What Planet is This?

22 Jul 2005

Pied Piper

The 22nd July 1376, six hundred and twenty nine years ago today, may have been the day on which the Pied Piper led the children out of Hamelin. This is the date reported by Richard Verstegan in 1605, but most other sources give the date as 26th June 1284. There is, for example, a report of someone owning a chorus book in 1384 that contained an eyewitness account of the events written by his grandmother, which would suggest the earlier date.

As for what the Pied Piper really actually did, nobody knows for sure. About the only thing that is fairly certain is that it didn't include rats, which was an embellishment added to the story centuries later. But some large event certainly did take place, and according to Jonas Kuhn there's even a street in Hamelin called Bungelose Gasse which has a centuries old sanction against singing and playing music.

The main theories about what happened can be grouped into those where the children were led away to be slaughtered, and those where they were led away or voluntarily left to found new towns. According to some, the "children" of Hamelin may just refer to the townspeople regardless of age, but this doesn't accord well with the scenes of actual children in the earliest known record of the event, a stained glass window in Hamelin's church daying from before 1300. So the best we can summarise is that a strange harlequin-like character abducted and possibly slaughtered just over a hundred of the town's children.

It's amazing how quickly real events become folk events. We have reports from just one or two hundred years after the pied piper, but they're murky and uninformative in illustrating what is otherwise one of the most important events to have occured in that part of the world. Can you imagine if something like that happened nowadays? Not much on that scale has really been heard of since the well documented tale of Kaspar Hauser in the early 19th century. In just fifty to a hundred years, Middle English changed so much that its previous form was entirely forgotten. Just a century after Shakespeare was writing, people hardly knew anything about him, and what we've uncovered since then has been microscopic against the magnitude of his works. And what about Uncle Tom Cobley and all?

The lesson that history teaches us in these cases is quite clear: that events are either recorded or they aren't, and that if they aren't you can only hope to build a picture through circumstantial evidence and conjecture, or hope that a folk memory preserves some trace of it. And conjecture doesn't get you anywhere in the strangest of cases, as with What's the Frequency, Kenneth? and plenty of other postmodern anomalies.

Though it's nice that much more is being recorded these days—even though, for example, Lennon and McCartney's appearance on the Tonight Show of 1968 was nearly lost—it does mean that it's less likely that folk stories with timbres like that of the pied piper will emerge. Then again, all the while that there are expanses for something like the Mokele Mbembe to roam around in, there's space for folk tales.

Cite: Palmer, S.B. (2005). "Pied Piper", in: What Planet is This?
Archival URI: http://inamidst.com/notes/piedpiper


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Periodical essays on linguistics, history, and much more, from Shakespeare to post Romano-​British findings. Like Notes and Queries sans the queries and solely antiquarian disposition.

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