Nugatoria Quedam Expeditio

(A certain foolish undertaking)


The Children’s Crusade of 1212


                           For of such is the Kingdom of Heaven
                                                            -Matthew 19:14



     The Children’s Crusade was one of several popular but unorganized religious movements of the early thirteenth century which arose independent of church authority. It was comprised of two separate movements, one originating in France the second in Germany. Each led by a young boy, and each planned to reach the Holy Land and recapture the Holy Sepulcher from the Saracens while armed only with the word of God. No recorded accounts by actual participants in the movement have survived; and the few extant primary sources are fragmentary. As a result, the historian is forced to resort to ex post facto narratives which at times seem imaginative if not completely fanciful.[1] Secondary sources frequently disagree with each other on various components of the crusade, including the composition of the movement and the fate of its participants.[2] There is even some doubt as to whether the participants were in fact children. The dearth of primary sources and the inevitable bias of secondary accounts leave the researcher with the gargantuan, if not impossible task of ascertaining the actual events which surrounded this rather unique occurrence.   In the last analysis, the Children’s Crusade must be considered, in Churchill’s words, “a riddle wrapped in an enigma within a mystery.”




 For God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise;

                         and God had chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things

                        which are mighty.

-          I Corinthians 1:27



            The High Middle Ages were a time of preoccupation with religion liberally seasoned by an innate terror of the wrath which was to come. The general populace were constantly reminded of the brevity of life and the torments of hell which were the wages of sin. The end of the world was considered imminent; chiliasm (the belief that Christ would reign on earth for one thousand years) was pervasive.  Miracles were commonplace and attestations of divine intervention frequent. Pilgrimages to the holy land were one of several methods by which one might obtain absolution from sin. Such a pilgrimage by its very nature was dangerous, yet those who participated were reminded that it profited a man nothing to save his life yet lose his immortal soul. The entire crusading movement was considered a form of pilgrimage in which the professed (if perhaps secondary) goal was absolution.  

            In this atmosphere of religious apprehension and fear, charismatic preachers, many of whom were heretical and most of whom claimed to have received a divine mandate (usually in the form of a vision or letter) often inspired passionate followings. They frequently aroused the passions of the faithful with fiery sermons, often with incongruous results. In addition to the apocalyptic atmosphere of the age, and the nature of their sermons, these preachers at times seemed to exercise a Rasputin-like hypnotic control over their audiences. Roger Bacon in a treatise on Astrology (1266) spoke of the concept of fascinatio—an enigmatic power that some persons exercised over others for good or ill—as a possible explanation of the mass hysteria that often accompanied the preaching of these charismatics.[3]   

            Peter the Hermit, who claimed to have received a letter from Christ while praying at the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and who led the Peasants Crusade of 1095 was such an itinerant.[4] Although Peter was the most nearly successful of these fiery preachers, he was but one of many. One of them so enthralled his listeners that they drank the water in which he bathed, believing it to be a holy elixir.[5] During the Albigensian Crusade, the sack of Béziers in 1209 was accomplished by those whom Peter of Les Vaux-de-Cernay characterized as the ribaldi, who broke down the city gates and attacked the inhabitants, both heretic and orthodox.[6]  In 1182, in south central France, Durand of Le Puy, a carpenter, claimed that the blessed Virgin had appeared to him bearing the infant Jesus in her arms and had given him a parchment reading, “Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world.” She presumably told him that he was to lead the people to peace. Armed with this message and his own definition of “peace,” he organized a peasant movement that originally attacked the lawless brigands of the area, but soon attacked established authority. The end result of this “peace movement” was that its members were hunted down and destroyed. Earlier, in Brittany, one Eon de l’Etoile, commonly referenced as the “illiterate idiot” heard the chant, per Eum qui venturus est judicare vivos et mortuos et speculum per ignem,[7] and assumed that the Eum of the chant was himself. He thereafter considered himself the son of God, and surrounded himself with others whom he called his angels and apostles. When captured and carried before Pope Eugenius III at the Council of Rheims (1148) he carried a forked branch, claiming that should the forked end point heavenward, God would hold two thirds of the world and he the other third; if earthward, the fraction would be reversed. Three of his followers denominated “Wisdom,” “Knowledge,” and “Judgment” were burned at the stake. [8]  In France in 1251, a shepherd also claimed a vision from the blessed Virgin who ordered him to assemble the shepherds of his area to retake the Holy Land and also rescue their king, Louis IX:

            He said that heaven had granted them in their humility and simplicity the privilege of recovering the Holy Land…they gradually began to follow him, leaving their flocks, herds and studs without asking their lords or relatives.[9]


            A significant element of the reasoning, however flawed, of these popular movements was that the officially sanctioned crusades had failed to reclaim the Holy Land, and the burden of retaking the land where Jesus walked fell upon the lowly. Jerusalem had been retaken by the Saracens in 1187, the Third Crusade had failed to reclaim it; the Fourth had diverted to Constantinople; and the Cathars Crusade preached by Innocent III had been aimed at the Albigensians in France, and the Holy Land had been abandoned to the infidels.

