The story of the Children’s Crusade (1212) is a mixture of history and romantic myth, telling of two boys who had independent visions of marching to Palestine with “armies” of pacifist children, and shaming the Muslims into giving up the holy lands. This march of peace would supposedly succeed where warfare had failed. The boys attracted large followings in Paris and Cologne and began their respective marches to the Mediterranean coast. When the French group came to Marseille — apparently expecting God to part the seas so they could continue — local merchants offered to transport the children in seven ships; two of these ships were lost at sea, while the others went to Africa, where the duped kids were sold into slavery. The German group made it as far as Rome — many having died en route in the Alps — but dispersed when the pope refused to see them. Some persisted in trying to secure passage to the holy lands, and, like the French children, were shipped to brothels and slave markets, this time in the Mediterranean. A few did reach Jerusalem by joining groups of overland pilgrims; they naturally had no impact on arrival. No one paid any attention to children.
The Children’s Crusade may have been a pathetic tragedy, but it’s difficult to separate the fact from fiction. There may not have even been a French movement: based on the evidence it seems more likely that it was dismissed as soon as it was born in Paris (the king sent the children home). The German movement, on the other hand, did get under way, and made it through the Alps to Genoa. From there it may have been a small part of this group which went to Marseille (instead of the entire French group), though most proceeded to Rome, and dispersed from there, illusions shattered.
Perhaps the most mythological aspect involves the idea that this crusade consisted exclusively of children (pueri). That makes for stirring legend, but it was doubtfully the case. Says Christopher Tyerman:
“In fact these pueri may have been less juvenile than the name implied. To a Cologne chronicler, the pueri ‘ranged in age from six years to full maturity’. Norman and Alpine monks recorded that the marchers were adolescents and old people. Accounts indicated that participants came from outside the usual hierarchies of social power — youths, girls, the unmarried, sometimes including even widows — or economic status: shepherds, ploughmen, carters, agricultural workers and rural artisans without a settled stake in land or community, rootless and mobile.” (God’s War, p 609)
Perhaps the Children’s Crusade would be better called the Simple Folk’s Crusade. Dissatisfaction with the inability of kings and nobles to secure military victory in Palestine led to a popular crusade which insisted on a return to apostolic simplicity and leaving victory to God. Interestingly, even though this pacifist-crusade had no clerical backing, it was never officially condemned by the church.
However historical, however legendary, the simple folk’s pacifist march of 1212 stands as a testimony to the malleability of crusading as it was becoming ubiquitous under the papacy of Innocent III, influencing the laity like never before.
In the next post we’ll try defining the crusades, a task which has eluded the best of scholars.