In the 1200s a vengeful flute player allegedly lured away the children of Hamelin, Germany. The piper came to Hamelin when it was over-run with rats and struck a deal with the community leaders to get rid of the pests.
He dressed in garish clothes (“pied” means multi-colored) and brandished a magical flute.
Here’s how Robert Browning describes the man in his 1842 poem, “The Pied Piper of Hamlin”:
“… And his fingers, they noticed, were ever straying
As if impatient to be playing
Upon this pipe, as low it dangled
Over his vesture so old-fangled. …
Into the street the Piper stept,
Smiling first a little smile,
As if he knew what magic slept
In his quiet pipe the while. …”
The piper enchanted the rats, luring them from their hiding places to the nearby river where they drowned. But when he sought his compensation, the Hamelin leaders wouldn’t pay up.
So the flute-man played a different tune that called to the local children. They followed him into the mountains and were never seen again.
Hamelin is a real place and the pied piper its claim to fame. You can even buy a souvenir rat from its anniversary website. The story’s been re-told in a Goethe poem, a Disney cartoon, and other fairy tale renditions.
And scholars have traced its origins to the real-live disapparence of 130 children. But an article from the London-based Folk-lore Journal in 1884 cast doubt on whether rats or a flutist played any part in the original event.
“If any part of the story is true, it is the disapparence of the children, and … the piper, the scourge of the rats, and the broken treaty were added to account for a fact whose real cause was long since forgotten,” wrote Emma Buchheim in the 1884 journal.
Other countries have stories of children being lured away by magical musicians, including an Irish bagpipe player, Buchheim wrote. Then she went on to suggest that perhaps the Hamelin children were struck by “a strange psychological epidemic” common in the Middle Ages called “the dancing mania.”
So with the pied piper thus vindicated, or at least fictionalized, I leave you with Buchheim’s amusing description of this dancing mania:
“The disease was epidemic; sometimes the crowd numbered from 500 t0 1,000 dancers who did not always remain in one place, but wandered dancing from town to town. They were much excited by music, and the authorities sometimes hired musicians in order that they might hasten the exhaustion which preceeded the healing sleep.”