The Children's Crusade?

Ruqiyah Patel, Dickson College, 2010

This essay was written in response to the self-devised focus question: "What was the reality of the 'Children's Crusades'?" It was submitted as part of the High Middle Ages unit at Dickson College, Semester 2, 2010.

The French and German Children’s Crusades were two separate events which have become distorted and combined in the eyes of history. They are portrayed as the tragic stories of large groups of children travelling vast distances and suffering great hardships in an attempt to retake their Holy Land, believing that they would be more successful than the adult Crusaders. The stories were considered to be factual events until the twentieth century. However, close examination of primary sources discussing both the French and the German Crusades suggests that most of the elements associated with this story are embellishments added by religious chroniclers years after the events. In fact, this analysis suggests that the French Crusade never existed and that the German Crusade, though it did occur, was far less impressive than its portrayal. Though most of the accounts of the Children’s Crusades have been discounted by historians, these accounts have several ideas and elements in common: the youth of the participants, the distance they travelled, and the failure of their enterprise.

In the year 1212, the legend states, a twelve year old boy named Stephen experienced a divine vision of Christ dressed as a pilgrim, and marched to Paris with a letter to give to King Philip II of France. Stephen then travelled around France as a wandering preacher and amassed a following of approximately thirty thousand children younger than twelve (Runciman, p.140) before travelling to the port city of Marseilles, where, they believed, “[t]he seas would dry up before them, and they would pass, like Moses through the Red Sea, safe to the Holy Land.” (ibid, p.140). This did not occur. Instead two merchants offered to take them on their ships to Palestine. Stephen agreed and the children boarded. There are various theories as to what happened to the young crusaders (most accounts suggest that they were sold as slaves in Egypt) but it is considered unlikely that they reached Palestine.

The second Children’s Crusade began in the same year in Germany, and is often considered to be inspired by the French crusade. A child named Nicholas, considered to have been around ten years of age, began to preach a crusade while travelling around Germany. He accumulated a following of approximately twenty thousand children (ibid, p.142). They travelled to Genoa, Italy, also believing that the sea would open before them. Again, this did not occur. Nicholas led his followers to Pope Innocent III in Rome, who told them to return to their homes and go on crusade when they were older. According to this legend, most of the children died on their journey back to Germany.

The Children’s Crusades was considered to be a factual event until the last century. It was supposedly used to inspire the Fifth Crusade, with Pope Innocent III claiming that that “These children put us to shame. They rush to recover the Holy Land while we sleep.” (Moore, p.202). However recent re-examination of contemporary and post-contemporary accounts of the event suggests that even if this mass pilgrimage occurred, these retellings are idealistic and inaccurate.

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Many accounts from France, Germany, and the cities in between mention the occurrence of a Children’s Crusade during the year 1212. However, close analysis shows a division in these accounts. Most contemporary chronicles of the Crusade, written within fifty years of the occurrence, suggest the existence of a mass migration of peasants in France, but without the goal of reaching Palestine. The German crusade appears to have been more closely aligned with the current definition of a crusade (that is, having the aim of reclaiming Jerusalem in the name of God), but contained a great variety of ages within it, ranging from a few young children to a large number of elderly (Raedts, p.290-294). The ideas that both events were actually genuine crusades, and that they were populated entirely by children under twelve years old, was not formed until approximately fifty years later, when many sources begin to discuss the overwhelming influence of religiosity upon the time period during which the Crusades occurred.

