The Year 1212

The history of France is fascinating not simply because of its historic global military and political influence but for its religiosity and the effect of Christianity on the course of its history.  Charlemagne, the great Frankish king, rampaged throughout Europe, forcing much of the known world to heel under the yoke of Christianity in the late 8th century CE.

France’s history has a peculiar quirk of spawning many famous children of extreme zealousness in addition to its zealous conquerors.  Jeanne d’Arc, a mercenary teenage peasant girl, helped France rout an occupying Children's CrusadeCredit: clipart.comEnglish army.  Her motivation, however, was religious in origin: she had been directed by the voices of an archangel and two female saints to liberate France. 

In addition to its religiously motivated secular military victories, France probably has more experience with the Blessed Virgin Mary appearing within its borders than any other nation on earth.  French visions of Mary have appeared in many documented cases, most famously at La Salette and later at the Grotto at Lourdes to the girl-saint, Bernadette Soubirous.  It is France’s youth, in general, who bring these apparitions to light – almost all of Mary of Nazareth’s recorded appearances in France have been visited upon children.  Globally, this is anomalous – although Mary is often reported as visiting children elsewhere, she also allegedly appears to many adults, too.

It is France that gave the world the mercenary child, the pious child, and the humble shepherd boy and girl who saw Mary.  France also gave the world a child army of crusaders who thought they could win back the Holy Land from the “infidel” Muslims, restoring it to its alleged rightful place in Christendom.  But Germany also has a place in this latter strange event.

The Year 1212: Germany
The Crusades were a series of holy wars sanctioned by the papacy for the Catholic Church.  The official record of these excursions extends from 1095 to 1291, although minor, private campaigns were mounted both before and after those years.  The object in every case was to repulse and remove the occupying Muslim forces that held Jerusalem and the surrounding lands, and return to Christians what they felt was their rightful domain.

The earliest Crusades were moderately successful, and allowed Christian-backed mercenaries to gain control of the Holy Land for intermittent periods.  The Knights Templar were the mercenary arm of the papacy sanctioned by the Catholic Church in 1129.  The Templars secured Acre in northern Israel as well as the holy city of Jerusalem itself.  The holds were tenuous at best (Acre was lost in 1291, and no one ever gained a solid Christian foothold in the region afterward).

The Crusade preceding the year 1212 had not been successful; the Fourth Crusade did not even reach the Holy Land.  Instead the Crusaders ended up sacking Constantinople in 1204 and establishing a separate kingdom there, ruling the surrounding Asia Minor territories as the “Latin Kingdom”.

The failure of the Crusades to firmly and finally wrest the Holy Land from its Muslim Saracen invaders became a point of soreness.  In the superstitious medieval period, children were inflamed by their parents’ prejudices and passions.  Christianity was the life blood of the peasantry and most tied their sense of patriotic fervor to their religious duty.

In Germany, in the early spring of 1212, a boy named Nicholas believed he had a solution to restoring the Holy Land to Christendom.  He believed children could succeed where men with arms had failed.  He thought by prevailing upon the Muslims in person he could convince them to convert to Christianity and abandon their choke hold on the Holy Land.

Nicholas was a shepherd living in Germany’s Rhineland, a backwoods area on the extreme western edge of the country.  He was apparently an effective public speaker as he encouraged several teenagers and young adults to go with him on this quest [although historically the ensuing action is referred to as a “Children’s Crusade” the participants were all over the age of 15].      

The plan was for these youthful Crusaders to trek over the Alps into Italy.  From there, according to Nicholas, the seas between the Italian peninsula and Palestine would miraculously dry up before them, and they would simply stroll on into the Holy Land.  Once there, he assured them the Saracens would see the miracle and acquiesce to the children’s demands to convert to Christianity.

Children historically have not been the precious, irreplaceable gems that the 20th century converted them into.  In the past, children were treated as miniature adults.  Not only were they expected to work, they were treated as free labor.  Children were expendable pieces of chattel, and of no consequence – in peasant households a new birth, if it was deemed too much of a burden, meant an infant could be tossed on a rubbish heap to die of exposure.  The peasantry knew they could always make more children.   

