The scandal of the Fourth Crusade, added in a decade to the failure of the Third, gave no comfort to a Christian faith soon to be faced with the rediscovery of Aristotle and the subtle rationalism of Averroës. Thinkers were much exercised to explain why God had allowed the defeat of His defenders in so holy a cause, and had granted success only to Venetian villainy. Amid these doubts it occurred to simple souls that only innocence could regain the citadel of Christ. In 1212 a German youth vaguely known to history as Nicholas announced that God had commissioned him to lead a crusade of children to the Holy Land. Priests as well as laity condemned him, but the idea spread readily in an age even more subject than most to waves of emotional enthusiasm. Parents struggled to deter their children, but thousands of boys (and some girls in boys’ clothing), averaging twelve years, slipped away and followed Nicholas, perhaps glad to escape from the monarchy of the home to the freedom of the road. The swarm of 30,000 children, leaving mostly from Cologne, passed down the Rhine and over the Alps. Many died of hunger; some stragglers were eaten by wolves; thieves mingled with the marchers and stole their clothing and food. The survivors reached Genoa, where the earthy Italians laughed them into doubt; no ships would carry them to Palestine; and when they appealed to Innocent III he gently told them to go home. Some marched disconsolately back over the Alps; many settled in Genoa and learned the ways of a commercial world.
In France, in this same year, a twelve-year-old shepherd named Stephen came to Philip Augustus, and announced that Christ, appearing to him while he tended his flock, had bidden him lead a children’s crusade to Palestine. The king ordered him to return to his muttons; nevertheless 20,000 youngsters gathered to follow Stephen’s lead. They made their way across France to Marseille, where, Stephen had promised them, the ocean would divide to let them reach Palestine dryshod. It failed them; but two shipowners offered to take them to their destination without charge. They crowded into seven ships, and sailed forth singing hymns of victory. Two of the ships were wrecked off Sardinia, with the loss of all on board; the other children were brought to Tunisia or Egypt, where they were sold as slaves. The shipowners were hanged by order of Frederick II.56
Three years later Innocent III, at the Fourth Lateran Council, again appealed to Europe to recover the land of Christ, and returned to the plan that Venice had frustrated—an attack upon Egypt. In 1217 the Fifth Crusade left Germany, Austria, and Hungary under the Hungarian King Andrew, and safely reached Damietta, at the easternmost mouth of the Nile. The city fell after a year’s siege; and Malik al-Kamil, the new Sultan of Egypt and Syria, offered terms of peace—the surrender of most of Jerusalem, the liberation of Christian prisoners, the return of the True Cross. The Crusaders demanded an indemnity as well, which al-Kamil refused. The war was resumed, but went badly; expected reinforcements did not come; finally an eight-year truce was signed that gave the Crusaders the True Cross, but restored Damietta to the Moslems, and required the evacuation of all Christian troops from Egyptian soil.
The Crusaders blamed their tragedy upon Frederick II, the young Emperor of Germany and Italy. He had taken the crusader’s vow in 1215, and had promised to join the besiegers at Damietta; but political complications in Italy, and perhaps an inadequate faith, detained him. In 1228, while excommunicate for his delays, Frederick set out on the Sixth Crusade. Arrived in Palestine, he received no help from the good Christians there, who shunned an outlaw from the Church. He sent emissaries to al-Kamil, who was now leading the Saracen army at Nablus. Al-Kamil replied courteously; and the Sultan’s ambassador, Fakhru’d Din, was impressed by Frederick’s knowledge of the Arabic language, literature, science, and philosophy. The two rulers entered into a friendly exchange of compliments and ideas; and to the astonishment of both Christendom and Islam they signed a treaty (1229) by which al-Kamil ceded to Frederick Acre, Jaffa, Sidon, Nazareth, Bethlehem, and all of Jerusalem except the enclosure—sacred to Islam—containing the Dome of the Rock. Christian pilgrims were to be admitted to this enclosure to perform their prayers on the site of Solomon’s Temple; and similar rights were to be enjoyed by Mohammedans in Bethlehem. All prisoners on either side were to be released; and for ten years and ten months each side pledged itself to peace.57 The excommunicate Emperor had succeeded where for a century Christendom had failed; the two cultures, brought together for a moment in mutual understanding and respect, had found it possible to be friends. The Christians of the Holy Land rejoiced, but Pope Gregory IX denounced the pact as an insult to Christendom, and refused to ratify it. After Frederick’s departure the Christian nobility of Palestine took control of Jerusalem, and allied the Christian power in Asia with the Moslem ruler of Damascus against the Egyptian Sultan (1244). The latter called to his aid the Khwarazmian Turks, who captured Jerusalem, plundered it, and massacred a large number of its inhabitants. Two months later Baibars defeated the Christians at Gaza, and Jerusalem once more fell to Islam (October, 1244).