The most notable of the sources written many years after the actual occurrence of the Children’s Crusade is Alberic of Troisfontaines’ “Chronica Alberici Monachi Trium Fontium”. Historians consider it to be “the most complete and detailed [account] which has survived…unfortunately…it is not a uniform whole” (Raedts, p.286) It is believed to have been written during the thirteenth century (1232 to 1295) by two separate chroniclers. It is considered to be the origin of many ideas about the Crusade. For example, it is the first source (chronologically) to mention the idea of a French Children’s Crusade and attaches a sense of wistful romanticism to the event. This was possibly done to bring it further in line with the other Crusades at the time and portray the participants as young, innocent martyrs. It also created the idea that several thousand French children were sold as slaves to Saracens because of their religious fervour, thereby inspiring a religious righteousness in other Christians, boosting morale for later Crusades. Many of the claims made in this source have been discredited. For instance, the Chronica states that Stephen and his large following “proceeded to Marseilles as if they were about to cross the sea against the Saracens.” (Munro, p.520). Munro, in one of the original historical essays which challenged the existence of the French Children’s Crusade, remarks that “not a single chronicle written south of the Loire mentions the movement at all.” (ibid, p.520). Since the movement would have to pass south of the Loire, the river which essentially divides France in half horizontally, to reach Marseilles, it is clear that at least the secondary part of the account is inaccurate. France is noteworthy for having a great number of chronicles (Marzials, p.5) most of which are still preserved (for example those of Villehardouin, a knight in the Fourth Crusade (ibid, p.5)), so it is reasonable to assume that if this movement occurred there would be some form of existing record. However, the beginning of this account (detailing Stephen’s travel to the King) remains unrefuted.

There are many mentions of mass movements in the year 1212 written within ten years of the occurrence. Notably, “three Swabian [a southern region of Germany] abbeys which were independent of one another recorded completely different accounts of [the German Children’s Crusade]” (Raedts, p.287) . Not only does this allow us to trace the journey taken by the German crusade but it makes i¬t quite clear that there was a German movement southwards, in comparison to the French movement which appears to have never gone further south than the Loire. The German movement had a great variety of participants, a far cry from the reported mass of under-twelves:

There were men and women, boys and girls, even babes at the breasts; the majority were young and appear to have been mainly from the agricultural classes, as it is recorded that they left their ploughs, carts, or herds, and hastened to join the bands which were marching through the country.” (Munro, p.521)

The German chronicle “Chronica Regiae Coloniensis Continuatio”, considered to be an accurate and contemporary source for the Crusade due to its support for many other German events in the same year, recounts the Crusade in detail:

In this year occurred an outstanding thing and one much to be marveled at, for it is unheard of throughout the ages…many thousands of boys, ranging in age from six years to full maturity, left the plows or carts which they were driving…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. (Chronica Regiae Coloniensis Continuatio prima)

It continues:

They… 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. (ibid)

It can be safely concluded that the legend of the German Crusade was based on actual events, though the existence of a young leader named Nicholas is not supported in contemporary accounts.

One of the most intrinsic parts of the Children’s Crusades also appears to be incorrect: that the participants were children. Though early primary sources seem to emphasise the youth of the participants, one in particular – the Annales Marbanceses (Raedts, p. 285) – commenting on their immaturity and foolishness, this belief seems likely to be due to a mistake made in translating from the Latin they are written in. The Latin term ‘pueri’ is used to refer to participants in most accounts, which has been translated to mean ‘child under twelve’. Though this term was used to refer to young children it was also frequently used in reference to younger adults (or teenagers), or those of a low social standing. When some of the claims made in reference to the German participants are considered (that is, the distance they marched and the time frame in which they did this) it seems almost impossible for twenty thousand children to have done what they are recorded as having done, though not implausible for older Crusaders.

Many ‘primary’ accounts recording the French Children’s Crusade were written many years after 1212 and are probably written as a reaction to the German’s Children Crusade. The only contemporary accounts written in France mention a movement by a large group of people towards Paris, where they seem to have all dispersed and gone their separate ways (Raedts, p309). The idea that they were aiming to reach Palestine was never verified and appears to have been a concept taken from the German Crusade. On the other hand, the German Crusade appears to have more factual basis. It is repeatedly mentioned in many sources, both contemporary and written after the event. However, the most intrinsic idea of the Crusade – that it was staffed by children – has been challenged. The persistence of these legends has resulted from the reconstruction of the French crusade, borrowing elements from the German crusade, as an article of propaganda used to generate a passion for crusade among adults.

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