            Throughout the High Middle Ages, poverty and meekness were held in high esteem. It was believed that they were pure, and thereby blessed of God.[10] Each previous crusading army had contained  a certain number of low-born individuals who, uncorrupted by the desire for power and riches, considered themselves to be the elect of God. They fondly recalled that St. Andrew had given the Holy Lance of Antioch to a peasant, and had stated to him that “God had chosen the poor, who surpassed all others in merit and grace.[11]

            Following the debacle of the Fourth Crusade, Innocent III had excluded the Crown heads of Europe when he planned a subsequent campaign against the Spanish Moors and the Albigensians. He apparently believed that the spiritual power of the papacy was a more potent weapon than the secular power of kings. By so doing he perhaps inadvertently encouraged the idea of the poor as soldiers of Christ. His plans were enthusiastically embraced by others, who fervently preached the power of the poor in spirit; recalling Jesus‘promise that the meek should inherit the earth.[12] Peter of Blois had preached that God had chosen the poor to liberate Jerusalem because the rich and powerful had become ensnared in worldly cares.[13] He had preached that “the pauper is the Vicar of Christ”[14] Inspired by the Biblical victory of David over Goliath and Gideon over the Midianites, those of low estate fervently believed that God had chosen them to succeed where the rich and proud had failed.[15]

            An integral part of the religious obsession of the times was the concept of the “holy innocents,” particularly in France. December 28 of each year was observed as Innocent’s Day, in which Herod’s murder of the Israelite children in an attempt to rid himself of the newborn King of the Jews was commemorated. As part of this commemoration, children ceremoniously chose and consecrated their own bishop.[16]  Children were often considered to possess “special gifts,” apparently by virtue of their innocence. When the Cathedral of Chartres burned on June 10, 1194, a wave of religious enthusiasm had swept through the city, with every person determined to rebuild the Cathedral in more magnificent form than before. Among those assembled were a large number of young boys claiming special powers from God.[17] Many children were told that they could gain salvation by helping build churches and Cathedrals.[18] On numerous occasions, children were quite often considered responsible for miracles because of their innocence and simple faith.[19] 

            A significant factor to be considered is that thirteenth century children were often freed from parental control at a much earlier age than modern offspring. Children often left their parents as early as age seven, or at such point as they wereInnocent III able to work independently. This was especially true of the working poor.[20]  The status of such children was not so much freedom as severe neglect, a not uncommon feature in the life of the medieval poor. Shepherds in particular were often freed from parental control and in the employ of a nobleman as young as eight Children were often left at the door of a church or monastery, an action known as oblation, which was rationalized by Hannah’s gift of the infant Samuel to God.[21] These children were raised in abbeys and monasteries where they frequently spent the balance of their lives. The innate “holiness” of children given to God could easily be inferred, and their ability to perform miracles would appear to be practically second nature.

            It was thus in this age of religious zealotry steeped in apocalyptic miasma; that the movement known as the Children’s Crusade arose. It was a time in which the Almighty frequently intervened in the affairs of lesser beings; when the belief that the meek would indeed inherit the earth was pervasive; and when children were often considered to have special gifts from God. The Children’s Crusade was dependent on neither a parallel military campaign nor upon quasi-authority from church authorities. It flowered and bore its sad fruit of its own volition




The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down

 with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together;

 and a little child will lead them.

                                                                                Isaiah 11:6



            The Children’s Crusade commenced when a six year truce which left the Saracens in possession of Jerusalem had been declared in 1211. All military crusading efforts at this time were directed against the Albigensian heresy along the Baltic Coast and Languedoc.[22] There were actually two Children’s Crusades which apparently developed independent of each other in France and Germany, although some sources combine elements of both into a single effort. First hand descriptions of the events surrounding the crusade(s) are sparse, and those extant offer few details.[23] One such account was recorded by Chronica Regiae Coloniensis written c. 1213 describes the movement:.

