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The Children's Crusade, by Gustave Doré

The Children's Crusade is the name given to a disastrous Crusade by European Christians to expel Muslims from the Holy Land said to have taken place in 1212. The traditional narrative is probably conflated from some factual and mythical notions of the period including visions by a French or German boy, an intention to peacefully convert Muslims in the Holy Land to Christianity, bands of children marching to Italy, and children being sold into slavery.

A study published in 1977 casts doubt on the existence of these events, and many historians came to believe that they were not (or not primarily) children but multiple bands of "wandering poor" in Germany and France, some of whom tried to reach the Holy Land and others who never intended to do so. Early versions of events, of which there are many variations told over the centuries, are largely apocryphal.[Clarification needed][1][2]

Version of events

Traditional accounts

The variants of the long-standing story of the Children's Crusade have similar themes.[2] A boy began preaching in either France or Germany claiming that he had been visited by Jesus and told to lead a Crusade to peacefully convert Muslims to Christianity. Through a series of supposed portents and miracles he gained a considerable following, including possibly as many as 30,000 children. He led his followers south towards the Mediterranean Sea, in the belief that the sea would part on their arrival, allowing him and his followers to march to Jerusalem, but this did not happen. Two merchants (Hugh the Iron and William of Posqueres) gave free passage on boats to as many of the children as were willing, but they were actually either taken to Tunisia and sold into slavery by the cruel merchants, or died in a shipwreck on San Pietro Island off Sardinia during a gale. Some may have failed to reach the sea, dying or giving up from starvation and exhaustion. Nobody knows when it actually happened.

Modern accounts

According to more recent research there seem to have actually been two movements of people (of all ages) in 1212 in Germany and France.[1][2] The similarities of the two allowed later chroniclers to combine and embellish the tales.

Germany – Nicholas of Cologne

In the first movement, Nicholas, a shepherd from the Rhineland in Germany[3] who possessed an extraordinary eloquence, tried to lead a group across the Alps and into Italy in the early spring of 1212. Nicholas promised that the sea would dry up before them and allow his followers to cross into the Holy Land. Rather than intending to fight the Saracens, he said that the Muslim kingdoms would be defeated when their citizens converted to Christianity.[3] His disciples went off to preach the call for the "Crusade" across the German lands, and they massed in Cologne after a few weeks. Splitting into two groups, the crowds took different roads through Switzerland. Two out of every three people on this ghastly journey died, while many others returned to their homes.[3] About 7,000 arrived in Genoa in late August. They immediately marched to the harbor, expecting the sea to divide before them; when it did not many became bitterly disappointed. A few accused Nicholas of betraying them, while others settled down to wait for God to change his mind, since they believed that it was unthinkable he would not eventually do so. The Genoese authorities were impressed by the little band, and they offered citizenship to those who wished to settle in their city. Most of the would-be Crusaders took up this opportunity.[3] Nicholas refused to admit defeat and traveled to Pisa, his movement continuing to break up along the way. He and a few loyal followers continued to the Papal States, where Pope Innocent III treated them kindly. The remaining ones departed for Germany after the Pontiff exhorted them to be good and to return home to their families. Nicholas did not survive the second attempt across the Alps; back home his father was arrested and hanged under pressure from angry families whose relatives had perished while following the child.[3]

Some of the most dedicated members of this Crusade were later reported to have wandered to Ancona and Brindisi; none reached the Holy Land.[3]

France – Stephan of Cloyes

The second movement was led by a twelve-year-old[3] French shepherd boy named Stephan of Cloyes, who claimed in June that he bore a letter for the king of France from Jesus. Large gangs of youth around his age were drawn to him, most of whom claimed to possess special gifts of God and thought themselves miracle workers. Attracting a following of over 30,000 adults and children, he went to Saint-Denis, where he was seen to cause miracles. On the orders of Philip II, advised by the University of Paris, the people were implored to return home. Philip himself did not appear impressed, especially since his unexpected visitors were led by a mere child, and refused to take them seriously. Stephan, however, was not dissuaded, and began preaching at a nearby abbey. From Saint-Denis, Stephan traveled around France, spreading his messages as he went, promising to lead charges of Christ to Jerusalem. Although the Church was skeptical, many adults were impressed by his teaching.[3] Still, few of those who initially joined him possessed his activeness; it is estimated that there were less than half the initial 30,000 remaining, a figure that was shrinking rapidly, rather than growing as perhaps anticipated.

