The era of the Crusades is often synonymous with heavily-armed men fighting in Holy Land to decide whose imaginary friend is the mightiest. But those murderous conflicts overshadowed other kinds of crusades: popular and pacific movements aimed at capturing Jerusalem without a single drop of blood being shed. The most famous occurred in the summer of 1212 and featured two young shepherds, divine prophecies and a cruel lack of miracles.
A popular saying goes that truth comes out the mouth of babes… That’s undoubtedly what hundreds of people believed when they first heard Nicholas of Cologne, a 12-year-old German shepherd, in the early weeks of 1212. His arms raised, the kid addressed the crowd gathered on the main square of the city: claiming he received instructions from God himself, Nicholas asked for volunteers to join him on a perilous expedition to the Holy Land, where he planned on taking over Jerusalem. A foolish initiative: at the time, even the powerful “King’s Crusade” spearheaded by Richard the Lionheart and Philip II had failed dramatically. Nevertheless, probably tempted by Nicholas’ prophecy or confidence, dozens of children, old men, women and poor people followed suit. Next stop: Palestine, 4,000 kilometers away.
Meanwhile, another shepherd spoke out across the French farmland. Etienne of Cloyes had led a peaceful childhood until – according to him – he met the Christ disguised as a pilgrim while leading his herd to the pasture. The latter apparently handed him a letter addressed to the French King, Philip II, expressing his aversion for the monarch’s bloody, belligerent temperament throughout the Crusades. The boy immediately took it on himself to voice the Christ’s concerns to the French throne, and headed off to Paris, joined by a growing procession of people. Many children also meddled in, forcing parents to lock up their offspring as the joyful procession went on to Saint-Denis.
On June 11, day of the Lendit Fair – which gathered thousands of merchants and craftsmen across the busy Parisian markets – the preacher and his younthful herd reached the king’s palace. According to some sources, there were about 30,000 “Crusaders” carrying the message along Etienne! Nevertheless, the king’s doors, as his ears, remained sealed, and the preachers were scattered by the royal guard. We do not even know whether the shepherd managed to deliver the divine message to Philip or not, if there ever was such.
The French crusade, scattered on the packed marketplace, must have instantly realized their quest had ended. The Holy Land was out of reach, and most of the exhausted pilgrims either came back home or found jobs at the capital city, where employment was in better shape than in the countryside. In neighboring Germany, however, Etienne’s counterpart kept on recruiting by the hundreds.
Nicholas indeed pursued his popular crusade and journeyed along the Rhine River, which led southwards through the Alps and, beyond, to the Mediterranean shores of Italy. At every stop, his testimony galvanized and swelled the ranks of his followers. It was no luxury cruise, however: lack of food, epidemics’ proliferation and rigorous mountainous areas decimated the cortege. Walking on bare feet, only seven thousand pilgrims managed to cross the Alps – carrying the spirits of 13,000 deceased out of the mountains.
Then, finally, after weeks of hardships and privations, the survivors reached Genoa, the Italian harbor town nestled along the Mediterranean shore. Nicholas had promised them that, upon reaching the waters, God would part the sea in two and let them cross safely towards Palestine. Instead of a miracle, however, the Children’s Crusade received severe disappointment, as the sea remained desperately quiet and flat. Did God actually support the popular enthusiasm? Or had he already spent his last sea-parting spells on Moses?
Disappointment slowly turned into deception. The cortege probably started to doubt its leader’s prophecies at this very moment. Plus, scorching August temperatures finished off their faith. Some decided to come back home. Most stayed for a job opportunity, so employers were free to exploit an abundant and cheap workforce. Only followed by a thousand of loyal crusaders, Nicholas looked for a bridge to Jerusalem. Ship to requisition on divine purposes.
The shepherd witnessed his herd dying out. Hungry and laughed at by the locals, the pilgrims wandered across the sea shores. Some unscrupulous boatmen offered the crusaders a ride to Jerusalem, but instead of the Holy Land, they reached the iron cages of the slave markets, still thriving in Middle-Eastern countries at the time.
So did the Children’s Crusades end: Philip II scrapped one, the other swayed on the Mediterranean shores. Those popular initiatives remain shrouded in mystery, however, since only a few chroniclers were able to register them. Time probably embellished the fable and filled it with innocence and purity. Later, some authors reinterpreted the prophets’ stories in the face of current perils: a conspiracy stirred up by the Assassins, an intern coup decided by the Saracens… Hence, the lack of evidence the modern-day historian inherited. Even the “children” involved, defined by the Latin term pueri – which also refers to a social class – must have not only been kids, but poor people from rural areas desperately wanting a change. United under the banner of need, they eventually formed the first youngsters’ demonstration in history.
- Gary Dickson, “Children’s Crusade” (1998) via Encyclopedia Britannica
- Gary Dickson, “La genèse de la croisade des enfants” (1995), Bibliothèque de l’école des chartes, 153-1, pp. 53-102
- Gary Dickson, Thomas F. Madden, Marshall W. Baldwin, “The Children’s Crusade” (1999, 2005) via Encyclopedia Britannica
- Peter Raedts, “The children’s crusade of 1212″ (1977), Journal of Medieval History, 3:4, 279-323.