In this year occurred an outstanding thing and one much to be marveled at, for it is unheard of throughout the ages. About the time of Easter and Pentecost, without anyone having preached or called for it and prompted by I know not what spirit, many thousands of boys, ranging in age from six years to full maturity, left the plows or carts which they were driving, the flocks which they were pasturing, and anything else which they were doing. This they did despite the wishes of their parents, relatives, and friends who sought to make them draw back. Suddenly one ran after another to take the cross. Thus, by groups of twenty, or fifty, or a hundred, they put up banners and began to journey to Jerusalem. They were asked by many people on whose advice or at whose urging they had set out upon this path. They were asked especially since only a few years ago many kings, a great many dukes, and innumerable people in powerful companies had gone there and had returned with the business unfinished. The present groups, moreover, were still of tender years and were neither strong enough nor powerful enough to do anything. Everyone, therefore, accounted them foolish and imprudent for trying to do this. They briefly replied that they were equal to the Divine will in this matter and that, whatever God might wish to do with them, they would accept it willingly and with humble spirit. They thus made some little progress on their journey. Some were turned back at Metz, others at Piacenza, and others even at Rome. Still others got to Marseilles, but whether they crossed to the Holy Land or what their end was is uncertain. One thing is sure: that of the many thousands who rose up, only very few returned.[24]


            The French children’s movement was the result of the preaching of Stephen of Cloyes, a shepherd whose age has been variously reported as  between twelve and fifteen. Robert Payne notes that Cloyes was:

Only a short walk from Frèteval, where King Philip of France was defeated by Richard Coeur de Lion in 1194. A boy wandering over the fields would find rusted helmets, swords, lances, and chain mail lying about, and the unburied skeletons of dead soldiers. In this wide valley of green meadow and shady willows, a boy would feel the presence of their ghosts and dream.[25]


Stephen had appeared at Vendôme, in May, 1212 claiming that Christ had appeared to him in the form of a poor pilgrim and asked him for bread. The pilgrim had later revealed himself to be Christ, and had given Stephen a letter to be delivered to the king of France.[26] Thereafter, Stephen traveled to St. Denis with a number of other shepherd boys where “the Lord wrought many miracles through Stephen, as many have testified.” The other boys traveling with him were also believed to have worked miracles.[27]. He hoped to deliver his letter to King Philip, but his message was dismissed and he was told to go home.[28] Stephen was not deterred, and continued preaching his message that God had instructed him to march to the Holy Land. Boys and girls soon joined him along with some older persons, and the group marched “in procession through the cites, towns, and villages, carrying banners, candles, and crosses, and swinging censers, singing in the vernacular, “Lord God, exalt Christianity! Lord God, restore to us the true cross.” When asked where they were going, their reply was, “to God!” [29] Contemporary sources report the number of participants at      over thirty thousand, not one over twelve, although this number seems sensational. Some were peasants, but others were of noble birth. The assemblage was joined by “a few young priests and a few older pilgrims, some drawn by piety, others, perhaps, from pity, and others, certainly to share in the gifts that were showered upon them all.”[30] Stephen adopted the Oriflamme as the symbol of his movement, and had it carried before the procession.  The number was presumably so large that the town could not contain them, so they encamped on the neighboring hillsides.[31]

            Although most of the procession proceeded on foot, Stephen reportedly rode in a “cart with a canopy to shade himself from the son, surrounded by young men of noble birth who were rich enough to have horses to ride. Apparently, there was no resentment at Stephen’s comfort since he was considered a saint; in fact locks of his hair and pieces of his clothing were collected as sacred relics.[32]

            Many of the participants died of starvation or exposure to the summer heat, and others turned back; however a significant number of the “crusaders” reached Marseilles, where Stephen had predicted that the sea would part before them and they would cross on dry land, as had Moses and the Israelites when pursued by Pharaoh and his hosts. To their great chagrin, the sea did not part, and many once more abandoned the crusade, feeling betrayed and disillusioned.[33]

            The fate of the children from this point is uncertain. The Annals of Jumiéges and Chronicle of Laon report that all of the children returned home, either from hunger or by order of King Philip II after he had consulted with the masters of the University at Paris.[34] The account of Alex of Troisfontaine described a more chilling fate for those who chose to remain with Stephen:

            [B]ut vagrants and other wicked men who had joined them so damaged the whole venture that only a few of such a great crowd came home, some perished at sea, and others were sold as slaves. Of those who did manage to escape, some promised Pope Innocent III that they would cross the sea as crusaders as soon as they were of age.


            The men who betrayed the children are said to have been Hugh Ferreus and William Porcus,[35] merchants of Versailles. As captains of the ships, they ought to have conveyed the children across the sea at no cost as they had promised before God. They had filled seven large ships with them and when they were two days out—at the Rock called Recluse—a storm blew up and two ships were lost. All the children from those two ships were drowned and so it is said, several years later, Pope Gregory IX had a church build on the island, called it the New Innocents, and endowed it with twelve prebends. In the church are the bodies of the children which the sea had cast up there and they are displayed incorrupt to pilgrims.


