The Children’s Crusade of 1212 (Lat. Peregrinatio puerorum) was an unofficial crusade enthusiasm that arose in France, Germany, and the Low Countries. It was perhaps the first truly popular crusade, because its leaders were neither knights, clerics, nor hermits.
To medieval chroniclers the Children’s Crusade was a foolish venture that sadly, but appropriately, ended in catastrophe. The fact that in modern popular culture the Children’s Crusade has become one of the most memorable episodes in the history of the crusading movement would have astounded them. For the chroniclers, the pueri (boys, children, youngsters) who were its most conspicuous and leading element were deluded. They had defied parents and scorned the advice of clergy by running off on a “crusade” that no pope had authorized. The clerical chroniclers referred to it as a crusade (Lat. peregrinatio, iter, crucesignatio, etc.), perhaps because that is what ordinary lay folk called it, or perhaps they meant it mockingly. Certainly, those who joined it thought of themselves as pilgrims and crusaders; they carried the identifying emblems (staves, wallets, crosses), though they bore no arms. Among their monastic chroniclers were talented writers like Matthew Paris, Vincent of Beauvais, and Alberic of Trois-Fontaines, all writing about forty years afterward; their imaginative stories have influenced scholars and the general public down through the centuries. Thus they variously claimed that the pueri had been led astray by Satan and a personage known as the Master of Hungary, later to become leader of the First Shepherds’ Crusade (1251); or lured away by the Old Man of the Mountain; or duped and betrayed by evil merchants who promised them sea passage to the Holy Land, then sold them to slavers; or tricked by secret agents of the Muslims.
The story of the crusade became a cautionary tale, a preacher’s exemplum (moral anecdote), and its lamentable outcome was emphasized. Northern chroniclers pointed out that few of these “crusaders” returned to their homelands (which is true); others, they wrote, died of hunger or thirst along the way, suffered shipwreck, rotted away in Muslim prisons, or were exploited, particularly the young women among them. The pueri, of course, did encounter hardship and sometimes death. Yet the altogether grim picture painted by the chroniclers was colored by their belief that God did not will the crusade to take place. In fact, those who ran off on the Children’s Crusade were shepherds and peasants, often youthful, but not always; artisans and laborers recruited in the French and German towns along their route; servants and poor folk; men, women, and babes-in-arms; old people as well as youths. They were excited by crusading dreams, no doubt, but also fleeing poverty and hopelessness, the unhappy results of rural overpopulation. When the remnants of the Children’s Crusade ultimately arrived in Mediterranean Europe, they entered booming urban economies. The cheap labor they could supply would be put to good use. What began as a popular crusade, indeed the most famous of all popular crusades, ended as a peasant migration. For those who never returned, opportunity, not death, may have been the reason.
Historians have uncritically taken the exaggerated accounts of the clerical chroniclers at face value. Similarly, the traditional views of the origins, itinerary, and nature of this extraordinary movement need to be reassessed. Lack of evidence poses a problem. Despite fifty-four references to the Children’s Crusade in Latin prose narratives composed before 1301, the chroniclers rarely provide more than a few lines of fragmentary and elusive material. There exists no reliable, step-by-step narrative of the enthusiasm from its inception in northern Europe to its finale in the Mediterranean south. At best we have occasional snapshots. What is clear, however, is that the genesis of the Peregrinatio puerorum occurred in the midst of crusading activities that excited popular enthusiasm. Eight years earlier, the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) had culminated in the conquest of Christian Constantinople (mod. Istanbul, Turkey), and crusading continued in the West. During the winter of 1211-1212 recruitment for the ongoing Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229) against the Cathars of Languedoc was stimulated by preaching in the same territories that would later yield recruits for the Children’s Crusade: Ile-de-France, Flanders, and possibly the Rhineland, preparing the ground for what was to come. Meanwhile, another crusade was mounted to save Christendom’s western flank from the Almohads of Berber North Africa who had invaded Spain. A decisive battle was expected around Pentecost (13 May), and Pope Innocent III responded to the pleas of King Alfonso VIII of Castile by ordering liturgical processions in Rome and elsewhere on behalf of the Spanish church.
