One of the most unusual events occurred in Medieval Europe was “The Children’s Crusade”. It happened in 1212 AD. When tens of thousands unarmed self-proclaimed child crusaders commenced from western Germany and northern France aiming to take the holy land from the Muslims. Those crusading children never actually received any official sanction, and the mission was a disaster. No child could reach Jerusalem; many of them were reportedly have been sold as slaves, and thousands of them have never had returned to their land.
The Major Crusades
Between the eleventh and thirteenth century, European Christians had launched seven major crusades against the Muslims, in order to regain control of the holy land. Apart from those seven major military campaigns aiming the East, the Catholic Church also sent forces in numerous minor crusades to face and defeat the enemies of the religion. Those minor crusades included the 1208-1241 crusade called the “Albigensian Crusade” aiming to exterminate the Cathear heretics in southern France, and the 1193-1290 “Northern Crusades” against the North-European pagans. However, the most bizarre episode in the Crusade-history is considered to be the “Children’s Crusade”, which is said to have been occurred in the year 1212.
According to the “ChronicaregiaColoniensis” (‘Royal Chronicle of Cologne’), a thirteenth-century source, the Children’s Crusade started around Pentecost or Easter of 1212.
The account reads:
“Many thousands of male children, from 6 years to early manhood, abandoned their plows and wagons they were driving, the people which they were grazing, along with everything else they were busy with. They did this against the will of their parents, other blood relations, and fellows who tried to make them come back. One followed another to take the cross abruptly. Hence, by groups of 20 or 50, or about one hundred, they raised their banners and started their journey to Jerusalem.”
The boys claimed that the will of the Divinity that motivated them to undertake this mission. Regardless of this, their dispatchultimately became a failure. The author of the ChronicaregiaColoniensis ends the account with a disconsolate note: “Some gave up at Metz, others turned back at Piacenza, and some even at Rome. Still, a few got to Marseilles, however, whether they got across the Holy Land or what happened to them in the end, is uncertain…… Once thing is certain though: very few of the many thousands of risen up children could finally return.”
The two Leaders of the Child-Crusaders: Stephen and Nicholas
The recent findings about the event have indicated that there were actually 2 different groups of child crusaders, one came from France, and the other From Germany.
The French group was led by Stephen of Cloyes, who was a peasant boy. Stephen claimed that Jesus came to his dream, and gave him a letter from heaven, which urged him to recover control of the Holy Land from the Muslims. He managed to assemble a number of young acolytes in the city of Vendôme, and then started marching towards Saint-Denies, located just outside the French capital Paris.
“The Children’s Crusade” by Gustave Doré [1832-1883] – (Public domain)
His intention was to present the divine letter’s content to the king of France, Philip II. To the boy’s disappointment, the King was not even a little bit interested in his story, and he did not even bother to meet him. Instead, the king sent men to tell him to forget about the mission and go home. Some comrades of Stephen took the king’s advice, but many others filled their spots in no time. It is said that the peasant boy managed to gather a troop of 30,000 young boys, and conducted them to Marseilles, aiming to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach the Holy Land!
The German child crusader group was led by a boy named Nicholas, who was from Cologne. It is said that Nicholas managed to attract almost 50,000 boys to his cause! Interestingly enough, there were a few adults too Nicholas’ child-crusader army. Hoverer, they were not in charge. Nicholas, with is followers, journeyed from Germany to Italy, and it is said that they have even met ‘His Holy Highness” Pope in Rome. Although, the Pope praised Nicholas and his followers for their devotion and bravery, however, he told them that they were too young to carry out such a big venture. Most of the boys accepted the Pope’s advice and turned back to return home, but most of that group died on the way to Germany. A few crusaders, despite the pope’s advice, boarded ships aiming to reach Jerusalem. They were never to be found. They just disappeared from history.
The thought-provoking fact is that the two groups could not have possibly met or known each other. However, the two groups marched almost at the same time. This is a fascinating mystery, no doubt about that.
Truth or Myth?
Although the reference of Children’s Crusade appeared in over fifty chronicles going back from the thirteenth century, many argue and suspect that the accounts of the event were, at best, aggrandized versions of the actual happenings.
According to the scholars, since the Pope did not sanction or call for it, the Children’s Crusade was not an actual crusade. It was rather a social movement conducted by young boys, the details of which remain unclear. The movement was triggered by religious fervency that resulted sadly in thousands of deaths.
Children’s Crusade in Modern Era
It has become somewhat of an idiom for protests conducted by young people. For example, the 1963’s peaceful protest opposing segregation in the UK led by children was called “Birmingham Children’s Crusade”. Although it wasn’t peaceful in the end, the children were successful to force business moguls to desegregate downtown Birmingham. Most recently, the school kids of Florida, USA, held a protest against gun violence and demanded stricter gun policies. Some have referred to it as “Children’s Crusade of 2018”.
Featured image: “The Children’s Crusade 1212” by Johann Jakob Kirchhoff (Wikimedia Commons)