The Children's Crusade
The glamour of the Crusades!
Pictures of valiant knights in shining armour, swinging great battle-axes, and bearing aloft the banners of The Redeemer.
Scenes so romantic and so colourful that history can produce nothing to outshine them. Richard of the Lion Heart, and other Kings of Christian Europe, leading their warriors into Palestine to eject the swarthy Infidel who has outraged the Sacred Places and captured the Holy Cross of our Lord.
And yet these glorious Crusades produced many horrors. Outstanding from them all was the most pathetic episode in the long and tragic history of our suffering world. Led by fanatics, but inspired by the noblest ideals, fifty thousand innocents were lured across Europe to a fearful doom.
The Children's Crusade left behind it no inspiring story of the rescue of the Holy Cross, but only the memory of a frightful horror. This has been masked and enshrined in a memorial fairy-tale, the legend of "The Pied Piper of Hamelin." But the fate of the innocents of the Crusade was worse than that of the children of the legend. To no mountain cavern were these unfortunates lured but to the worst fate that could be conceived in the darkest days of the Middle Ages.
Like its immediate predecessors, the unlucky Thirteenth Century was an age of faith for Christian Europe. Everybody believed in The Gospel Story but few understood its implications; fewer still practised its precepts. The unbelievers in that age of faith were those who wielded the Sword of Islam, and who, marching under the bloodstained Crescent, attacked the sacred Banners of The Cross.
The Sword of Islam had been everywhere triumphant. It had swept across Spain; it had cut a crimson swathe up through the Balkans; and now it commanded vast territories on either side of the Mediterranean, shaped like its own emblem, a crescent moon. Now, after one of those periods of quiescence and retrogression common to Islam, there was a danger that it would awaken from its slumber and overrun the rest of Europe.
Until the year 1000 our continent had shown no great alarm or concern over the exploits of the Infidel, for it confidently believed that the Second Advent would take place with the close of the first Christian Millennium. But when the calendar turned to 1001 and there was still no rending of the skies, militant adventurers in Christian Europe began to look abroad for a sphere wherein to display the prowess gained at local tournaments in the brave days of chivalry.
When Peter the Hermit arrived and denounced the Infidel through the cities of Europe, he found the populace ready for his coming.
The Popes not only gave their support to the Crusades but stimulated their subjects to undertake them, for thereby they would discover a new path to Heaven, and achieve full and complete satisfaction for their sins. The Crusades were generally popular because they permitted people to combine their desire for other worldliness with a lust for battle, and so enable them to make the best of both worlds. After a day of butchery in the streets of Jerusalem, the Crusader would sob all night for joy at the mouth of the Holy Sepulchre, convinced that his deeds by day and devotions by night were equally acceptable to The Prince of Peace.
Though many a father would fail to return to his wife and children from these strenuous if childish Crusades, there were always some survivors who, re-appearing, would circulate stories of derring-do that thrilled the civilised world, especially the youth of Christendom.
Young eyes would brighten and pulses would leap at those tales of the capture of the Holy Cross, and the successful siege of Jerusalem; they would moisten again, and hands would clench with rage at the news of how once more the City of David and of their Blessed Redeemer had fallen into the hands of the barbarous Infidel. If only some one would lead them to Jerusalem, no more would the sacred and historic city be dishonoured.
Perhaps the story which the boys liked best was the tale of the First Crusade, of Godfrey de Bouillon standing sword in hand victorious on the walls of Jerusalem, and of how the Crusaders had swept triumphant into the Holy City. There, unhappily, they indulged in a promiscuous massacre of men, women and children, which lasted for three days. Harmless Jews were burned in their synagogues; eighty thousand Moslems were mercilessly slaughtered by these savage heroes of The Cross; and so many dead bodies were left in the streets of Jerusalem that an epidemic was soon raging. Those who escaped the swords of the bloody victors, were sold into slavery; thus did Christian Europe evangelise the Moslem world in the Eleventh Century.
