• Katya Lebeque

The day the music died

Updated: Jun 26, 2018

The broken remains of the stained-glass window read: ‘It has been 100 years since our children left’. The words were inscribed on a chapel window, taken down to be remembered when the church the window was in was destroyed.

Just imagine those haunting words about children, on a holy window of many colours, lying untouched in a pile of rubble as a church came down. Unbelievable. And yet real.

You see, if Snow White ordering her stepmother to dance until she died chilled me, then a close second for me was always the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. The town is overrun by rats, a mysterious pied piper is called in, who deals with the rats, but when the town refuse to pay them, he plays the pipe again: leaving with all the town’s children but one.

An eerie story, and thought to be the origin of the expression ‘paying the piper’. But wait, there’s more…

It was only recently that I found out it wasn’t a fairy tale at all.

Hamelin is a real place in Germany that does reenactments of the Pied Piper in its town square for tourists, and the stained-glass window I mentioned was found there. The window was in the town’s Market Church which was demolished in 1660 and the inscription, verified by witnesses, traces its roots back to an account still in Hamelin dated the year 1384, stating those familiar, chilling words: ‘It is 100 years since our children left’. Then, later in the 16th century a new gate was built for the town’s wall, and on it were these words: “In the year 1556, 272 years after the magician led 130 children out of the town, this portal was erected.”

Oh yes. The Pied Piper of Hamelin was real… But what really happened?

Well, that’s where people differ – even people within the town of Hamelin. Many assume because of the rats that the story has to do with the Black Plague, which in its time wiped out a third of the population of Europe, many of the deaths being children. And also a short while later the piper became an allusion for Death, who was a pretty common character in many folk tales. But the Black Plague is, compared to other stuff of the time, pretty well-documented, and we know that it didn’t reach the area of Hamelin (or any of Germany really) until the 1300s. In fact, there’s no mention of rats at all in any version of the story until the latter part of the 15th century.

Well, there’s another somewhat spookier theory: religion killed all those children.

That stained glass window we touched on earlier apparently showed all the children in identical white smock-like garments. This has led people to believe that Children’s Crusade like the one that may have occurred in 1212, which seemed to tie up with the right time period. A part of the Crusades or Holy War, it was thought that the children of Hamelin (except, tellingly, those physically unfit to go to war like the crippled boy in the story we know today) were whipped up into religious frenzy by being shown a vision of the ‘Holy Land’ (Jerusalem) and being urged in the vision to win it for Christendom – basically, the crusades. This is also helped along by the fact that in the original tale the piper came for the children on Saint John and Paul's day, while the adults were in church’.

So what happened to the children? While some say they emigrated to Poland or Transylvania and set up a life there, others postulated that they all died of Huntington’s Disease or starved to death waiting for the ‘ships that would take them to the Holy Land’.

Any which way, it’s a creepy tale, and definitely a real-life day that the music died – to this day, the street in Hamelin that the children were thought to disappear on remains and it is forbidden to play any music or instruments on it. It’s still an eerily quiet place meaning in German ‘the street without drums’.

So that’s your freaky fairy tale for this week folks. Have a good one, and don’t follow strange piper men out of town…

© 2018 by Katya Lebeque. All rights reserved.

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