You would be hard pressed to find anyone who did not grow up hearing fairy tales, especially after Disney popularised many of them for the big screen. Many of us are aware that the stories we see from Disney, with happy endings and mild scare-factor, often originated from far more dark and violent stories compiled by the brothers Grimm. In these, Ariel didn’t end up with the Prince, but killed herself so she would not have to kill her love; Sleeping Beauty didn’t wake up from her true love’s kiss but suffered a far darker experience whilst in her deep sleep. But what some people do not know is that some of the fanciful stories we tell our children have origins, or at least mirrored stories, in real, medieval European history. These origins could be just as dark as the Grimm brothers’ imagination.

In the original Little Mermaid Story, the mermaid died and became seafoam as she did not want to kill the Prince to remain a mermaid.

The pied piper story could probably be recited by anyone you asked; a man, dressed in colourful clothes, one day visited the town of Hamlin which was infested by rats. He offered to rid the town of its plague, in return for a monetary reward. Once he got rid of the rats, the town reneged on its promise, and so as revenge the piper played his flute and lured all of the children away (usually save a single, lame boy who could not keep up). What many people do not know, however, is that it is almost universally agreed that a version of this event really did happen in the town of Hamelin, Germany, around 1284. The earliest known record of this story is from the town of Hamelin itself, where a stained glass window created for the church of Hamelin depicts the tale. The window dates to around 1300, and although it was destroyed in 1660, copies of the window survive from the intervening period. The Lueneburg manuscript (c. 1440 – 50), relates:

“In the year of 1284, on the day of Saints John and Paul on June 26, by a piper, clothed in many kinds of colours, 130 children born in Hamelin were seduced, and lost at the place of execution near the koppen.”

The oldest known picture of the Pied Piper, a 1592 copy from the glass window of the Market Church in Hamelin (c. 1300)

Even today, in the supposed street where the children were last seen, dancing and music is forbidden – named Bungelosenstrasse, “street without drums”. Some have theorised that, because of the rats, perhaps the story is a metaphor, where the children all died from the plague carried by the rats, and that the pied piper represents death. However, as the black death wasn’t at its strongest until the next century, this idea has often been dismissed. Other theories include the idea that the young people of the town were indeed led away, but to Eastern Europe, to settle new lands. Slightly more unsettling stories suggest that the children were sent away by their parents because of the extreme poverty in the town – in 1284, it is believed that at least 90% of the population of the town were living in extreme poverty and starving. The town’s chronicle records a melancholy line in 1384, saying “It is 100 years since our children left.”

blog22Image from Google Images

Whatever really happened in Hamelin in 1284, we will probably never know, but it was clearly a traumatic event that haunted the town for centuries. To return to Disney fairy tales, however, I wish to next bring up the story of Cinderella. In the Disney version, Cinderella – with the help of her fairy godmother – manages to win the heart of the prince and become his bride. Some of you may be aware that in the darker versions of the story, the ugly stepsisters didn’t just try to squeeze their feet into the glass slippers, but even cut off parts of their feet to force them in. In some versions, the stepsisters – once all is resolved – are punished by being forced to dance themselves to death after putting on magical pairs of shoes. This may have simply been an embellishment from the writer’s imagination, but in the sixteenth century a real-life dancing plague spread across Strasburg.

In July, 1518, around 400 people started dancing for days without rest. Over the period of about one month, some of those affected died of heart attack, stroke, or exhaustion. The plague started with a single woman, who danced in the street for four to six days, and soon many more joined. The victims were predominantly female, and one report suggests that at one point the plague was killing around fifteen people a day. Local nobles obviously became concerned, and consulted doctors and astrologists, but no one could determine the cause of the dancing. In typical medieval medicinal logic, the suggestion was that space was to be made for the victims to dance, and musicians were even hired to play music for them – the idea being that they needed to dance it out of their system. There are many modern theories for what caused the dancing plague, including the ingestion of toxic fungi with psychoactive chemicals, similar to LSD. Others suggest that again, starvation, poverty, and disease were the culprits, leading to stress-induced psychosis on a mass scale. The dancing plague was not just confined to Strasburg, as seven other cases of dancing plague were reported in the same region during the medieval era, including a subsequent outbreak in 1564 in Flanders.

