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The Children's Crusade

Questionable medieval records suggest children go on a crusade to liberate the Holy Land but get sold into slavery instead.

As medieval knights couldn't seem to conquer and keep the Holy Land, in 1212 a precocious youngster from France named Stephen of Cloyes decided that maybe children could. Hey, if full-grown men with armor and swords couldn't do it, who better to dispatch the infidel Turks from Jerusalem than a rabble of defenseless, runny-nosed brats? Stephen managed to convince 15,000, or maybe 30,000, "of whom none were more than twelve years of age", to go with him. They were supposed to march to the Mediterranean, it was supposed to part for them, and they were supposed to walk into the Holy Land like they owned the place. Fat chance. However, like a lot of history from the Middle Ages, the usual let-the-buyer-beware warning applies.[1] Here's what some fertile historical imaginations tell us:

In the summer of 1212, a 12-year old from Cloyes named Stephen was approached by a beggar who claimed to be a poverty-stricken Crusader returning from Palestine. Stephen gave him a little breadcrust, whereupon the beggar revealed himself to be Jesus Christ, handed the boy a letter to give to the king of France, and told him that he was to lead the next Crusade. We'd be a little suspicious of somebody parading about pretending to be Christ, but we'll concede that 12 can be a fairly impressionable age. Maybe the beggar did some magic tricks, or pulled a sausage from his sleeve. Whatever the case, Stephen was told that he was going to save the Holy Land.

Medieval Knight
Medieval Knight

Self-Confidence: Not a Problem

Such things will go to a child's head. He immediately journeyed to St. Denys, renowned for its patron (Dionysus the Areopagite), who had walked headless out of the Seine following his martyrdom to the spot where he wished to be buried.[2] Stephen preached there, and claimed to have seen many miracles and visions along the way: after beating his sheep, for example, they supposedly knelt and begged his forgiveness (in French, we suppose). Additionally, the chronicler St. Medard noted that "it is affirmed for a certainty, that, every ten years, fishes, frogs, butterflies, and birds proceeded likewise [i.e., towards the Holy Land] according to their kinds and seasons..." and that two packs of dogs fought each other in the small town of Manshymer. Medard wrote this in 1254, long enough to ascribe any damn weird behavior you wanted to long-dead critters. We also would like to note that almost no other chroniclers of the time actually mention Stephen, so nobody's sure if he even existed.

No matter. Such portents and stunning credentials, we are told, handily won the tyke a suitable gaggle of followers. He had convinced them that not only would they march south to Marseilles, but upon arrival the Mediterranean would part, and they would stroll to the Holy Land. Once there, all the infidels would throw their weapons to the earth, their hands to the air, and bow down to the children's innocence. They crowd thought it was simply a smashing idea. Wandering south through France, convinced of their future victory, these kids chanted insults and jibes under the guise of inspiration to the penurious, gangrenous soldiers returning from the Holy Land:

Long enough have you, knights and warriors, so boastful and so honored, been making your fruitless attempts to rescue the tomb of Christ! God can wait no longer! He is tired of your vain, puny efforts! ...We will show you what children can do![3]

Rather than receiving swift kicks to the backside, these unlicked cubs were instead rewarded with handouts and encouragement. Curiously, there were large numbers of prostitutes present (Stephen himself was alleged to have been a little dirty himself: "He was a child in years but accomplished in vice," noted chronicler Wendover[4]) and the whelps soon fell into petty theft and wantonness. Children were mugged, beaten and stolen; they starved and cut their little feet marching through the south of France. When reaching Marseilles, some of them pathetically cried, "Is this the Holy Land?", evoking scenes of family travel throughout history: "Are we there yet?"

The Mediterranean: a Problem

Of course, you can imagine their chagrin when they arrived to the rolling waves of the Mediterranean, which was not parting for anybody. One envisions thirty thousand children crying and throwing tantrums on the beach.

Medieval Boats
Medieval Boats

Into this melancholy scene, chronicler Alberic of Troisfontaines recounts, arrived wealthy merchants Hugo Ferreus and William Porcus,[5] who beneficently offered free passage to the Crusaders. They got seven boats together, crammed them to the rafters with children, and everyone was off. After the boats disappeared from sight, nobody heard from them for eighteen long years, at which point one of the kids returned with a sorry tale:

Two ships were supposedly wrecked off the coast of Sardinia, killing everyone aboard. Not long afterwards the remaining five ships landed east of Algiers and their human cargo promptly sold into slavery to the infidels. "Was it for this," they asked, "that we have taken the Cross and enlisted in the army of Christ? Is it thus the soldiers of the holy cause are rewarded?" Looks that way. As a final piece of propaganda, it is said that eighteen were martyred for not converting to Islam. Or were they?

Believe it or not? Don't

Great story. Too bad it didn't really happen. To understand why we don't think so, we're going to have to give a little lesson on medieval history and why it's so hard to do. We think we can summarize the problems in a few brief points:

1.It's really damn old. Stuff got destroyed or lost. Literacy was not common in the thirteenth century either, so accounts are rare.
2. People were gullible. Recall that these folks were still four hundred years from Isaac Newton and three quarters of a millenium from antibiotics.
3. Paucity of material can be mighty tempting to speculate about and, well, it's easy to make stuff up to embellish a scarce account.
4. The accounts were copied frequently. This means it was easy to "modify" them.
You in the Robes!
You in the Robes!