Such processions are likely to have taken place at Chartres around 20 May. Following the evidence of a late though reliable source, Jean le Long or Jean d’Ypres (d. 1383), author of the Chronica monasterii sancti Bertini, Gary Dickson has argued that these church-organized processions soon threw off ecclesiastical control, becoming popular events in which the pueri now assumed a dominant role [Dickson, Religious Enthusiasm, V:88-90]. Their outcries and acclamations (“Lord God, exalt Christendom!”; “Lord God, return to us the True Cross!”) demonstrate that the pueri retained the crusading fervor originally kindled by the church [Dickson, Religious Enthusiasm, IV:36]. Yet their desire for the True Cross (the relic lost at the battle of Hattin in 1187) implies that the focus of their enthusiasm had shifted away from Spain and toward the Holy Land.
Perhaps at this stage Stephen of Cloyes emerged as the charismatic leader of the French pueri. According to the anonymous chronicler of Laon, he was a young shepherd who claimed that Jesus, disguised as a poor pilgrim, had given him a letter intended for King Philip II of France. He and his followers then went to Saint-Denis to deliver the letter to the king, who, advised by the masters of the University of Paris, ordered the pueri to return to their homes. The Laon chronicler noted that Stephen’s pilgrimage took place in June.
This sequence of events is disputed by Norman P. Zacour and Peter Raedts, who locate the origins of the Children’s Crusade in the Rhineland with Nicholas of Cologne, his followers, and his charismatic symbol, the Tau cross. The movement would thus have spread from Germany to north- central France. Several arguments can be adduced against this view. The first is chronological. Stephen’s movement (in June) would have directly followed the processions (in late May), whereas the best estimate historians have for the departure of Nicholas and his troop of pueri from Cologne is mid-July. Second, the Rhenish Children’s Crusade lacks an initial cause of collective enthusiasm like the processions. Third, the Rhenish pueri spoke of reaching the Holy Land by crossing the sea dry-shod. Nothing of the kind was mentioned by the French pueri. Ideas like this develop over time. Fourth, contemporary German chronicles know about the French movement, while the reverse is not true. Finally, why would the Rhenish pueri, looking toward the east and heading down the Rhine and over the Alps to Italy and perhaps southern France to get there, direct any of their energies toward the west? An earlier historian of the pueri, D. C. Munro, insisted that there were two movements, one in France and one in Germany, and no evidence indicates that they ever came in contact with each other. However that may be, for two popular crusading movements with a similar social composition to have begun around the same time without one group having influenced the other is implausible. A route map suggests the line of march that a troop of French pueri may have taken toward the Rhineland.
Raedts has provided not only an invaluable study of the chroniclers but also an intriguing global interpretation of the Children’s Crusade: it was a movement of the poor. For Raedts, the medieval pueri were a social group, not an ambiguously defined age group. The term, he holds, refers to landless peasants who were too poor to marry. In peasant society, marriage brought social adulthood. As social underlings and rural laborers, they were and would always remain “boys.” This seems like a neat solution, and some of the chroniclers appear to bear him out. In reality, however, the pueri were often young people of both sexes who were poor and propertyless. So the two senses of the word are far from being mutually exclusive, and no student of the texts would affirm that the pueri were all youngsters, let alone children. Moreover, the nametag pueri stood for the whole movement, allowing the chroniclers to differentiate it from that of the pastores (shepherds), who came later (1251) but belonged to the same largely agrarian underclass. The pueri, some would say, believed they were chosen by God because, unlike the knights, they were both poor and pure. This must remain conjecture. Conversely, there is now a general consensus that Pope Innocent III learned from the Children’s Crusade that popular enthusiasm for crusading was far from dead.