At the end of June 1212, Stephan led his largely juvenile Crusaders from Vendôme to Marseilles. They survived by begging for food, while the vast majority seem to have been disheartened by the hardship of this journey and returned to their families.[3]



According to Peter Raedts, professor in Medieval History at the Radboud University of Nijmegen, there are only about 50 sources from the period that talk about the crusade, ranging from a few sentences to half a page.[1] Raedts categorizes the sources into three types depending on when they were written:[1]

  1. Contemporary sources written by 1220;
  2. Sources written between 1220 and 1250 (the authors could have been alive at the time of the crusade but wrote their memories down later);
  3. Sources written after 1250 by authors who received their information second or third hand.

Raedts does not consider the sources after 1250 to be authoritative, and of those before 1250, he considers only about 20 to be authoritative. It is only in the later non-authoritative narratives that a "children's crusade" is implied by such authors as Vincent of Beauvais, Roger Bacon, Thomas of Cantimpré, Matthew Paris and many others.

Historical studies

Prior to Raedts' 1977 study, there had only been a few historical publications researching the Children's Crusade. The earliest were by Frenchman G. de Janssens (1891) and German R. Röhricht (1876). They analyzed the sources but did not analyze the story. American medievalist Dana Carleton Munro (1913–14), according to Raedts, provided the best analysis of the sources to date and was the first to significantly provide a convincingly sober account of the Crusade sans legends.[4] Later, J. E. Hansbery (1938–9) published a correction of Munro's work, but it has since been discredited as based on an unreliable source.[1] German psychiatrist Justus Hecker (1865) did give an original interpretation of the crusade, but it was a polemic about "diseased religious emotionalism" that has since been discredited.[1]

P. Alphandery (1916) first published his ideas about the crusade in 1916 in an article, which was later published in book form in 1959. He considered the crusade to be an expression of the medieval cult of the Innocents, as a sort of sacrificial rite in which the Innocents gave themselves up for the good of Christendom; however he based his ideas on some of the most untrustworthy sources.[5]

Adolf Waas (1956) saw the Children's Crusade as a manifestation of chivalric piety and as a protest against the glorification of the holy war.[6] H. E. Mayer (1960) further developed Alphandery's ideas of the Innocents, saying children were the chosen people of God because they were the poorest; recognizing the cult of poverty, he said that "the Children's Crusade marked both the triumph and the failure of the idea of poverty."[7] Giovanni Miccoli (1961) was the first to note that the contemporary sources did not portray the participants as children. It was this recognition that undermined all other interpretations,[8] except perhaps that of Norman Cohn (1971) who saw it as a chiliastic movement in which the poor tried to escape the misery of their everyday lives.[9] Peter Raedts' 1977 analysis is considered the best source to date to show the many issues surrounding the Children's Crusade.[2]

Historians have put the crusade in the context of the role of teenage boys in medieval warfare.[10] Literary scholars have explored its role in the evolution of the tale of the Pied Piper.[11]

Popular accounts

Beyond the scientific studies there are many popular versions and theories about the Children's Crusades. Norman Zacour in the survey A History of the Crusades (1962) generally follows Munro's conclusions, and adds that there was a psychological instability of the age, concluding the Children's Crusade "remains one of a series of social explosions, through which medieval men and women—and children too—found release".

Steven Runciman gives an account of the Children's Crusade in his A History of the Crusades.[12] Raedts notes that "Although he cites Munro's article in his notes, his narrative is so wild that even the unsophisticated reader might wonder if he had really understood it." Donald Spoto, in a book about Saint Francis of Assisi, said monks were motivated to call them children, and not wandering poor, because being poor was considered pious and the Church was embarrassed by its wealth in contrast to the poor. This, according to Spoto, began a literary tradition from which the popular legend of children originated. This idea closely follows H. E. Mayer.

In the arts

Many works of art reference the Children's Crusade; this list is focused on works that are set in Middle Ages and focus primarily on a re-telling of the events. For other uses see Children's Crusade (disambiguation).