            These double-crossing sea captains sailed the five remaining ships to Bougie and Alexandria and there sold all the children to Saracen noblemen and merchants. Caliph an-Nasir of Egypt brought four hundred captives for his own use, all of them clerics whom he wanted to keep separate fro the others. Among them were eighty priests and he treated them more honourably than he usually did. This was the same caliph who had once studied at Paris disguised in clerical garb. While there he had learned many of our customs, and had recently given up sacrificing camel’s flesh.


            In that same year in which the children were sold, at a gathering of Saracen chieftains at Baldach, eighteen children were slain in various ways, martyred because they were completely unwilling to give up the Christian faith. But the rest the Saracens carefully brought up for as slaves.


            One of the clerks we have mentioned who was a witness of all these events has reliably reported that of those whom the caliph brought for his own use, not a single one apostatized from Christianity.[36]


            In 1230 a priest arrived in France who claimed to have been one of the young priests who took part in the crusade. It was he who provided details of the sale of the children as slaves, and noted that that they were brought to Alexandria because French slaves brought a better price there. He also stated that their sale had been prearranged by the miscreants before the expedition left Marseilles. He also claimed that seven hundred of the children “no longer infants but men of ripe age” were still living as slaves, and that those who were literate had been kept by the Saracen governor of Egypt who was interested in learning Western languages and customs. They had been employed as teachers, interpreters, and secretaries,  and had lived comfortably. This priest claimed to have been one of the more fortunate, and that he had been released and allowed to return home. After sharing this information, he disappeared.  Later evidence indicates that the malefactors responsible for the sale of the children were later implicated in a plot to kidnap the Emperor Frederick, and had been hanged for the offense.[37]

            A second popular movement arose almost simultaneously in the German Rhineland. This second movement, apparently independent of the French movement, began between Easter and Whitsuntide (March 25 - May 13) 1212,[38] and was led by a boy named Nicholas who preached before the shrine of the Three Kings at Cologne.[39] Presumably Nicholas had seen an angel in a vision who told him that he and his followers must liberate the Holy Sepulcher from the heathen Saracens. His message was similar to that of Stephen, namely that children would succeed where crusading armies had failed, and the sea would open before them. Nicholas was reported to possess “a certain eloquence and was able to find eloquent disciples to carry his preaching further, up and down the Rhineland.”[40] The Gessa Treverorum. Written in 1242, reports that Nicholas carried a badge “like a cross, in the form of a Tau,[41] which was to be a sign of his sanctity and miraculous power, but it was not easy to tell what metal it was made of..”[42] 

The Annals of Marbach called the expedition a

 Pointless adventure involving children and stupid people who donned the sign of the cross without any idea of its significance. This they do, more because they had nothing better to do, than because they had any concern for the good of their souls. Youngsters of both sexes joined in, and not only the under aged, but even adults, among whom were unmarried girls and married women. Off they went with empty purses.[43]


            Many of those who comprised this crusade were reportedly shepherds who had left their flocks; although the Annales Placentini Guelfi records that “a great and innumerable multitude of German children, babes at the breast, women and girls,” joined in.[44]  The German crusaders were reportedly somewhat older than their French counterparts, and included a larger number of boys of noble birth, as well as a number of vagabonds and prostitutes.[45] The Annals of St. Médard reported that even frogs, birds and fish were “hastening to the Holy Land before the Children’s Crusade, and that big packs of dogs surrounded a castle at Champagne and fought to the death.”[46] A large number of malefactors also accompanied the movement with the apparent plan to steal any gifts the crusaders received along the way. One such miscreant was reported apprehended in Cologne and hanged.[47] The Annals of Marbach report:

            The whole of Germany was affected by this movement as well as parts of France and Burgundy. Their parents and friends were unable to restrain them, from taking part in this march, so great was their determination. Things reached such a pitch that everywhere in towns and in the countryside people dropped their tools and gear and joined those who were passing by. It often happens that in the face of unusual events, we are apt to be credulous. Thus many thought that this movement sprang not from foolishness but from piety and divine inspiration. Consequently, they assisted them with funds and supplied them with food and other necessities.[48]


            Others were not so easily convinced of the callow innocence of the expedition; they rather saw it as the work of the devil. Thomas Fuller noted “It was done (saith my author M. Paris) 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.” [49]  Others suggested that the crusade originated from the desire of the Old Man of the Mountains to obtain young warriors.[50]

            The purpose of the French crusade was never enumerated as it lacked the emotional outburst of the German movement. This fact has led to some speculation that the French participants never seriously intended to reach the Holy Land.[51] The German crusade’s aims were more definite:  they intended to convert the infidel to Christianity, to win back the Holy Sepulcher by the word of God rather than the sword.[52]  Nicholas was, like Peter the Hermit, reportedly quite eloquent and had a number of equally eloquent disciples who could carry his message.[53] The crusaders apparently believed that God had chosen the poor to deliver the message to the Saracens because the rich and powerful had rejected Him and become entangled in worldly cares.[54]

