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Children's Crusade

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The Children's Crusade is the name given to a variety of fictional and factual events which happened in 1212 that combine some or all of these elements: visions by a French and German boy; an intention to peacefully convert Muslims in the Holy Land to Christianity; bands of children marching to Italy; and children being sold into slavery. With the publication of Peter Raedt's groundbreaking scientific study in 1977, it is now generally accepted that they were not children but multiple bands of "wandering poor" in Germany and France, some of whom tried to reach the Holy Land and others who never intended to do so. Early versions of events, of which there are many variations told over the centuries, are largely apocryphal.

Version of events


The long-standing view of the Children's Crusade, of which there are many variations, is some version of events with similar themes. A boy began preaching in either France or Germany claiming that he had been visited by Jesus and told to lead a Crusade to peacefully convert Muslims to Christianity. Through a series of supposed portents and miracles he gained a considerable following, including possibly as many as 20,000 children. He led his followers south towards the Mediterranean Sea, in the belief that the sea would part on their arrival, allowing him and his followers to march to Jerusalem, but this did not happen. Two merchants gave passage on boats to as many of the children as would fit. The children were either taken to Tunisia and sold into slavery, or died in a shipwreck on San Pietro Island off Sardinia during a gale. In some accounts they failed to reach the sea before dying or giving up from starvation and exhaustion. Scholarship has shown this long-standing view to be more legend than fact.


According to more recent research there seem to have actually been two movements of people (of all ages) in 1212 in Germany and France. The similarities of the two allowed later chroniclers to combine and embellish the tales.

In the first movement Nicholas, a shepherd from Germany, led a group across the Alps and into Italy in the early spring of 1212. About 7,000 arrived in Genoa in late August. However, their plans did not bear fruit when the waters failed to part as promised, and the band broke up. Some left for home, others may have gone to Rome, and some may have travelled down the Rhône to Marseilles, where they were probably sold into slavery. Few returned home and none reached the Holy Land.

The second movement was led by a French shepherd named Stephen of Cloyes (a village near Châteaudun), who claimed in June that he bore a letter for the king of France from Jesus. Attracting a crowd of over 30,000 he went to Saint-Denis, where he was seen to work miracles. On the orders of Philip II, on the advice of the University of Paris, the crowd was sent home, and most of them went. None of the contemporary sources mention plans to go to Jerusalem.

Modern explanation

The Children's Crusade, by Gustave Doré

Recent research (see "Scientific Studies" below) suggests the participants were not children, at least not the very young. The confusion started because later chroniclers, who were not witness to the events of 1212 and wrote about 30 years after the events, began to translate the original accounts and misunderstood the Latin word pueri, meaning "boys", to mean literally "children". The original accounts did use the term pueri but it had a slang meaning, similar to how the term "country boys" is used as a derogatory in the rural United States. In the early 1200s bands of wandering poor started cropping up throughout Europe, these were people displaced by economic changes at the time which forced many poor peasants in northern France and Germany to sell their land – they were often referred to as pueri in a condescending manner. This mistaken literal interpretation of pueri as "children" gave rise to the idea of a "Children's Crusade" by later authors who found the story too good not to be true, particularly with so much public support and interest in crusading. Within a generation or two after 1212, the idea of children going on crusade became ingrained in history, retold countless times over the centuries with many different versions, and only in the 20th century has the myth been re-examined by looking at the earliest sources.


Scientific studies

Prior to Raedts' 1977 study, there had only been a few scientific publications researching the Children's Crusade. The earliest were by Frenchman G. de Janssens (1891) and German R. Röhricht (1876). They analyzed the sources but did not analyze the story. American medievalist Dana Carleton Munro (1913-14), according to Raedts, provided the best analysis of the sources to date and was the first to significantly provide a convincingly sober account of the Crusade sans legends. Later, J. E. Hansbery (1938-9) published a correction of Munro's work, but it has since been discredited as based on an unreliable source. German psychiatrist Justus Hecker (1865) did give an original interpretation of the crusade, but it was a polemic about "diseased religious emotionalism" that has since been discredited.

P. Alphandery (1916) first published his ideas about the crusade in 1916 in an article, which was later published in book form in 1959. He considered the crusade to be an expression of the medieval cult of the Innocents, as a sort of sacrificial rite in which the Innocents gave themselves up for the good of Christendom; however he based his ideas on some of the most untrustworthy sources.

