Doug's Darkworld

War, Science, and Philosophy in a Fractured World.


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The Children’s Crusade, 1212. I’d always half wondered about it, and got around to looking it up. Oh dear. Then I looked up what was going on in Europe then. Oh shit!  So, we’ll start with the background. Europe was at war. Various crusades had taken place over the preceding decades, Richard the Lionheart battling Saladin in the Holy Land was one many readers will have heard of. He died in 1199. In Occitan he was known as ‘Oc e No’ (English: Yes and No) because of his reputation for terseness. I didn’t know that. Occitan was a forerunner of French, spoken in Southern France at the time. Most of the european languages and nations we are familiar with didn’t exist or were in formative states then, as even a quick glance at the map above shows.  Note also the New World had yet to be discovered, and while China was known, Marco Polo was just a twinkle in his father’s eye in 1212. Australia being discovered and even circumnavigating Africa were centuries away.

Couple of big events in 1204. The Normans conquered England in 1066, many might be familiar with the Battle of Hastings where England’s King Harold was hacked to pieces by William the Conqueror’s Norman knights. And from then until 1204, the Normans basically ruled England and much of France. Well, in 1204 France conquered Normandy. Presumably around then the king and nobility in England realised it was time to learn to speak English. The map above is from 1200, so this is not represented. The Magna Carta would be signed in 1215, the first stirrings of the idea of a constitutional monarchy.

The big event though was in Constantinople. One of the world’s greatest cities at the time, the capital of the Roman Empire for nearly 1,000 years, and wealthy beyond imagining. Called the Byzantine Empire at this point.  And then in 1204 at the Byzantine Emperor’s request, the Fourth Crusade arrived at Constantinople’s gates. And due to a series of untimely royal deaths and misunderstandings, the Crusaders looted the city and burned it to the ground. It was a disaster from which the Byzantine Empire would never recover. Ultimately leading to the capture of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1454, and subsequent Ottoman invasion of Europe. The Ottomans’ high water mark was the Siege of Vienna, or sieges, there were two of them. In 1528 and 1683.

As for the common people of the time, life under feudal monarchies was tough, but at least one knew one’s place. Most people were serfs, there was a small middle class, and an even smaller royal class of knights and above. Windmills had just been introduced to Europe, as well as the horse collar. The horse collar was one of the great inventions of the Middle Ages, allowing horses to be far more widely and efficiently used, spurring trade and innovation. The printing press had not been invented, but most people couldn’t read anywise. Clocks hadn’t been invented yet, so the hourglass or sundial were the only ways to mark time. Gunpowder was just around the corner, but it would be a few hundred years before it changed warfare in a big way. The Catholic Church was pretty much it in Western Europe, Martin Luther and protestantism being centuries away. Still, times were slowly changing for the better, money economies were growing, the Medieval Warm Period was still going on, allowing expansion of agriculture.

So that’s our setting. In 1212 a prophet started the Children’s Crusade in France and Germany. About thirty thousand children set off for the Holy Land. They were going to peacefully convert the Muslims back to Christ with their innocence and piety, since western knights had failed to beat any sense into the Muslims. It wasn’t really a very good plan, as I am sure wiser people pointed out at the time. They made it as far as Italy where they were given passage on helpful ships. Then taken to Tunisia and sold as slaves to the Muslims. The others died in shipwrecks. None made it to the Holy Land, and few ever made it home.

That’s the story as it was commonly believed for centuries, and still believed in some quarters no doubt. Interestingly enough, the story doesn’t have a whole lot of sources. There are about fifty reasonably contemporary accounts, and they are all brief. A few lines to a page or so. And what came into widespread belief was derived from later, less reliable, sources. Today’s historians have carefully re-examined them. Turns out there wasn’t really a children’s crusade. There were two crusades, one from France, one from Germany. One was inspired and led by a child who had visions. The crusaders though, they were people of all ages. Later chroniclers conflated and embellished the two stories, and turned crusades led by children into a crusade of children.

The first one was started in June 1212 by a 12 year old Shepherd named Stephen of Cloyes, who said Jesus had given him a letter for King Phillip II. Why Jesus couldn’t just deliver the letter himself would be my first question, but frankly theology is a mystery to me. Stephen wandered around northern France gathering about thirty thousand followers, a great many of them children. When he got to Paris, Phillip II was unimpressed and refused to meet with him. And basically had them encouraged to just go home. Many did. After some dawdling and preaching, Stephen led his ever dwindling band to Marseille, where they survived by begging. And then vanished from history, presumably many or most of them eventually heading home. See, not too bad. The next one is where it gets ugly.

So, here we go. Germany, same year, led by a silver tongued shepherd named Nicolas. He led again about thirty thousand followers over the Alps to Genoa, where God would part the sea, they would walk to the Holy Land, and peacefully convert the Muslims to Catholicism. About 7,000 made it to Genoa, the rest mostly died or went home. God failed to live up to his sea parting promise, Nicolas led an ever dwindling band south, where him and a handful met Pope Innocent III, who exhorted them to return home. Nicolas did not survive the Alps the second time. A few of his followers made it to southern Italy, none are known to have made it to the Holy Land. Back home, Nicolas’s father was hung by people angry that his son had led so many of their friends and relatives to their deaths. The Middle Ages were a tough time.

Any lessons here? Not really, just storytelling. Proves that in 1212 there were at least thirty thousand really gullible people in both France and Germany. Though even that’s a bit unfair. It was credulous times, and people fall for silly stuff in great numbers to this day. And I strongly suspect most if not all of these “Crusaders” were desperately poor if not homeless/orphaned. And this could sure seem like a way to a better life. On the plus side, none of them got sold into slavery.

Have a great weekend everyone.

Copyright © 2019 Doug Stych. All rights reserved.

(Image: Political map of the world in 1200. Credit:Thomas Lessman, see here for copyright details.)


Written by unitedcats

August 16, 2019 at 5:30 am

Posted in History, Religion

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