Engraving of Hendrik Hondius portrays three women affected by the dancing plague. Work based on original drawing by Pieter Brueghel, who supposedly witnessed a subsequent outbreak in 1564 in Flanders.

To end on a slightly different note, I wish to turn to Game of Thrones – not quite a fairy tale, but close enough. The Red Wedding is probably one of the most infamous scenes from the series (and if you haven’t seen it by now then it is your own fault!). Many of us were heartbroken as we watched the savage deaths of half of the Stark family, murdered at an initially innocuous feast where they were supposed to be celebrating. This scene, again, has many mirrored examples in medieval history (sadly, being murdered at a feast was apparently a very real possibility – kind of puts a downer on things). One example from 1358 involves King Pedro of Castile, who was the source of many court intrigues, becoming renowned for deceit and cruelty, and became nicknamed “the Cruel”. In 1358, he invited his half-brother to dinner with him at his palace in Seville. Once his half-brother arrived, Pedro had his guards escort him to the King’s table. There Pedro ordered his half-brother’s execution, and a man came up behind him and smashed his skull in with a mace. Pedro and his guards then went through the palace, slaughtering members of his half-brother’s entourage. After this mass murder, Pedro returned to his dinner, where he noticed his half-brother was still alive. He then handed a dagger to a young page to finish the job. Pedro then sat and finished his meal.

The murder of Pedro the Cruel by his successor Henry II, from Froissart’s Chronicles, Besançon, BM, MS 864 (c. 1410-1420).

Whether this particular example reached George RR Martin’s ears, I cannot say, but there are two more examples from Scottish history where Martin allegedly did draw inspiration from. The first involved King James II, at the time ten years old, and a feast labelled the “Black Dinner” (sound familiar?). The dinner occurred on 24th November, 1440, where some of James’ advisors arranged to have members of a rival clan assassinated. The victims were a sixteen year old Earl and his ten year old brother, who had joined the royal household for a meal. A black bull’s head was served at the end of dinner, which was a traditional harbinger of doom, and the two young boys were seized and executed.

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A second Scottish example that was apparent cause for inspiration occurred a few centuries later, in 1692. Here, on February 13th, soldiers killed thirty-eight members of the MacDonald clan, who had refused to acknowledge William III as King (instead suggesting allegiance to the ousted King James II of England). Just as with the Red Wedding, the scandal was far more that the murderers had abused the ancient Scottish custom of hospitality, rather than necessarily the deaths themselves. The soldiers who committed the murder had received room, care, and board from the MacDonalds for almost two weeks before they committed the murder.

From these examples, I hope I have shown that the dark twists to our modern fairy tales and fantasy worlds very often had historical basis, or at least inspiration, to them. Many of us, I am sure, are happy to leave these stories to fiction and fable, preferring that we did not have to live through them!

Do you know of any other similar tales that have a historical basis? I would love to hear about them in the comments!

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9 thoughts on “Fairy Tales or Medieval Reality? Historical origins of fantasy stories

  1. This post gave me the chills. I especially was fascinated/appalled to read the story of Pedro di Castile (my 20th great-grandfather through his daughter Isabella.) YIKES! Hopefully, that cruel streak has not been passed down to me or any of my family members…


  2. Great article! There’s another example of a Scottish dinner (the Scots seem to be very fond of them!) from the 840s. The events, possibly mythological, are known as Mac Alpin’s Treason. The story goes that Scot king Kenneth Mac Alpin invited the Pict king and the other prominent members of the Pict nobility to dine with him. It did not end well for the Picts!


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