We have been examining the crusades, and predominantly the myths associated with it.
Today, we are going to discuss the Children’s Crusade. This particular crusade is full of misconceptions, some of which I thought were fact until recently. This misconception of the so-called Children’s Crusade was not shared by me alone; it is widely considered fact by many educators, and even some less informed historians.
Before we delve into fact, lets us examine the traditional myth about this Crusade.
Around 1212 A.D., a child in either Germany, or France, had seen a vision of Jesus, who told him to lead an army of children into the holy land. This was not to be a military crusade, for Jesus had informed the child, that when they arrived, the entire population of Muslims would be converted to Christianity.
The story is then told that when they arrived at the Mediterranean Sea, the child leader tried to part it (similar to Moses), but of course he failed. The children then continued their journey on ships, but the sailors betrayed them and the entire group of children were either killed, or sold into slavery. Another account is that they did arrive in the Middle East, where the Muslim army simply grabbed them for slaves.
Modern historical research has put a shadow of doubt on the above story. The most convincing argument that the Child Crusade never occurred is in documents written at the time.
Around 1200-1220, there were only several accounts of other crusades referenced in historical accounts of the era, and none of these mentioned any “Children’s Crusade”. The documents that do reference the Children’s Crusade appear much later than the event allegedly took place. The documentation also did not include first-hand accounts, but were merely stories told from one person to another, until it made its way to the author.
Besides a lack of historical reference, there is also a logical reason why it did not occur; there was no reason for it.
During this time line, the Fourth Crusade had ended, and plans were being made for the Fifth Crusade. If Europe had been sending soldiers to the crusades, there was no need for an army of children in a non-military capacity.
Another factor that the children’s crusade never happened was it would have occurred at a wrong time to engage in a non-military crusade. The army of Genghis Khan had begun moving into the outskirts of the Middle East; this meant for the Europeans, that Khan’s army could present another front for the Muslim forces to contend with. Why would the Europeans risk the consequences of Children’s Crusade with a Mongol army coming into the area?
So if the Children’s Crusade did not happen, why did people and historians think it did? The reasoning for the story of the Children’s Crusade is that it may be a combination of several true historical facts that was occurring at that time.
In 1212 A.D. the first instance of something similar to the Children’s Crusade was the story of Nicholas of Cologne of Rhineland, Germany. Although he was a shepherd and young, he was also an eloquent and an influential speaker. He convinced a group of followers to cross the Swiss Alps and fight the Saracens (this was the medieval term used for Muslims). Like the story of the Children’s Crusades, he believed he could convert the Muslims to Christianity, and thus end any conflicts between both. Furthermore, like the story of the Children’s Crusade, he convinced his followers that when they arrived at the Mediterranean, the seas would dry up allowing them safe passage across.
After they arrived at the city of Genoese, the sea did not dry up. Many of his followers were welcomed into the city to become part of the community; many seized upon this opportunity. Later, Nicolas moved to Pisa, and eventually met Pope Innocent III. The Pope convinced them to return home, which they did. Nicolas did not survive the return trip back over the Alps.
Another person whose exploits seemed to be similar to Nicolas’s was that of Stephan of Cloyes, France. Stephan claimed he had received a letter for the king which was from Jesus. King Phillip II, demanded they return home, but the large group of followers made it to Marseilles. To survive, this group, (up to 30,000 people) began begging. Eventually, this group became disheartened, and they disbanded and returned home.
We also must remember there was a Peasant’s Crusade which had previously occurred. Although this crusade was not authorized by Pope or the Catholic Church, the Pope had promised that those who engaged in freeing the Holy Lands would gain absolution of their sins and also financial rewards. This crusade was led by Peter the Hermit. Having a band of peasants acting as an army could have also been confused with the Children’s Crusade. We will speak more about this particular crusade in the next blog.
If we establish that the Children’s Crusade did not happen, and that the events described were embellished and merged with other historical facts, then why did the erroneous story gain so much traction?
The Children’s Crusade could have been an analogy of what was occurring with the military crusades. The tale of the Children’s Crusade provided a dichotomy of reasoning, giving both pro and con opinions, views on the crusades.
For those that felt the crusades were truly a holy war, the Children’s Crusade was a tale of martyrdom. Children were willing to travel across the known world, and give their life to the cause of Christianity; if these children were willing to give the ultimate sacrifice; then who could not join them in this cause.
The Children’s Crusade also provided an analogy to those who disapproved of the crusades. Since, the crusades were the idea of both the religious and royal rulers of Europe, any disagreement with their decisions meant blasphemy or heresy. The folly of the tale of the Children’s Crusade was cathartic to those who opposed the crusades. It demonstrated how the Pope and Royals, who claimed to be waging war on God’s behalf, were often defeated in that holy war.
Next Week; we will show the horror of war in the crusades.
W.A. Rusho is a amateur historian and an author. His most recent novel is "Legend of the Mystic Knights".