During the course of the wars against the Albigensians, crusade preaching became a constant fact of life in northern France and parts of Germany. The drumbeat of enthusiastic sermons added to an atmosphere already supercharged with popular piety, anticlericalism, and profound anxiety about the state of Jerusalem. In a world in which religious enthusiasm was common and respected, these tensions often manifested themselves in bizarre and startling ways. One such set of events is commonly called the Children’s Crusade.

What is the nature of this so called Children’s Crusade?

This Children’s Crusade was not an army of children, and it was not a crusade. Indeed, it was not even one thing, but a blanket term used to describe a variety of popular uprisings and processions. At its core was the long-held medieval belief in holy poverty—that the poor of Christ could achieve things by their pious righteousness that church prelates and secular lords could not. These were the kinds of ideas that gave birth to and propelled the “People’s Crusade” in the wake of the preaching of the First Crusade. Since then, Christians had become disillusioned by the failure of powerful crusades to achieve their stated goals. Perhaps, they reasoned, it was the weak and humble that Christ was calling to victory in the Holy Land. Had he not preached, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”.

Contemporary sources containing details about the crusade

Because it was a popular movement, the Children’s Crusade is difficult to trace. Unlike most crusades, there was no participant who wrote a memoir of the event. What we can glean comes from the reports of outsiders, primarily monastic chroniclers who watched it all go by. It is difficult, therefore, to say precisely how it began, or for that matter, how it ended. What is clear is that in early 1212, a young man named Nicholas from Cologne either initiated or quickly became the focus of a popular movement that swept through the Rhineland. Nicholas had in mind to go to Jerusalem and rescue the Holy City from the Muslims. Under divine instruction, he began walking south to the sea, which he believed would open up before him, allowing him to walk to Palestine. Tens, then hundreds, then thousands joined him in his march. As Nicholas and his followers marched from town to town, they spread their enthusiasm. Children, adolescents, women, the elderly, the poor, parish clergy, and the occasional thief joined the movement in throngs. Wherever they went, they were hailed as heroes. They received gifts, food, money, and prayers from their abundant well-wishers. When clergy members expressed reservations or skepticism about the “crusade,” they were ridiculed and accused of jealousy. Had not the church-sponsored crusades failed repeatedly to reclaim the Holy Sepulcher? Were the prelates so blind that they could not see the hand of God in this extraordinary pilgrimage of the poor and the weak?

Word of these wonders spread across Europe

The throngs continued south, picking up many and shedding some as they went. In July 1212, they began crossing the Alps into Italy. The heat was stifling, causing many to give up and return home, but others pressed on. Word of these wonders spread across Europe, sparking in some places smaller imitations of the event. The largest of these echoes occurred in Cloyes, a small town in France near Vendôme. Stephen, a twelve-year-old shepherd boy, had a vision in which Jesus, dressed as a pilgrim, asked him for bread. When Stephen gave it to him, Jesus handed over a letter for the king of France. Letters from heaven were a fairly common occurrence in the Middle Ages, but they rarely came from the hand of Christ himself. Stephen began his trek to Paris and was quickly joined by his fellow shepherds, then other bands of children, then lesser clergy, then the same kind of poor who were enlisting in Nicholas’s pilgrimage in Germany. As they marched through the towns, they sang, “Lord God, exalt Christianity! Lord God, restore to us the True Cross!” At last, they reached Paris, where Stephen delivered his missive to Philip Augustus. The contents are unknown, but the letter probably urged the king to lead another crusade to the East to rescue the True Cross and restore Jerusalem. Philip thanked Stephen for the letter, and that was the end of it. Unlike the Germans, the French participants saw themselves as messengers, not crusaders. With their message delivered, most of them returned home. A few of the able-bodied enlisted in the Albigensian Crusade.

The end of the Children’s Crusade

By the beginning of August, the Rhenish multitudes were in Lombardy. From there, the movement broke apart as different groups made their separate ways to various ports. Nicholas and his band of followers arrived in Genoa on August 25. To their great disappointment, the sea did not open for them, nor did it allow them to walk across its waves. Some pushed on, hoping for better luck at other ports. According to one story, a large band of these “crusaders” arrived in Marseilles, where two unscrupulous men offered them free transportation to the Holy Land. When the vessels landed in Alexandria, the passengers were sold on the Egyptian slave markets. Others apparently went to Rome, where Innocent III praised their zeal but released them from their vows—which were not valid in any case. The fate of Nicholas is unclear. One story has it that he embarked on the Fifth Crusade, where he fulfilled his vow before returning home. Another states that he died in Italy. Thus, the Children’s Crusade came to a humiliating end. Most of its participants turned back home, but they had a difficult journey ahead. They were now reviled and ridiculed by the same people who had previously acclaimed and assisted them. Food was a problem, because they could no longer count on gifts. Many simply could not make the journey and therefore settled wherever they found themselves. Centuries later, a few of Genoa’s leading families would claim descent from these wayward pilgrims.