But Jerusalem fell to Saladin, and Crusade after Crusade failed to recapture it. Then some one whispered that the reason why the Armies of the Cross were so unsuccessful was because they were largely composed of sinful men. Their conduct, both in victory and defeat, seemed to prove the charge brought against them. But some maniac began to whisper a more dangerous thing - the only way in which the Tomb of Christ could be recovered would be through a Crusade of Innocents. As only children were innocent and pure, The Children's Crusade came into being; the religious looked placidly on while in the name of Christ the most diabolical page in history was written.
The records are scanty. No one knows who suggested the Children's Crusade, and doubts have been expressed as to its historicity. But there are so many references to it in the records of the Thirteenth Century that the story is no longer doubted. Unfortunately the children had no St. Luke to accompany them to record their doings in full detail. We know that there were at least two branches of this Crusade, one in Germany and the other in France; and that it took place in 1212, between the Fourth and Fifth Crusades.
It is said that the idea of the Children's march can be traced to the Old Man of the Mountain, leader of The Assassins of Lebanon (head of the sect founded by Hassan the Persian), whose fanaticism, blind obedience and sensuality made them the Terrorists of the Middle Ages. The Old Man of the Mountain was said to have captured two Frenchmen and to have offered them their liberty on condition that they returned to their native country and brought him back some French boys. They were said to have accepted his offer and to have deceived the French children with false tales of visions; the children, marking themselves with the sign of the Cross, then began to collect together and prepare for their journey. From this developed what was described as "that crusade, done by the instinct of the devil, who, as it were, desired a cordial of children's blood, to comfort his weak stomach, long cloyed with the murdering of men."
The German section was headed by a boy named Nicholas, who gave out that he was sent from God to lead the children to the Holy Land. Parents endeavoured to restrain the enthusiasm of their children, and, when they found this unavailing, some provided them with nurses to watch over their progress. Though the age of these young Germans averaged only about 12 years, many older men and women mixed with the ever-increasing company. Some girls dressed as boys insinuated themselves into their ranks, and though this was supposed to be a crusade of the innocents, the morals of the expedition suffered badly. The children wore little uniforms resembling those worn by the crusading knights and, singing as they marched, proclaimed themselves to be the true soldiers of the Cross.
They marched boldly into Cologne, where they discovered that robbers in their ranks had been preying upon them. One robber was caught, put on the rack, and then executed.
As the march continued towards the Alps more robbers joined them, and these with fair words continued to denude the children of their possessions. Of the 20,000 young Germans who attempted to cross the Alps into Italy, large numbers fell out and were eaten by the wolves, or starved to death in the mountain snows, or killed in falling over precipices. Some of the villagers regarded them with friendliness and offered them food; but for the most part they were ridiculed. Yet they pressed on, and quite a large company debouched into the plains of Italy, where, weary, bedraggled and hungry, they plodded towards Genoa, assured that the severe drought would cause the sea, dividing Europe from the Holy Land, to dry up.
As they sang their way along the roads of Northern Italy, the natives met them with raillery and mockery, yet to all the discouragements they replied that they were led by God on a crusade to restore the Holy Cross.
When news came that a vast German army was marching on Genoa there was great alarm in the city, and the gates were hurriedly closed. As the procession drew near and it was discovered that the city was only threatened by an army of children, begging for provisions, and to be allowed to rest awhile until they could pass on to the Holy Land, there were divided counsels. The fathers of the city eventually decided that Genoa could not cater for such an army without putting their own people in danger of starvation; and the young crusaders were sent away, though a few who had renounced their pilgrimage remained behind.
The young army broke up. Some attempted to return over the Alps to their homes, and a few succeeded in doing this, only to be greeted with derision by those who had stayed at home. Some wandered down to Brindisi, others eastwards into Transylvania, where, finding themselves still unable to cross to Palestine, they were at the mercy of slavers. Those who remained in Genoa were the most fortunate, for some of these were probably adopted by the patricians, others were taken into their businesses by the merchants of the city, and in time rose to positions of importance. Members of noble families in Genoa to-day proudly trace their ancestry back to the ragged and hungry army of children which presented itself at the gates of their city in 1212.