            The expedition proceeded with all the exuberance of those who refuse to listen to dissenting voices for fear of succumbing to the wisdom of those voices. The Annals of Marbach recorded the futility of those who attempted to dissuade the crusaders:

            Clerics and people of sense spoke out against what they judged was a useless and senseless action. In turn, they were bitterly opposed by members of the laity who described the churchmen as unbelievers whose envy and avarice were a stronger motive for their hostility than a concern for truth and justice.[55]


            The German expedition split into two parties. The first (accounted as twenty thousand) followed Nicholas up the Rhine, past Geneva, and planned to cross the Alps at the Mont Cenis Pass. Less than a third of those who left Cologne survived the journey. Others died from exposure or hunger, while others were reportedly “despoiled by the Lombards.”[56] The survivors appeared at Genoa on August 25, 1212 where they believed that they would cross the ocean without wetting the tops of their feet. At Genoa, they asked for shelter and food, and received provisions for one day. The Genovese were reluctant to provide further aid, as they suspected a German plot. They did, however, state that the children could remain and become citizens of Genoa, which some apparently did, when the ocean did not part for them. In later years, many of the more prominent citizens of Genoa traced their inheritance to these young crusaders.[57]

            Nicholas and others pressed on to Pisa, expecting the sea to be more accommodating at that location. At that point, the record of the crusade is sparse, and the sources often contradict each other. There is some evidence that some of the participants boarded two boats which departed the port. No definite record is preserved of their fate. The Annals of Saltzburg Abbey report that the Pope, upon learning of the expedition, sent two cardinals with orders to stop it. The chronicles of Trier indicate that the crusaders reached Brindisi, where the archbishop forbade them from traveling further; apparently suspecting that Nicholas’ father had “sold them to the heathen.[58] Others reportedly went to Rome where Innocent III relieved those who were too young or too old of their crusading oaths. Innocent was reported to have remarked Hii peuri nobis improperani, quod ad recuperationem terrae sanctae eis currentibus nos dormimus.[59]

            The Annals of Marbach recorded a more dismal ending:

[L]ike all ventures which are undertaken without proper and prudent deliberation, this one too ended in sorry failure. When this agglomeration of people reached parts of Italy they broke up and were scattered about towns and cities where many were abducted by the local populace and held as servants or slaves. Others are said to have reached the coast where they were tricked by seamen and shipmasters and then carried off to distant places.


            Those that were left did in fact reach Rome and then learned that they could not make any further progress because they had no backing from any authority. Now at last it dawned on them that all their toil had been to no avail. For all that, they were not released from their vow of the cross, except children under the age of discretion and others who were nearly senile. Thus confused and deceived, they began their return home. Whereas, previously, they had been wont to pass from place to place in droves or in organized groups, always with exhortatory hymns, now they made their way back singly, in silence and hungry, objects of derision to everybody. Many maidens were raped, losing the flower of their virginity.[60]


            The fate of Nicholas is uncertain. The Chronicles of the Abbey of Admont report that he later participated in the Fifth Crusade and was at the siege of Damietta.[61]  Others state that he died at Brindisi, after which his father either committed suicide, or (more likely) was hanged.[62]

            Thus the inspired efforts and best laid plans of those armed only with their faith to reclaim the Holy Sepulcher either by conquest or conversion came to an ignominious end. The unfortunate few who did in fact reach Saracen territory did so only as slaves; others found their faith unequal to the task and either perished along the way or returned to derision and ridicule. Unlike the armed crusades which preceded and followed this effort, the only injuries inflicted were upon the participants themselves. In the end, as reported by the Annals of Marbach, the entire episode was nugtora quedam expeditia.[63]




More strange than true: I never may believe

These antique fables, nor these fairy toys.

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,

Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend

More than cool reason ever comprehends.


Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Act 5 Scene I


            The recorded saga of the Children’s Crusade and the lack of primary sources have created more questions than answers. Three troublesome issues present themselves:

A.     Was there really a “crusade” in the strict sense of the word?

B.     Were the participants in fact children?

C.     At what point does legend rather than fact prevail?



            The classic element of a crusade was that of an Armageddon-like confrontation between good and evil; a battle between the ambassadors of Christ and the agents of the Anti-Christ, frequently identified as anyone who was non-Christian. The Peasant’s Crusade led by Peter the Hermit was such a perceived confrontation. It exhausted much of its energies attacking the Jews of Europe who were considered fair game. There is no evidence that the participants in the Children’s Crusade committed any acts of violence. To the contrary, it was they who were the victims, normally at the hands of other “Christians.” This led Werner to conclude that the crusade was in actuality a “social movement in religious guise.[64]         

            On the nature of the Children’s Crusade, Raedts notes:

