A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Is the Children's Crusade fact or fable?

April 9, 2004

Dear Cecil:

Recently I found an article on the Web stating that the Children's Crusade is most likely fiction, and is regarded as an actual event simply because everyone "knows" it happened. Personally I find this theory amazingly plausible. However, it seemed best to ask for a second opinion.

Cecil replies:

Chalk this one up to the generation gap, medieval version. The popular image of the Children's Crusade is of hordes of prepubescent tykes trekking across Europe to liberate the Holy Land with love. Amazing? Yes. Plausible? No. However, make the kids teenagers and for "crusade" substitute "rave," "meetup," or what have you — suddenly it all makes sense. It wasn't the Children's Crusade, it was the 13th-century equivalent of spring break. The difference between then and now isn't the kids, it's what the adults let them get away with. It's hard to imagine one of today's overprotective moms saying: "Bye, honey, have fun with Frederick in Jerusalem. Make sure you get back by 1230 AD."

The story of the Children's Crusade owes its existence to two separate episodes, both occurring in 1212. The better known but less likely involves one Stephen from the village of Cloyes in France. Stephen supposedly claimed that Jesus had come to him disguised as a poor pilgrim and given him a letter for the king. On his way to Paris to deliver it, the lad attracted a crowd of perhaps 30,000 — many of whom, moved by the spirit of the times, allegedly decided to head for the Holy Land. The pilgrims made their way to the port of Marseilles, where two merchants, Hugo Ferreus ("Iron Hugo") and William Porcus ("William the Pig"), offered to transport them by ship. Of seven vessels crammed with kids, two sank in a storm, drowning all aboard, while the other five reached North Africa, where the children were sold as slaves to the Saracens.

You're thinking: That'll teach 'em to stay out after curfew. But hold the phone — the account from which the above is chiefly drawn was written at least 20 years after the fact by a fellow who, in the manner of many a confused elder, didn't have a clue what the kids were up to. More contemporary chronicles acknowledge Stephen's visit to the king but say nothing of a pilgrimage to Marseilles, much less the Holy Land, and don't call the episode a crusade. Granted, there was a religious element to the young folks' wanderings: When asked by their parents where they were going, they reportedly said "to God." One suspects, however, that this was the medieval equivalent of "to the library" — or perhaps "to San Francisco" circa 1967. Parents didn't get what Stephen and his buds were doing, but they didn't get the Summer of Love, either.

The situation was a little different in Germany, where it appears there really was a children's crusade of sorts — that is, the participants were actually bound for Jerusalem, at least in their minds. Numerous chronicles suggest that bands of young people arose in several different locales and headed south along the Rhine, at some point merging under the leadership of a fellow named Nicholas. Were they actually children, though? Doubtful. Scholars argue that in medieval Latin the word puer, child or boy, could also be applied to a young man, especially if he was landless or otherwise of low standing — and folks with nothing to lose are always up for a little adventure. The distances traveled (roughly 35 kilometers a day) strongly suggest this wasn't the T-ball crowd. Quite a few pilgrims perished on the journey over the Alps. Nonetheless, on August 25, 1212, about 7,000 reached the Italian port of Genoa. Nicholas had promised that the sea would part, allowing them to hike to the Holy Land. When the Mediterranean didn't cooperate, the crusade fizzled out.

Accounts vary concerning what happened next, but all agree that few of the kids made it home. Some say one group went to Rome, where the pope released many of them from their crusaders' vows. Some may have been sold into slavery, others shipwrecked — quite likely later chroniclers conflated these sad tales with the relatively uneventful French story. (The promise about the sea parting was often attributed to Stephen of Cloyes too.) A handful of survivors eventually straggled back, all no doubt thinking: Some summer vacation this turned out to be.

OK, maybe it's a little flip to compare all this to a backpacking trip with a high mortality rate. The key difference arises from the intense religiosity of the Middle Ages — all we've got now, in the States anyway, are the Wiccans and Pat Robertson. Still, the restless enthusiasm of youth hasn't changed, just the forms it takes. Eight hundred years ago kids wanted to recapture the Holy Sepulcher. Is it their fault if the best outlet they could find this year was Howard Dean?

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