade is hard to find, so it's possible that the dates are wrong or that the Hamelin children left in some other similar religious pilgrimage at a later date.
As factual and accurate data on the several supposed "Children's Crusades" is already pretty iffy, many historians doubt that these crusades actually involved children. Perhaps they were labeled as such as a way of invoking purity and innocence into Holy Wars. And if they were children, why would the Pied Piper be depicted as one adult man leading a group of kids?