                        A distinction should be made between two types of crusade; those of the knights and those of the people. The knights took arms to go to the defense of the rights, or supposed rights, of the Church in the Holy Land. The crusade was a holy war for them, sanctified by the Church, endowed with plenary indulgences and other spiritual privileges. There was considerable material gain for some in the form of fiefs or high positions in the newly conquered areas. But for the common people who went to Palestine, the crusade was much less a holy war in the service of the Church. Their hopes and anticipation were directed at Jerusalem itself, the city where Christ had died and had risen, but above all the city where He would return at the end of time for the Last Judgment. Their thoughts were particularly to the New Jerusalem,” coming down out of heaven from God.” (Revelations 21:10). The liberation of Jerusalem would be the onset of the last age, the fulfillment of God’s promises, emancipation from all the poverty and misery which oppressed mankind. The New Jerusalem would be “the dwelling of God with men. He will dwell with them and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev. 21: 3-4)[65]


            If one accepts Raedt’s definition, then the Children’s crusade, such as it was, was


yet another peasant’s crusade intent on bringing about the new Jerusalem.


            The most troubling aspect of the Children’s crusade is that no author who wrote of it participated or observed it from beginning to end. Fifty recorded sources are available, ranging from a line to half a page. The Papal registers of the time do not mention it, nor the purported meeting between Nicholas and his group with Innocent III. This last fact renders Innocent’s exclamation that “the children have shamed us” highly suspect. Only eight significant publications on the event are extant, four of which concern themselves with a critique of the primary sources.[66] Roughly ten sources describe the German children’s crusade, all but two of which are anonymous. Only one source describes Stephen of Cloyes as the leader of the French movement and no single chronicle from sources south of the Loire valley even mention the movement.[67] Dana Munro, writing in 1914, suggested that those who wrote of the crusades were somewhat fanciful in filling in gaps from their imagination. Munro suggested that “modern historians have been influenced by the romantic phases of the movement and have not followed the critical methods which they employ in describing other events.” [68]  The account of Sir Stephen Runciman, often referenced in this essay, has been classified by Peter Raedts as “singularly fantastic…so wild that even the unsophisticated reader might wonder if he had really understood it.”[69]

            There can be little doubt of some upheaval in Western Europe in 1212; however there is little evidence to denominate the movement a “crusade” in the normal sense of the word, other than yet another peasant’s crusade.





            Although some evidence of some social upheaval is extant, a more troubling issue is the characterization of its participants. Various sources describe them as aged 12 or younger, an assertion which lends itself both to the romantic appeal of the crusade (if one may safely use that appellation) and the skepticism surrounding it.

            A significant number of primary sources refer to the participants in the crusade as peuri, a term usually applied to boys or children. The Annals of Marbach speak of pueri et puelle, non solum minores sed etiam adulti, nupte cum virginibus. The Cologne chronicles refer to multa milia puerorum a 6 annis et supra usque ad virilem etatem and pueri diverse etatis et conditioniss[70] The term typically applied to one who had reached age fourteen, but could extend to age twenty eight. Significantly, only two original sources refer to the young crusaders as parvuli, or infantes.[71]  The fact that many of the girls involved were “deflowered” (and in some instances apparently pregnant) suggests that they were at least in their early teens.

            There is some evidence that pueri indicated not so much one’s chronological age as one’s social standing. Persons dependent upon others and menservants would often be addressed in that fashion. There is also evidence that the term was applied to laborers and wage-earners, particularly younger sons excluded from the family inheritance.[72] 

            A more logical explanation would be that the pueri were the members of a new class who were victims of the twelfth century economic revolution. They would have supported themselves as laborers or farm hands, and lived on the margins of society. Unlike the “noble poor” of earlier eras, they were considered to be easily suggestible and at times dangerous.[73]

            The “children’s” crusade seems much more rational if its participants were those of a more sufficient age, yet were impoverished. It is entirely possible that those who described the participants as children fell victim to the belief of the blessedness and “holy innocence” of the poor.



            On its very surface, the accepted version of the Children’s Crusade has the aura of a Grimm’s fairy tale. (Many fairy tales such as Goldilocks and Little Red Riding Hood originated during the Middle Ages, with endings more traumatic than those normally shared today). References to the Old Man of the Mountains and villains with the unlikely names of Hugh Iron and William the Pig lend themselves to the aura of a bedtime story.

