The original story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin is a legend about the departure or death of a great many children from the town of Hamelin, Germany, in the Middle Ages (1284). The earliest references describe a piper, dressed in pied (multicolored) clothing, leading the children away from the town never to return. In the 16th century the story was expanded into a full narrative, in which the piper is a rat-catcher hired by the town to lure rats away with his magic pipe. When the citizens refuse to pay for this service, he retaliates by turning his magic on their children, leading them away as he had the rats. This version of the story spread as a fairy tale. This version has also appeared in the writings of, among others, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the Brothers Grimm and Robert Browning.
The story may reflect an historical event in which Hamelin lost its children. Theories have been proposed suggesting that the Pied Piper is a symbol of the children’s death by plague or catastrophe. Other theories liken him to figures like Nicholas of Cologne, who lured away a great number of children on a disastrous Children’s Crusade. A recent theory ties the departure of Hamelin’s children to the Ostsiedlung, in which a number of Germans left their homes to colonize Eastern Europe. It’s quite possible that it is merely a story about paying those who are due.