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The Children’s Crusade: Myth or Creepy Fact

Posted By on February 8, 2011

There are those out there who believe that this incident did not happen at all, that the whole story was one big, misconstrued mess. Which may be true, or not, but since we did not live in the 13th century, we may never know. It has been said that the Children’s Crusade is possibly the basis for the tale of the Pied Piper, although whatever happened in Hamelin, which is a real town in Germany, is said to have happened in 1284, much later than the purported crusade, which took place in 1212. There are very few books available on the subject, and only one in the past decade that I have been able to locate so finding sources of information that are reliable is a bit hard. However, if the Children’s Crusade did take place, this is what happened.

One day in May of 1212, there appeared in the court of King Philip of France a boy named Stephen of Cloyes. He brought with him the a message, which he claimed was from Christ himself, calling the children of the country to go on a crusade and deliver the holy land from the influence of Islam. He was brushed aside by the king, who had no time for peasant boys and their visions. As the boy was young, around the age of 12 or 13, it is not surprising that a sovereign would have sent the child packing, probably dismissing his ravings as those of a lunatic.

Apparently, however, being sent away by the king did not deter young Stephen from his mission. Despite the fact that he was a rather uneducated shepherd boy, the child must have had an extraordinary ability as a public speaker because he began traveling through the towns and villages of France persuading children of both common and noble parentage to follow him on his mission. But why did they go? Why would they leave their homes and families to follow another child across Europe?

No one can say for sure, but going on a crusade with a mass of other children must have seemed like a grand adventure to boys and girls who spent their whole lives in one village, never traveling far from home and seeing nothing of the world. It must have also been a way to rebel against their parents, at an age where teenagers of today dye their hair and spend all day texting their friends, surely some of these children must have left home and followed Stephen of Cloyes out of a desire to be defiant, and escape the daily toils of working in the fields.

Growing in numbers and power the mob of children swept through France, preaching and recruiting as they went. They were blessed by priests and cursed by parents. With religion at the very center of life in the Middle Ages the idealism of reclaiming the Holy Sepulcher for Christianity must have seemed like the ultimate way secure one’s way into heaven for those that followed and believed in Stephen. To parents the coming of the child prophet and his mob must have been a terrifying phenomenon. What parent wants their child to leave home, walk across the Alps and catch a boat to fight a war? According to Stephen Runciman’s book “A chronicle of the Crusades,” the child Stephen of Cloyes was treated as a saint, and traveled in style in a ribbon bedecked cart with a canopy. Those of noble birth who had horses rode beside him and the others, those children of commoners, who made up the largest part of the group were left to make their way on foot. At one point it is thought that up to 30,000 children were following Stephen of Cloyes, many of them boys under the age of 12, but girls also followed, forming a rag-tag army with no real power.

In Germany, where word of what was happening in France had spread, a boy named Nicholas decided to take up the cross and lead his own crusade. A large group of children rallied around him at Cologne and set off across the Alps. They eventually reached the city of Genoa, in Italy, where, they had been told by Nicholas that the sea would part and they would be able to walk across and into the holy land. This of course did not happen, and it has been written that many of the children stayed there rather than go on to Rome or undertake the arduous trip back home. No doubt many feared the wrath of their families or did not want to return their lives as feudal farmers.

So, what fate awaited these child warriors? The French crusade eventually reached the port city of Marseille, where they, like the German group waited for the ocean to part for them. When it did not they were offered passage on several merchant ships, which their leader, Stephen accepted. It was reported, that two of the ships had been lost in a storm and that the other five met up with Saracen slave trading vessels and that the children had been sold into slavery and were taken as far as Egypt and Baghdad. This information came from an unknown person some 18 years later who was purportedly aboard one of the ships.

The German group was somewhat luckier; they made it all the way to Rome where they had an audience with the pope, who promptly sent them home. Few of the group made it however, either dying along the way or choosing not to make the journey and simply starting new lives in Italy or elsewhere, although one wonders what sort of lives they could have had since they were only children. In any event, very few of the French or German children who zealously followed their charismatic leaders to fight the infidels ever returned to their families.

People in the 13th century were mostly uneducated, so contemporary accounts would have to have been written by someone with a fairly decent education, in all likelihood, by monks. This would make sense if the children were passing through the countryside and were seen by those who inhabited monasteries, especially if the leaders of the mobs were considered to be holy. If the Children’s Crusade did not take place what would be the motivation behind such a strange tale? Was it created as a warning against following religious fanatics, such as the flagellants that cropped up a century later during the black plague? Is it an exaggerated story of a real event? Some writers suggest that it was not in fact a group of children who banded together, but a mob of wandering peasants who had lost their land. These people are said to have been called “pueri,” which meant “children” and the word was used as a derogatory term for those dispossessed wanderers. It’s one of those incidents that the sands of time have somewhat obscured, and unless more contemporary sources are found we may never know the truth. But it is an intriguing story if it is only a myth.


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Author's Spotlight: Jenny Zeek


Jenny is a 2002 graduate of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia and holds a BS in social work. She is currently a fifth grade ESOL teacher and aspiring writer of historical fiction. She loves to travel, (especially to London) read, and mother her four- year old.

Her historical interests include Tudor England, Europe during the black plague and renaissance, and revolutionary era France. She is currently writing a novel about Anne Boleyn and also writes a blog called “The Scandal of Christendom,” which she uses to share her thoughts and opinions about historical topics.

Feel free to contact this author at any time.


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One Response to “The Children’s Crusade: Myth or Creepy Fact”

  1. Nice. I was really wondering if this was true, for we know that every fiction story has some basis in reality.


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