So if local chronicles are so unreliable, how do we decide what really happened? The ones written soon after the event were tiny little snippets. There are three contemporary accounts of the French movement, and these pretty much say a large group of vagabonds were roaming the countryside. Whole narratives of what actually went down didn't show up until at least fifty years later,[6] time enough for imaginations to get active. The account by Alberic of Troisfontaines, by far the most complete, was actually written by two guys over the span of sixty years, starting in 1232 and ending in 1295. The work covers all kinds of things; lots of them have nothing to do with this story. Was the Children's Crusade part written by the first guy or the second? Was it written soon after or years later? Nobody really knows.

What does seem to be true is that there was a large group of folks in France wandering the countryside the summer of 1212, possibly with banners and such so as to appear as a Crusade. But none of the contemporary chroniclers wanted to call it one, so maybe it wasn't. Alberic called it one, but should we believe him? Historian D.C. Munro noted no chroniclers in northern France say anything about an expedition headed towards Marseilles, and none south of the Loire saw anybody at all. Could it be that 30,000 people wandered around down there unnoticed? Was it really a crusade? Did they actually make it to Marseilles? As nobody seems to have seen them in Marseilles until Alberic got around to writing about it decades later, we don't think so.

Sort of Like Touring with the Dead

So, then, what were 30,000 people doing roaming the countryside in the first place? Europe was advancing towards a cash economy, which had all sorts of repercussions. One of them was that folks who didn't own land hated life and were virtually unmarriageable. 30,000 young men roaming the countryside aimlessly with nowhere to go but up[7] makes a lot more sense to us than a group of eight-year-olds trying to rescue the Holy Land. To further cement the case that these were mostly young men and not little children, historian George Duby notes the Latin word used to describe the "crusaders" was puer, which can alternately be translated as "boy" or "young man of low social standing": perhaps later chroniclers mistranslated it.

Where did Alberic get the idea that people were shipped off to slavery in the first place? He'd heard a different account of, yes, a different social movement the same year, also allegedly involving children and crusading, this time from Germany. These folks also planned to save the Holy Land and also expected the Mediterranean to part for them, but rather than skip easily through France (a very German thing to do) they insisted on crossing the Alps, and died by the hundreds or thousands. A variety of chroniclers along the way describe a group of folks traveling in that direction, so we can reasonably assume they did. In Genoa, a group of 7,000 arrived with crosses and travel bags and waited at the shores. After aimlessly wandering up and down the beach that day, many left town, disgusted at their own folly:

Thus deceived and confused, they began to return; and those who had earlier been wont to traverse the lands in hordes and throngs, always singing of the heavens, now returned one at a time, silently, barefoot and hungry, fools in everyone's eyes, for a number of girls had lost the flower of their virginity.[8]

Sucked to be them. There is, though, a fragment by a German author suggesting some crusaders were shipped as slaves to Africa. Were they the same ones? Possibly, but we can't claim any stronger than that. If so, they were German, and not French, and Alberic, historian Peter Raedts suggests, appears to have blended them together.

In summary, it's a big mess, which is why one should always be a little skeptical when hearing about wild medieval stories. Between sparse contemporary accounts and grandiose, sweeping later ones, verifiable claims are mighty slim. We can probably say that there were two groups of economically disenfranchised folks skulking about in 1212, but not much more about them than that. Recall doing this research involves translating everything from the original Latin or local vernacular, which makes things all the more difficult. Be thankful you're not a medieval scholar. Was there a Stephen? Perhaps. Did 30,000 French children really think that they could take Jerusalem by storm, only to get tragic and hilarious comeuppance? Certainly not. It's too bad, really: we love to hear about the suffering of upright, snotty children just as much as anybody else.

Footnotes

  1. Doing a quick search for the Children's Crusade on Amazon will produce one historical title and eleven classified as "juvenile fiction", which ought to tell you something. Indeed, the one historical title was written in 1870 and subsequently shown to be ridiculously embellished.
  2. We think this is probably apocryphal, too.
  3. This is nineteenth-century historian George Zabriskie Gray getting a little out of hand, p. 38.
  4. Roger of Wendover has been accused of inaccuracy. The Columbia Encyclopedia, for example, calls his accounts "fantastic and distorted". However, the Catholic Encyclopedia seems content to judge him competent. We're suspicious already.
  5. Their names were Iron and Pig? Pigs, of course, have long been associated with Jews so this, too, is highly questionable.
  6. Two or more generations, in those healthy times.
  7. Hey, it happens in the third world all the time.
  8. Ann. Marb.:82-3, as cited in Raedts.

Bibliography

  1. James A. Brundage. The Crusades: A Documentary Survey. Marquette University Press, 1962.
  2. George Zabriskie Gray. The Children's Crusade: An Episode of the Thirteenth Century. Hurd & Houghton, 1870.
  3. Jonathan Riley-Smith. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades. Oxford University Press, 1995.
  4. Norman P. Zacour and Kenneth M. Setton, ed.. "The Children's Crusade", in A History of the Crusades. The University of Wisconsin Press, 1969. [Out of Print]
  5. Peter Raedts. "The Children's Crusade of 1212". Journal of Medieval History, 3. 1977. p.279-324

 
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