            Munro noted that many of the descriptions of the Crusade are in “rude verse form,” and that “others by their form and wording betray the fact that their material is drawn from an original in verse.”[74]

            There has been some suggestion that the Crusade was the responsible for the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Monroe notes that the original tale is dated 1284, and also indicates that the disappearance of the children in the tale has them reappear on the Road of Charles the Great, the traditional route of Crusaders to the Holy Land.[75]  Although no definitive proof exists, one should be aware of the tendency of early writers to supply missing details if necessary. Peter Raedts notes:

            The Children’s Crusade is among the few historical occurrences having the dubious distinction of being abnormally famous. It has an obvious appeal to the imagination: little children imbued with great ideals set out barefoot and amid great dangers cross the Alps to Italy, where a tragic end awaits them. Historians too have let themselves be carried away by this drama. However critically they may approach the sources and events, they make the a priori assumption that little children trotted on crusade in 1212.[76]




            There can be no doubt that a massive social movement in the early thirteenth century took place. Its participants were not those normally associated with Crusades, and it failed more miserably than either the Third of Fourth Crusades. It is doubtful, however, that they were small children, even though some children may have accompanied adults. The paucity of reliable sources invites speculation which can often lead to baseless conjecture; however the lack of substantive evidence leave the historian with little alternative.

            A more defensible position is that the crusade was one of several Peasant Crusades. Its participants, the meek and poor, whom Christ had said would inherit the earth, went forth with a certain child-like innocence. The lack of primary sources, the somewhat reckless attempts by the secondary sources to make sense of the incomprehensible, and the poetic (almost romantic) appeal of youthful exuberance going forth to wage a noble but naïve campaign against the forces of darkness has perhaps led to the designation of this phenomena as a “children’s” crusade. The prudent historian would do well to regard this notion as suspect if not improbable


[1] Peter Raedts. “The Children’s Crusade of 1212,” Journal of Medieval History 3 Issue 4 (December, 1977):279.

[2] Dana Munro, cited infra indicate that Gray’s Children’s Crusade published in 1870 had been a frequent reference. However, he comments, “The author of this interesting little book was not a trained historian and consequently it is not surprising to find him using good, bad, and indifferent sources with equal confidence. In his bibliography of thirty titles, he cites as a contemporary a man who died before the movement began; he quotes the same account under two different names in three instances; and he has many other errors.” Monro, infra 517.

[3] Raedts, ibid. 288.

[4] Ibid. 303.

[5] Thomas Asbridge, The First Crusade, A New History (Oxford University Press, 2004), 6.

[6] Kenneth M.  Setton, ed., A History of the Crusades Vol. II (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press: 1969), 127.

[7] “From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.”

[8] Setton ibid. 328-329.

[9] “Fairly Holy Innocents, The Economist, 00130613, December 13, 2000 – January 5, 2001, Vol 357, Issue 8202. See also brief reference in Setton, ibid. 341.

[10] Economist. Ibid.

[11] Raymond of Aguilers, quoted in Setton, ibid. 326.

[12] Anthony C. Bridge, The Crusades, (New York: Franklin Watts, 1982), 242.

[13] Raedts, Ibid. 309.

[14] Ibid. 311.

[15] The Economist, Ibid.

[16] The Economist, Ibid.

[17] Anthony C. Bridge. The Crusades. (New York: Franklin Watts, 1982), 242.

[18] Economist, Ibid.

[19] Bridge, Ibid.

[20] Raffael  Scheck, “Did the Children’s Crusade of 1212 Really Consist of Children? Problems of Writing Childhood History.” The Journal of Psychohistory, vol. 16. no 3. (1988) 176.

[21] John Boswell, The Kindness of Strangers: the abandonment of children in Western Europe from late antiquity to the Renaissance. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988) 226-30.

[22] Jonathan Riley-Smith: The Crusades: A Short History, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), 141.

[23] Peter Raedts, supra. notes that “some fifty accounts are known to us, ranging in length from a line to half a page. 282.

[24] James A. Brundage, The Crusades: A Documentary Survey, (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1970), 213.:

[25] Robert Payne, The Dream and the Tomb: A History of the Crusades, (New York: Stein and Day, 1984) 287.

[26] Henry Treece noted the suspicion that “this idea and even the ‘letter of Christ’ itself had been given to the lad by the ‘Albigenses.” He implies that this was a diversionary tactic since the French King and the Pope were waging a ‘furious civil war” against the Albigenese in Toulouse. Henry Treece, The Crusades, (New York: Random House, 1963) p.235. No other sources, primary or secondary, support this argument.

[27] Dana C. Munro, The Children’s Crusade, The American Historical Review, Vol 19, Vol. 3. (April, 1914), 518.

[28] Steven Runciman, A History of The Crusades: Volume III: The Kingdom of Acre and the Last Crusades.(Cambridge: University Press, 1954), 139.

[29]  Munro, ibid.

[30] Runciman, ibid, 140.

[31] Runciman ibid.

[32] Runciman, ibid. 141.

[33] Runciman ibid.142

[34] Munro, ibid. 520.