  • La croisade des enfants ("The Children's Crusade", 1896) by Marcel Schwob.
  • La Croisade des Enfants (1902), a seldom-performed oratorio by Gabriel Pierné, featuring a children's chorus, is based on the events of the Children's Crusade.
  • Children's Crusade – a contemporary opera by R. Murray Schafer, first performed in 2009.
  • Cruciada copiilor ( en. Children's Crusade ) (1930), a play by Lucian Blaga based upon the Crusade.
  • The Children's Crusade (1958), children's historical novel by Henry Treece, includes a dramatic account of Stephen of Cloyes attempting to part the sea at Marseille.[13]
  • The Gates of Paradise (1960), a novel by Jerzy Andrzejewski centres on the crusade, with the narrative employing a stream of consciousness technique.
  • Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), a novel by Kurt Vonnegut, is subtitled The Children's Crusade
  • Crusade in Jeans (Dutch Kruistocht in spijkerbroek), is a 1973 novel by Dutch author Thea Beckman and a 2006 film adaptation about the Children's Crusade through the eyes of a time traveller.
  • The Children's Crusade (1973), a play by Paul Thompson first produced at the Cockpit Theatre (Marylebone), London by the National Youth Theatre.
  • A Long March To Jerusalem (1978), a play by Don Taylor about the story of the Children's Crusade.
  • An Army of Children (1978), a novel by Evan Rhodes that tells the story of two boys, a Christian and a Jew, partaking in the Children's Crusade.
  • Children's Crusade - A song by Sting from his 1985 album The Dream of the Blue Turtles.
  • Lionheart (1987), a historical/fantasy film, loosely based on the stories of the Children's Crusade.
  • Children for Sale - a Gumby episode featured in the 1995 film, Gumby: The Movie.
  • The Fire of Roses (2003), a novel by Gregory Rinaldi
  • Crusade of Tears (2004), a novel from the series Journey of Souls by C.D. Baker.
  • Crusade in Jeans aka A March Through Time (2006), a motion picture predicated on unintentional travel by a soccer-playing boy from the modern Netherlands to the legendary German Children's Crusade led by Nicholas.
  • The Crusade of Innocents (2006), novel by David George, suggests that the Children's Crusade may have been affected by the concurrent crusade against the Cathars in Southern France, and how the two could have met.
  • The Scarlet Cross (2006), a novel for youth by Karleen Bradford
  • 1212: Year of the Journey (2006), a novel by Kathleen McDonnell. Young adult historical novel.
  • Sylvia (2006) a novel by Bryce Courtney. Follows a teenage girl during the crusades.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 Raedts, P (1977). "The Children's Crusade of 1213". 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Russell, Oswald, "Children's Crusade", Dictionary of the Middle Ages, 1989
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 3.8 Bridge, Antony. The Crusades. London: Granada Publishing, 1980. ISBN 0-531-09872-9
  4. Munro, D. C. (1913–14). "The Children's Crusade". American Historical Review. 19:516–24.
  5. Alphandery, P. (1954). La Chrétienté et l'idée de croisade. 2 vols.
  6. Waas, A. (1956). Geschichte der Kreuzzüge
  7. Mayer, H.E. (1972). The Crusades
  8. Miccoli, G. (1961). "La crociata dei fancifulli". Studi medievali. Third Series, 2:407–43
  9. Cohn, N. (1971). The pursuit of the millennium. London.
  10. Kelly DeVries, "Teenagers at War During the Middle Ages" in The Premodern Teenager: Youth in Society, 1150-1650 (2002) ed by Konrad Eisenbichler pp 207-223.
  11. Bernard Queenan, "The Evolution of the Pied Piper," Children's Literature (1978) 7#1 pp: 104-114.
  12. Runciman, Steven (1951). "The Children's Crusade", from A History of the Crusades.
  13. summary of Treece's novel


  • DeVries, Kelly. "Teenagers at War During the Middle Ages" in The Premodern Teenager: Youth in Society, 1150-1650 (2002) ed by Konrad Eisenbichler, pp 207–223.
  • Dickson, Gary. "Stephen of Cloyes, Philip Augustus, and the Children’s Crusade of 1212." in Journeys toward God: Pilgrimage and Crusade, ed. Barbara N. Sargent-Baur (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Medieval Institute Publications, 1992): 83-105.
  • Dickson, Gary. The Children's Crusade: Medieval History, Modern Mythistory, 2008, Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-1-4039-9989-4
  • Munro, Dana C. "The Children's Crusade," American Historical Review (1914) 19#3 pp. 516–524 in JSTOR
  • Queenan, Bernard. "The Evolution of the Pied Piper." Children's Literature (1978) 7: 104-114. (DOI: 10.1353/chl.0.0173)
  • Russell, Frederick. "Children's Crusade", Dictionary of the Middle Ages, 1989, ISBN 0-684-17024-8
  • Raedts, Peter. "The Children's Crusade of 1212", Journal of Medieval History, 3 (1977)), summary of the sources, issues and literature.
  • Scheck, Raffael. "Did the Children’s Crusade of 1212 really consist of children? Problems of writing childhood history" The Journal of Psychohistory 16 (1988): 176-182.

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