Saturday, April 24, 2010

Who Was the Pied Piper?

Last night my wife and I attended a children's performance of Pied Piper in Collingswood, New Jersey. It was well done by the kids.

The performance gives rise to an interesting question. Just as many of the old English nursery rhymes, and playing cards, have significant historical events and persons underlying them, I wondered if the same is true respecting the Pied Piper.

Most of us know the Grimm's Fairy Tale version of the story. The town of Hamelin, Germany, is heavily infested with rats. The Pied Piper appears and offers to eliminate the rats for 1,000 gold pieces. The deperater Mayor agrees. The Pied Piper then plays a tune on his flute which induces every single rat to follow him to the river, where the rats all drown. When the Pied Piper comes to collect his pay, the Mayor and townspeople decline to pay the Piper (thus the figure of speech) and drive him away. The Piper then plays another tune tune on his flute which induces all but a few of the children of Hamelin to follow him out of town, to a mountain where they disappeared.

There are various theories vying for acceptance as the explanation for the origin of the story. The soundest theory -- the one which seems to have the most support -- is that in the 13th century, primogeniture -- the right of the eldest son to inherit a lord's feudal holdings -- was widely accepted in Western Europe. In prior centuries, the Crusades had provided opportunity for the disinherited younger children to find noble employment. However, beginning with the fall of Jerusalem in 1187 A.D., the Crusades began to be less and less popular among the Christians of Europe, until the Ninth and last Crusade, which ended in failure in 1271 A.D.

As a consequence, Europe once again began to be flooded with disinherited lesser nobility.

As this was occurring, the Mongol hordes of Asia began attacking and utterly devastating Europe to the east and south, mostly in the Balkans, but also farther north. Their advances were merciless and utterly scoured sections of Eastern Europe of liofe and property.

In response, the bishops and political leaders of Western Europe sent out recruiters, inviting the disinherited gentry -- including the "children" of Hamelin, actually disinherited younger nobility -- to travel east to the devastated lands to settle, carrying with them their German family names, their Catholic religion, and their Western European cultures. And so there arose, in Eastern Europe, in the later half of the 13th century, from the Balkans northward to the Baltic coast, a large number of fortified German towns whose populace had the same surnames as those of the section of the German states which included the kingdom in which we find the town of Hamelin.

The Pied Piper would have been the recruiter visiting Hamelin, seducing large numbersd of the town's primogeniture-disinherited young adults to embark on an eastern settlement effort. It may be that a story that a "Decan Lude" possessed a 1384 book recording the event may be a displaced reference to the recruiter, himself, a "Deacon Ludwig" dispatched by the local bishop.

There are several "cultural fossils" pointing to an historical reality underlying the story.

The oldest appears to have been a now-lost stained glass window in the Catholic church in Hamelin referred to as "Marktkirche," or "Market Church." There, around 1300, church authorities installed a wonderful, colorful window commemorating the loss of the children, looking something like this...

Then, in 1384, a chronicler recorded in the town chronicles, "It is ten years since our children left."

A 15th century work, called the Lueneberg Manuscript, records,

In the year of 1284, on the day of Saints John and Paul on 26 June130 children born in Hamelin were seducedBy a piper, dressed in all kinds of colours,and lost at the place of execution near the koppen.

In Hamelin there is the "Rat-Catcher's House," so-called because of the plque commemorating the event reading,

In the year 1284 on John and Paul's Day, the 26 of June -- 130 children born in Hamelin were seducedBy a piper, dressed in all kinds of colors,and lost at the place of execution near the koppen
(probably a hill).

Supposedly, that street to the right of the building, called Bungelosenstrasse, meaning "Drumless Street," or "Street without Music," is one where law has long prohibited the playing of music there, presumably to preserve the sanctity of the site.

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