On the 26th of July, 1284, a mysterious piper, clothed in gaudy apparel, led 130 children out of the town of Hamelin, in northern Germany, whence they disappeared into a cave and were never seen or heard from again. A stained glass window memorializing the event was placed in the cathedral around 1300 and remained there until 1660; several transcriptions and a depiction of this window survive. The inclusion of the plague of rats and the “pay the piper” moral of the story seem to be later additions.
There is little doubt that this was an actual historical episode, and a number of theories have been proposed to explain it. One much favored has it as a parable of the Black Death, which, however, only reached Germany in 1347. Thus, although the story of the 1286 disappearance and the massive mortality seventy years later may have been associated in people’s minds, the earlier story is not about the plague. Others try to link it to the Children’s Crusade (1212), too early and affecting mainly France. It has been suggested that parents sent the children away because of poverty, and then concocted the piper story to cover up. More fringe theories suggest magic or alien abductions.
Could the Pied Piper of Hamelin have been a slave raider from North Africa? Blond slaves, particularly girls, were considered highly desirable there in Medieval and Early Modern times. A hint at why this was the case is found in the “History of the Captive” episode in Don Quixote (1608). This subplot recounts the story of a Spanish prisoner of war in Algiers who escapes with the aid of a young woman, the daughter of a Slavic official in the service of the king. Cervantes, who as a prisoner of war had the opportunity to observe life first hand in Algiers, writes: “The whiteness of the hand and the bracelets we saw on it disabused us of the thought that she was a slave; then we imagined that she was a renegade [convert to Islam] Christian, for they are often taken as legitimate wives by their masters, who consider this good fortune, since the men esteem them more than women of their own nation.” (Don Quixote 1:XL. Translation by Edith Grossman, 2003). A similar thread is found in Othello, the story of a rich Moorish merchant in Italy married to a blond woman. The theme of European women held in Ottoman seraglios is a common one in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century fiction, for example Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio, Pushkin’s The Fountain of Bakhchisarai, and Shelley’s Frankenstein.
The reasons for the preference may be historical. North Africa, as well as Spain and Italy, was ruled by the Visigoths, a Germanic people, from the fifth through eighth centuries. Like many conquerors before them, the Visigoths supplanted the local aristocracy and major landowners but left the indigenous peasants relatively unmolested. During the spread of Islam, members of the upper classes who converted generally retained their positions. This left a legacy of association between a lighter skin color and high social status. A way for a man of humbler birth, who had achieved prominence through trade or military prowess, to ensure that his offspring looked aristocratic was to marry a European woman, the fairer the better. A boatload of German children, half of them virgin girls, would have been an exceedingly valuable cargo.
Poverty and hunger were very real in Hamelin in 1286. Northern Europe never really recovered from the abrupt temperature drop and subsequent famine of 1257-58. The promise of food, especially delicacies like dried fruit, would have been a powerful draw.
Here, then, is a possible alternate scenario: An apparent merchant vessel anchored outside of town, at a point where a passage connected a cave to the riverbank. The kidnapper, dressed in Moorish finery, appeared similar to merchants who put on a show to advertise their wares. He led the children out of town with the promise of food and entertainment, and they were promptly whisked aboard the boat by confederates who immediately weighed anchor. Ship and cargo were long gone before the townspeople knew what had happened.
According to the story, three children, one lame, one blind, and one deaf, were left behind, which also accords with the slaver hypothesis.
Who knows. Perhaps there are people walking the streets of Algiers and Tunis today who are descendent of the lost children of Hamelin.
The oldest known picture of the Pied Piper copied from the glass window of the Market Church in Hameln/Hamelin Germany (c.1300-1633). Image source: Wikimedia. Public Domain.