[35] The fancifulness of the names of the villains invites skepticism. Dana Munro suggested that Albert had confused “Guillielmus Porcus, an admiral of Frederick II who fell from favor in 1221 with Guillaume de Posquières, a citizen of Marseilles and known compatriot of Hugo Ferreus. (See Munro, ibid. 520 and also Raedts, ibid .p 294.

[36] Elizabeth Hallum, editor. Chronicles of the Crusades, (New York: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1989), 242.

[37] Runciman, ibid. 144.

[38] The author of the Gesta Treverorum stated that this crusade occurred shortly before Dietrich von Wied was chosen as Archbishop of Trier. This latter event occurred on November 24, 1212, which makes the date of the Crusade more certain. Raedts. Ibid. 289.

[39] The remains of the Three Kings are, according to custom, preserved as sacred relics in the Great Cathedral at Cologne. Author’s personal knowledge.

[40] Runciman, ibid. 141.

[41] The Tau was the badge of a pilgrim and of a miracle worker and was often carried by itinerant preachers. It was the symbol of St. Anthony, the hermit. St. Francis of Assisi, who eschewed worldly comforts, placed a Tau on the doors of cells in Franciscan convents, and used it as a signature for his letters. He also used it as a cross when he performed miracles.

[42] Raedts, ibid. 281. Raedts notes that the inability of the observer to ascertain the composition of the cross indicates he must have seen Nicholas personally.

[43] Hallam, ed. Ibid.244.

[44] Setton, ibid. 334.

[45] Runciman, ibid. 142.

[46] Raedts, ibid.,287.

[47] Ibid. 289.

[48] Hallam, ed. Ibid.244.

[49] Munro, ibid. 577. This reference was written 400 years after the Children’s crusade, a fact which might color its interpretation somewhat.

[50] Munro p. 523. The Old Man of the Mountain was an Islamic legend first reported in Europe by Marco Polo in 1273. The Old Man kept at his court such boys of twelve years old as seemed to him destined to become courageous men. When the Old Man sent them into the garden in groups of four, ten or twenty, he gave them hashish to drink. They slept for three days, then they were carried sleeping into the garden where he had them awakened."

"When these young men woke, and found themselves in the garden with all these marvelous things, they truly believed themselves to be in paradise. And these damsels were always with them in songs and great entertainments; they; received everything they asked for, so that they would never have left that garden of their own will."

"And when the Old Man wished to kill someone, he would take him and say: 'Go and do this thing. I do this because I want to make you return to paradise'. And the assassins go and perform the deed willingly." Marco Polo on his visit to Alamut.


[51] Ibid. 294.  Also see Monro, op. cit. 521: “Some evil men and women were attracted to the excitement by the opportunity of plunder and vice.



[52] St Francis of Assisi himself went on a pilgrimage to convert rather than kill Muslims. He apparently planned to die as a martyr, believing that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.” To Francis, the liberation of Jerusalem could be accomplished no more gloriously than by the conversion of the Saracens. His first two attempts to reach Saracen lands failed, the first when he was shipwrecked off the coast of Dalmatia, but he succeeded in his third attempt, and preached to the sultan al-Kamil and his men. Many in Europe were astonished when he returned alive. Raedts ibid. 309.

[53] Runciman, ibid. 142.

[54] Raedts, ibid, 309.

[55] Hallam, ibid. p 244.

[56] Raedts, ibid, 323

[57] Runciman, ibid.142.

[58] Setton, ibid. 335. Also see Raedts, ibid. 292.

[59] “The children are reproaching us, for they are hastening to recover the Holy Land while we slumber.”  For reasons discussed below, this account is most likely untrue.Raedts, ibid. 285.

[60] Hallam, ed., ibid 244...

[61] Raedts, ibid, 283.

[62] Raedts, ibid. 292, .states that the man committed suicide, an unlikely death for a Catholic. Bridge, ibid. 244 states that he was accused of being a party to the deaths of the other children of the area, was dragged away by the despondent parents and hanged.

[63] “A certain foolish undertaking.” Recorded in Raedts, ibid. 285.

[64] Raedt’s, ibid. 282.

[65] Raedts, ibid., 302

[66] Raedts, ibid. 281.

[67] Monro, ibid. 520.

[68] Munro, ibid. 517.

[69] Raedts, ibid. 292.

[70] Raedts, ibid, 295.

[71] Raedts, ibid, 296. Raedts notes that Medieval Scholars divided one’s lifetime into four (or possibly six) phases: Infantia to age seven, Pueritia to age fourteen, and Inventus until twenty eight; although the last was often not used, and Pueritia extended to age 28

[72] Scheck, ibid. 

[73] Raedts. Ibid. 298.

[74] Munro, ibid.516.

[75] Ibid.523. Other sources dispute this interpretation.

[76] Ibid. 295.






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