Adolf Waas (1956) saw the Children's Crusade as a manifestation of chivalric piety and as a protest against the glorification of the holy war. H. E. Mayer (1960) further developed Alphandery's ideas of the Innocents, saying children were the chosen people of God because they were the poorest, recognizing the cult of poverty he said that ""the Children's Crusade marked both the triumph and the failure of the idea of poverty." Giovanni Miccoli (1961) was the first to note that the contemporary sources did not portray the participants as children. It was this recognition that undermined all other interpretations, except perhaps that of Norman Cohn (1971) saw it as a chiliastic movement in which the poor tried to escape the misery of their everyday lives. Peter Raedts' 1977 analysis is considered the best source to date to show the many issues surrounding the Children's Crusade.

Popular accounts

Beyond the scientific studies there are many popular versions and theories about the Children's Crusades. Norman Zacour in the survey A History of the Crusades (1962) generally follows Munro's conclusions, and adds that there was a psychological instability of the age, concluding the Children's Crusade "remains one of a series of social explosions, through which medieval men and women – and children too – found release".

Steven Runciman gives an account of the Children's Crusade in his A History of the Crusades. Raedts notes that "Although he cites Munro's article in his notes, his narrative is so wild that even the unsophisticated reader might wonder if he had really understood it." Donald Spoto, in a book about Saint Francis of Assisi, said monks were motivated to call them children, and not wandering poor, because being poor was considered pious and the Church was embarrassed by its wealth in contrast to the poor. This, according to Spoto, began a literary tradition from which the popular legend of children originated. This idea follows closely with H. E. Mayer.

In the arts

Works of art specifically deriving from the Medieval event. For other uses of the term "Children's Crusade", see Children's Crusade (disambiguation).

  • La Croisade des Enfants (1902), a seldom-performed oratorio by Gabriel Pierné, featuring a children's chorus, is based on the events of the Children's Crusade.
  • Cruciada copiilor ( en. Children's Crusade ) (1930), a play by Lucian Blaga based upon the Crusade.
  • Journey to the East (1932), a novel by Herman Hesse which also describes a spiritually inspired group journey to the east, references this event.
  • The Children's Crusade (1958), children's historical novel by Henry Treece, includes a dramatic account of Stephen of Cloyes attempting to part the sea at Marseille.
  • The Gates of Paradise (1960) experimental novel by Polish writer [ [Jerzy Andrzejewski] ], composed of two sentences, one of which has no less than 40.000 words, scarcely punctuated, and carries the narration in the form of alternating streams of consciousness (Stephen of Cloyes'and other children-pilgrims), whereas the other consists of just three: "On they went" ("I szli dalej" in Polish orig.)
  • The Death of the Bishop of Brindisi (1963), cantata by Gian-Carlo Menotti, describes a dying bishop's guilt-ridden recollection of the Children's Crusade, during which he questions the purpose and limitations of his own power.
  • Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), a novel by Kurt Vonnegut, references this event and uses it as an alternative title.
  • Crusade in Jeans (Dutch Kruistocht in spijkerbroek), is a 1973 novel by Dutch author Thea Beckman and a 2006 film adaptation about the Children's Crusade through the eyes of a time traveller.
  • The Children's Crusade (1973), a play by Paul Thompson first produced at the Cockpit Theatre (Marylebone), London by the National Youth Theatre.
  • A Long March To Jerusalem (1978), a play by Don Taylor breathes much life and colour into the story of the Children's Crusade.
  • An Army of Children (1978), a novel by Evan Rhodes that tells the story of two boys, a Christian and a Jew, partaking in the Children's Crusade.
  • "[[The Dream of the Blue Turtles|Children's Crusade[[" (1985), is a song by Sting that juxtaposes the medieval Children's Crusade with the deaths of English soldiers in World War I and the lives ruined by heroin addiction.
  • Lionheart (1987), a historical/fantasy film, loosely based on the stories of the Children's Crusade.
  • "Sea and Sunset" (1989), short story by Mishima Yukio.
  • Yndalongg (1996), a 10" released by the Austrian musical duo The Moon Lay Hidden Beneath A Cloud features a track based upon the story of the Children's Crusade. The same song is also featured on their 1999 release Rest on your Arms reversed.
  • The Fire of Roses (2003), a novel by Gregory Rinaldi
  • The Crusade of Innocents (2006), novel by David George, suggests that the Children's Crusade may have been affected by the concurrent crusade against the Cathars in Southern France, and how the two could have met.
  • Sylvia (2006), novel by Bryce Courtenay, story loosely based around the Children's Crusade.
  • Clive Barker's Jericho (2007), a video game in which the souls of the children who died in the Crusade appear as enemies in a skewed version of the Middle Ages, who seek nothing but revenge against the holy men that were responsible for their untimely demise.
  • The Children's Crusade (2007), a punk rock band.
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