The fate of the French contingent who marched in the same year was no less pitiful than that suffered by most of the young crusaders from Germany. A shepherd boy from the village of St. Denys named Stephen said that one July morning Christ appeared to him and accepted his offering of bread, gave him a message for the king, and told him to gather an army of children, whom he must lead to the Holy Sepulchre.
The King of France ordered Stephen not to behave like a simpleton. He forbade the children of France to attend Stephen's meetings, and ordered the parents to put any recalcitrants under lock and key. Neither lock nor bar, nor order by king nor parents, was adequate to control this outburst of juvenile enthusiasm. As their childish fathers had been before them, so the children of France in 1212 were firmly convinced that the way of salvation was the way of the Crusades.
Unlike their German friends, many of the French children had voluntarily donned the coarsest of clothing as a revolt against riches. There were quarrels in their ranks, and strenuous resistance was given to attempts to exercise control made by a few of the young nobility. Nevertheless all classes represented in the crusade regarded Stephen as one of a superior order. Some youths, girls as well as boys, appear to have been killed in a mad scramble to secure a lock of Stephen's hair, or a fragment of his clothing, as a charm against evil. Poor little dupes: they would need a more potent talisman to save them from the fate towards which Stephen was leading them.
The majority of the clergy thought that witchcraft was to blame for this pathetic crusade. As a body they refused to encourage it. But Pope Innocent III., who was then endeavouring to rouse Europe to yet another crusade against the Infidel, hearing of this new movement, turned to his cardinals with the exclamation: "Why, even the children put us to shame!"
Two clerics, a monk named Wilfred, and a shady priest named Archibald, appear to have inspired Stephen for a part of the crusade. Wilfred carried a large cross before which passers-by devoutly prayed. But Stephen and these two clerics found considerable difficulty in keeping good discipline in their ranks. Moreover, the weather was against them. It had been a winter of unusual severity, one that would have caused much distress among veteran warriors; much more so among these deluded children, who in past winters had been protected by their mothers in warm homes. The bitter wind from the north whined through the naked trees and sighed dismally as the children encamped; and many a night the Banner of the Redeemer fluttered above cold and hungry and weeping children.
The roads were bad and uneven; and a few rude planks thrown over the swollen and impetuous streams were the only bridges. Over snow and ice and through immense forests the children wandered. Sometimes the provisions were plentiful; more often there was a scarcity; cold and hunger brought sickness and disease in their train. Many young sufferers soon repented of their rash decision to become crusaders, and with their misery increasing, they lay down by the wayside, shivering with fear and bitter cold. Some travellers gave them help; others - like the men who marched in the German column - robbed them of what little they possessed, and left them to die in the darkness.
Appeals for help were made on behalf of the procession at every monastery, convent and dwelling passed by the young crusaders; and rarely did they appeal in vain. The devout gave them every possible help and encouragement, promising to follow them with their prayers. They were convinced that the glorious youth who rode ahead in a tapestried chariot, and who was now known to his followers as "St." Stephen, would lead them to smashing victories over the wily Saracens.
New arrivals continued to join the procession, bringing with them food and money; but often the children were in want, and there were numerous victims. The great cities through which the French children wandered looked askance at their enterprise; yet none seemed to have the good sense to take drastic measures to break it up and send the crazy marchers back to their homes. Nothing shows better the credulous spirit of the age than the calling together of the professors of the University of Paris to discuss the propriety of interfering with the young crusaders. After long consideration the University condemned the crusade. An edict was issued commanding the children to return to their homes and engage in useful employment. A few obeyed the order, but as no effective steps were taken to enforce it, the majority of the children held firmly together and continued their march to Marseilles, some even into Italy.
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