The Childrens’ Crusade
Just a short one this evening, bit outside of my usual offerings, but an interesting story nonetheless.
In 1212, it has been said, a young Shepherd boy from Germany, Nicholas of Cologne, received word from God (or Jesus, depending on which source you read) to lead a crusade to the Holy Land to peacefully convert Muslims to Christianity. His call to the cross inspired many other young people, who left their chores in groups of twenty or a hundred, and despite the misgivings and pleas of their families, went off to join Nicholas.
Meanwhile in France a similar notion was taking shape, again on the word of a young 12-year-old boy by the name of Stephan of Cloyes. Again large numbers of small groups of youths flocked to join him against the wishes and warnings of their families. Stephan’s claim was that he had received a letter from Jesus, that he had been charged to deliver to King Philip II of France. After amassing a considerable following, the band marched to Saint-Denis, where Stephan was said to have performed public miracles. Philip was less enthusiastic and pleaded with them to return to their homes. The group, numbering around 30,000 travelled around France spreading the word; Stephan claiming from there he would lead the crusade on through Marseilles to the Holy Land.
By the time they moved towards Marseilles however, the group was much diminished in size as several lost the initial desire, and possibly combined with severe hunger and homesickness, returned to their families. When the group arrived at Marseilles by the end of the year, they had been reduced to begging. It is thought many of them died along the way.
Nicholas, meanwhile had sent out messengers to spread the word in other regions, and called upon followers to meet in Cologne. Within a few weeks a large group had congregated and the journey commenced. When they reached Switzerland, the group divided into two smaller groups, each taking a separate route over the mountains. Sadly, around two thirds making the attempt died in the process, or simply returned home. When the parties reached the other side, around 7000 remained who continued on to Genoa. Nicholas assured them, that just as Moses had commanded the parting of the Red Sea when leading the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, so too would he part the waves and lead them to Jerusalem.
Of course it didn’t. Many of the group were angry with Nicholas, claiming he had betrayed them. Others sat and waited for God to finish testing them. Genoese officials were impressed by the efforts of the little band of crusaders and offered citizenship to any that wanted it. Many accepted. Nicholas however made the decision to continue on his journey and accompanied by a much smaller group of followers, moved on to Pisa. Several of his followers turned back along the way. It was therefore a tiny group that eventually reached the Papal States, where they were well-received by Innocent III who treated them with kindness and begged them to return home. A few wandered further afield, but the rest attempted to make their way back to Germany.
Some were successful but not many. Nicholas was not one of them. He died on the return crossing of the Alps. Meanwhile, as a result of pressure from bereaved families of thousands of the crusaders, Nicholas’ father was arrested and hung, likely as a result of not stopping his child from leading the others away, he was considered to blame for their loss. None of these crusaders is known to have reached the Holy Land; it is often claimed that many were offered free passage by seemingly sympathetic ships’ captains back to their homes, and then betrayed and sold into slavery (WARNING: This may be a myth!!!).
Many chronicles of these adventures exist, most were written more than 50 years after the fact from second or third hand sources. Some are written only a few years later, a few are contemporary and thus considered more reliable. The details from these sources have often been later elaborated on, or had the facts altered. There is no doubt these crusades did happen, both in 1212 in the areas described and led by Nicholas and Stephan; That much is true. That they between them attracted quite a substantial following and took the chronicled paths is also without doubt.
In ‘Chronica Regiae Coloniensis Continuatio prima’, s.a.1213, MGH SS XXIV 17-18, (translated by James Brundage, ‘The Crusades: A Documentary History’) written the year after these events, it states:
‘In this year occurred an outstanding thing and one much to be marveled at, for it is unheard of throughout the ages. About the time of Easter and Pentecost,4 without anyone having preached or called for it and prompted by I know not what spirit, many thousands of boys, ranging in age from six years to full maturity, left the plows or carts which they were driving, the flocks which they were pasturing, and anything else which they were doing. This they did despite the wishes of their parents, relatives, and friends who sought to make them draw back. Suddenly one ran after another to take the cross. Thus, by groups of twenty, or fifty, or a hundred, they put up banners and began to journey to Jerusalem. They were asked by many people on whose advice or at whose urging they had set out upon this path. They were asked especially since only a few years ago many kings, a great many dukes, and innumerable people in powerful companies had gone there and had returned with the business unfinished. The present groups, moreover, were still of tender years and were neither strong enough nor powerful enough to do anything. Everyone, therefore, accounted them foolish and imprudent for trying to do this. They briefly replied that they were equal to the Divine will in this matter and that,
whatever God might wish to do with them, they would accept it willingly and with humble spirit. They thus made some little progress on their journey. Some were turned back at Metz, others at Piacenza, and others even at Rome. Still others got to Marseilles, but whether they crossed to the Holy Land or what their end was is uncertain. One thing is sure: that of the many thousands who rose up, only very few returned.’
We can see here, that in fact the “children” were in reality of all ages. It is claimed by recent Historians, versed in the finer points of Latin translation that an error was made when translating the word ‘pueri’ meaning ‘boys’ to children in the literal sense, when it is in fact contested that the meaning was more ‘youths’ or even ‘innocents’ to mean country folk or those without means. However; this translation may or may not have been altered somewhat to remove the piety associated with poverty particularly when self-imposed, and thereby removing the intent of goodwill and faithful honour from the mission, by those who did not approve or wished to dissuade future similar endeavors. Indeed; if you read the sources, it does state that many people of all ages, from six years to mature adults took part in these crusades.
There is one final note worthy of mention; however much reliability you wish to attach to such a theory is entirely up to you. It has been claimed by some historians that the story of Nicholas particularly, could be one of the origins of the legend of the Pied Piper. But I will leave that one there.