The Spine-Tingling Mystery Of 13th Century Germany's Real-Life Pied Piper

The tale of the Pied Piper goes back hundreds of years to medieval times. Popularized by several authors including Robert Browning, the story involves a man dressed in clothing of various colors playing his flute or pipe. The narrative also includes a group of children that disappeared from the German town of Hamelin in 1284, but after that things get murky.

Rats are also linked to the Pied Piper, and the story goes that the town was infested with them. The piper claimed he could get rid of the rodents for a price. Strangely enough, when he played his flute, the rats were somehow placed in a hypnotic trance and followed the piper out of town (via BBC). However, when it came time to collect his payment, the town stiffed the man. Out of revenge, he later returned for the town's children, whom he lured out of town the same way.

The children were 'lost'

While getting to the truth presents a bit of a challenge, accounts of the Pied Piper seem to agree that the children who followed him disappeared. In fact, a gate erected in Hamelin in the 16th century appears to have been dedicated to the unfortunate incident. An inscription on it read, "In the year 1556, 272 years after the magician led 130 children out of the town, this portal was erected," as detailed by Medievalists. Another account of the event comes from a stained glass window from a church made sometime around A.D. 1300, which was later destroyed. The scene depicted on the glass showed several children following the Pied Piper, per BBC. 

In addition, a manuscript discovered in the town of Lueneburg, about 200 miles from Hamelin, and dated to around  A.D. 1440, said that in 1284, a piper dressed in bright colors "seduced" 130 kids, who were "lost at the place of execution," according to Ancient Origins. Another record of the occurrence came from Hamelin's 1384 town records, which acknowledged that a century had passed "since our children left," according to BBC.

What happened to the children?

The children went missing, but what happened to them? Many theories exist, but no real answers. One idea suggests that Hamelin suffered from an outbreak of the plague, which could be how rats made their way into the tale. However, there are no records of any cases of the plague being reported in Hamelin around the time the children disappeared, per Ancient Origins. 

Another hypothesis involves a man encouraging the children to follow him and partake in pagan summer festivities where they ran into some kind of trouble. Some think the kids may have come across a group who slaughtered them during this excursion, BBC reported.

One theory involves the children being relocated to areas with more economic prospects, such as near Berlin. This idea holds water with some historians because many of the family names that appear in Hamelin town records are found in the regions around Berlin as well, according to BBC.