Children's Crusade

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Military History and War; Religious disputes

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The Children's Crusade is the name given to a variety of fictional and factual events in 1212 that combine some or all of these elements: visions by a boy, children marching to south Italy, an attempt to free the Holy Land, and children being sold into slavery. Several conflicting accounts exist, and the facts of the situation continue to be a subject of debate among historians.

The long-standing view

The long-standing view of the Children's Crusade is some version of events with similar themes. A boy began preaching in either France or Germany claiming that he had been visited by Jesus and told to lead the next Crusade. Through a series of supposed portents and miracles he gained a considerable following, including possibly as many as 20,000 children. He led his followers southwards towards the Mediterranean Sea, where it is said he believed that the sea would part when he arrived, so that he and his followers could march to Jerusalem, but this did not happen. Two merchants gave passage on seven boats to as many of the children as would fit. The children were either taken to Tunisia and sold into slavery, or died in a shipwreck on the island of San Pietro (off Sardinia) during a gale. In some accounts they never reached the sea before dying or giving up from starvation and exhaustion. Scholarship has shown this long-standing view to be more legend than fact.

Modern research

According to more recent research there seems to have been two movements of people in 1212 in France and Germany. The similarities of the two allowed later chroniclers to lump them together as a single tale.

In the first movement Nicholas, a shepherd from Germany, led a group across the Alps and into Italy in the early spring of 1212. About 7,000 arrived in Genoa in late August. However, their plans didn't bear fruit when the waters failed to part as promised and the band broke up. Some left for home, others may have gone to Rome, while still others may have traveled down the Rhône to Marseille where they were probably sold into slavery. Few returned home and none reached the Holy Land.

The second movement was led by a "shepherd boy" named Stephen de Cloyes near the village of Châteaudun who claimed in May that he bore a letter for the king of France from Jesus. Attracting a crowd of over 30,000 he went to Saint-Denis where he was seen to work miracles. On the orders of Philip II, on the advice of the University of Paris, the crowd was sent home, and most of them went. None of the contemporary sources mentions plans of the crowd to go to Jerusalem.

The Children's Crusade, by Gustave Doré
The Children's Crusade, by Gustave Doré

Later chroniclers embellished these events. Recent research suggests the participants were not children, at least not the very young. In the early 1200s, bands of wandering poor started cropping up throughout Europe. These were people displaced by economic changes at the time which forced many poor peasants in northern France and Germany to sell their land. These bands were referred to as pueri (Latin for "boys") in a condescending manner, in much the same way that people from rural areas in the United States are called "country boys."

In 1212, a young French puer named Stephen and a German puer named Nicholas separately began claiming that they had each had similar visions of Jesus. This resulted in these bands of roving poor being united into a religious protest movement which transformed this forced wandering into a religious journey. The pueri marched, following the Cross and associating themselves with Jesus's biblical journey. This, however, was not a prelude to a holy war.

Thirty years later, chroniclers read the accounts of these processions and translated pueri as "children" without understanding the usage. So, the Children's Crusade was born. The resulting story illustrates how ingrained the concept of Crusading was in the people of that time— the chroniclers assumed that the pueri must have been Crusaders, in their innocence returning to the foundations of crusading characteristic of Peter the Hermit, and meeting the same sort of tragic fate.

According to Matthew Paris, one of the leaders of the Children's Crusade became "Le Maître de Hongrie," the leader of the Shepherds' Crusade in 1251.


Scientific studies

Prior to Raedts, there had only a few scientific publications researching the Children's Crusade. The earliest were by Frenchman G. de Janssens (1891) and German R. Röhricht (1876). They analyzed the sources but did not analyze the story. American medievalist D. C. Munro (1913-14), according to Raedts, provided the best analysis of the sources to date and was the first to significantly provide a convincingly sober account of the Crusade sans legends. Later, J. E. Hansbery (1938-9) published a correction of Munro's work, but it has since been discredited as based on an unreliable source. German psychiatrist J. F. C. Hecker (1865) did give an original interpretation of the crusade, but it was a polemic about "diseased religious emotionalism" that has since been discredited.

P. Alphandery (1916) first published his ideas about the crusade in 1916 in an article, which was later published in book form in 1959. He considered the crusade to be an expression of the medieval cult of the Innocents, as a sort of sacrificial rite in which the Innocents gave themselves up for the good of Christiandom - however he based his ideas on some of the most untrustworthy sources.

Adolf Waas (1956) saw the Children's Crusade as a manifestation of chivalric piety and as a protest against the glorification of the holy war.

H. E. Mayer (1960) further developed Alphandery's ideas of the Innocents, saying children were the chosen people of God because they were the poorest, recognizing the cult of poverty he said that ""the Children's Crusade marked both the triumph and the failure of the idea of poverty."

Giovanni Miccoli (1961) was the first to note that the contemporary sources did not portray the participants as children. It was this recognition that undermined all other interpretations (except perhaps Cohn's).

Norman Cohn (1971) saw it as a chiliastic movement in which the poor tried to escape the misery of their every day lives.

Peter Raedts 1977 analysis is considered the best source to date to show the many issues surrounding the Children's Crusade.

Popular accounts

Beyond the scientific studies there are many popular versions and theories about the Children's Crusades.

Norman Zacour in the survey A History of the Crusades (1962) generally follows Munro's conclusions, and adds that there was a psychological instability of the age, concluding the Children's Crusade "remains one of a series of social explosions, through which medieval men and women - and children too - found release."

Steven Runciman gives an account of the Children's Crusade in his A History of the Crusades Raedts notes that "Although he cites Munro's article in his notes, his narrative is so wild that even the unsophisticated reader might wonder if he had really understood it".

Donald Spoto, in a book about Saint Francis, said monks were motivated to call them children, and not wandering poor, because being poor was considered pious and the Church was embarrassed by its wealth in contrast to the poor. This, according to Spoto, began a literary tradition from which the popular legend of children originated. This idea follows closely with H. E. Mayer.

In the arts

  • Gabriel Pierné's La Croisade des Enfants (1902), a seldom-performed oratorio masterpiece featuring a children's chorus, is based on the events of the Children's Crusade.
  • Gian-Carlo Menotti's opera The Death of the Bishop of Brindisi (1963) describes a dying bishop's guilt-ridden recollection of the Children's Crusade, during which he questions the purpose and limitations of his own power.
  • Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), a novel by Kurt Vonnegut, references this event and uses it as an alternate title.
  • Crusade in Jeans (Dutch Kruistocht in spijkerbroek), is a 1973 novel by Dutch author Thea Beckman and a 2006 film adaptation about the Children's Crusade through the eyes of a time traveller.
  • An Army of Children (1978), a novel by Evan Rhodes that tells the story of two boys partaking in the Children's Crusade.
  • Children's Crusade (1985), is a song by Sting that juxtaposes the medieval Children's Crusade with the deaths of English soldiers in World War I and the lives ruined by heroin addiction.
  • Lionheart (1987), a little known historical/fantasy film, loosely based on the stories of the Children's Crusade.
  • David George's novel The Crusade of Innocents (2006) suggests that the Children's Crusade may have been affected by the concurrent crusade against the Cathars in Southern France, and how the two could have met.
  • Bryce Courtenay's novel Sylvia (2006) Fictional story loosely based around the Children's Crusade.
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