While Innocent IV preached a crusade against Frederick II, and offered to all who would war against the Emperor in Italy the same indulgences and privileges granted to those who served in the Holy Land, the saintly Louis IX of France organized the Seventh Crusade. Shortly after the fall of Jerusalem he took the cross, and persuaded his nobles to do likewise; to certain reluctant ones, at Christmas, he presented costly garments bearing an inwoven cross. He labored to reconcile Innocent with Frederick, so that a united Europe might support the Crusade. Innocent refused; instead, he sent a friar—Giovanni de Piano Carpini—to the Great Khan, suggesting a union of Mongols and Christians against the Turks; the Khan replied by inviting the submission of Christendom to the Mongol power. At last, in 1248, Louis set out with his French knights, including Jean Sieur de Joinville, who would narrate the exploits of his King in a famous chronicle. The expedition reached Damietta, and soon captured it; but the annual inundation of the Nile, which had been forgotten in planning the campaign, began as the Crusaders arrived, and so flooded the country that they were confined to Damietta for half a year. They did not altogether regret it; “the barons,” says Joinville, “took to giving great feasts … and the common people took to consorting with lewd women.”58 When the army resumed its march it was depleted by hunger, disease, and desertion, and weakened with indiscipline. At Mansura, despite brave fighting, it was defeated, and fled in wild rout; 10,000 Christians were captured, including Louis himself, fainting with dysentery (1250). An Arab physician cured him; after a month of tribulation he was released, but only in return for the surrender of Damietta, and a ransom of 500,000 livres ($3,800,000). When Louis agreed to this enormous ransom, the sultan reduced it by a fifth, and trusted the King for an unpaid half.59 Louis led the remnant of his army to Acre, and stayed there four years, vainly calling upon Europe to cease its wars and join him in a new campaign. He dispatched the monk William of Rubruquis to the Mongol Khan renewing the invitation of Innocent—with similar results. In 1254 he returned to France.
His years in the East had quieted the factionalism of the Christians there; his departure released it. From 1256 to 1260 a civil war of the Venetians against the Genoese in the Syrian ports dragged every faction into it, and exhausted the Christian forces in Palestine. Seizing the opportunity, Baibars, the slave Sultan of Egypt, marched up the coast and took one Christian town after another: Caesarea (1265), Safad (1266), Jaffa (1267), Antioch (1268). The captured Christians were slaughtered or enslaved, and Antioch was so devastated with plunder and fire that it never recovered.
Roused to new fervor in his old age, Louis IX took the cross a second time (1267). His three sons followed his example; but the French nobility rejected his plans as quixotic, and refused to join; even Joinville, who loved him, would have none of this Eighth Crusade. This time the King, wise in government and foolish in war, landed his inadequate forces in Tunisia, hoping to convert its bey to Christianity, and to attack Egypt from the west. He had hardly touched African soil when he “fell sick of a flux in the stomach,”60 and died with the word “Jerusalem” on his lips (1270). A year later Prince Edward of England landed at Acre, bravely led some futile sallies, and hurried back to accept the English crown.
The final disaster came when some Christian adventurers robbed a Moslem caravan in Syria, hanged nineteen Moslem merchants, and sacked several Moslem towns. Sultan Khalil demanded satisfaction; receiving none, he marched against Acre, the strongest Christian outpost in Palestine; taking it after a siege of forty-three days, he allowed his men to massacre or enslave 60,000 prisoners (1291). Tyre, Sidon, Haifa, and Beirut fell soon afterward. The Latin kingdom of Jerusalem maintained a ghostly existence for a time in the titles of vain potentates, and for two centuries a few adventurers or enthusiasts embarked upon sporadic and futile efforts to resume the “Great Debate”; but Europe knew that the Crusades had come to an end.