For Nicholas and his comrades in piety leaving home on such a venture would have concerned virtually no one.  No mothers and fathers would bemoan the loss of that particular child as there were several more back in the hovel just like him or her. [Jeanne d’Arc, for example, left her peasant village without permission from her parents and without even bothering to tell them where she was going.  The community did not send out a search party for her—her parents caught up with her months later in the re-established French capital of Reims.]  The German parents encouraged the venture, not because they were evil or heartless, but because they were convinced of the wisdom of the quest.  Also, there was always the off-chance of success, meaning prestige and material wealth from the Holy Land.

Nicholas’ small army of disciples (his earliest converts) spread quickly throughout the Rhineland and much of Germany.  They recruited as many people as possible to join their march.  In the endChildren's Crusade (gathering)Credit: public domain several thousand young people were committed to the cause [estimates place this number at about 12,000]. They staged their departure from Cologne a few weeks after Nicholas found his first adherents. They hiked into Switzerland, then split up into two groups for the crossing of the Swiss Alps via different roads  – this would make sure that at least one group would make it through in the event of mishap.  

Roughly two-thirds of them died on this trek from exposure, hunger, animal attacks, and accidents in the mountains.  Of the rest, many simply turned back.  Finally, in late August 1212, about 7,000 young Crusaders arrived in Genoa in Italy’s northwest.  

They marched down to Genoa’s harbor facing the Mediterranean.  Magically, though expected, the sea did not part for them.  Many were embittered and accused Nicholas of betraying them.  Others settled down and waited for God to change his mind – most of these believers could not comprehend that God would leave them stranded thus, and he would eventually open the waters.

Genoese civil authorities became involved (several thousand people loitering around one of the world’s busiest seaports drew attention).  These authorities were impressed by the chutzpah of this ragtag group of Crusaders, and generously offered Genoese citizenship to any who wished to stay and settle there.  Most of the group accepted this offer gladly. 

Nicholas, however, refused to admit defeat.  With as many followers as he could muster, he trekked on to Pisa, several miles south on Italy’s west coast.  He was losing adherents all the time, though, and what remained of the group continued on to the Papal States in Italy.  Pope Innocent III granted an audience, and he sheltered and fed them.  Innocent told the group to simply go back home to Germany.  In resignation, they headed back north; if the Pope could not bestow his blessing upon the venture then it must be doomed to failure. 

Nicholas did not survive the return trip through the Swiss Alps.  The young people who did make it back told their story of the vain quest.  Since the real instigator, Nicholas, could not be punished for costing many of these people their relatives and children (and their labor pool), Nicholas’ father was arrested.  Angered families needed a scapegoat to pay for their losses – this man was handy, and he was hanged in his son’s stead.

Some of the defectors in Italy were later reported on the Italian east coast town of Ancona, and as far south as the village of Brindisi (in the “heel” of Italy’s “boot”).  None made it to the Holy Land; it is presumed they stayed in Italy.

The Year 1212: France
Perhaps not coincidentally in the same year in France, another Children’s Crusade sprang to life seemingly from nowhere.  The Rhineland abuts the northern border of France, and news as big as Child Preaching the Children's CrusadeCredit: clipart.comthe Rhineland Children’s Crusade likely spread very rapidly into that country.

The village of Cloyes in France is near the northern border where France met the Rhineland region in 1212.  The story of the French Children’s Crusade begins slightly differently.  In the early summer of 1212 (about the time the German Children’s Crusade was crossing Switzerland) a 15-year-old shepherd boy named Stephen of Cloyes told an interesting tale.  He claimed to have met a man travelling alone on a village road.  He gave this man a piece of bread when he asked for something to eat.  This pilgrim then identified himself as Jesus of Nazareth.  Jesus advised Stephen he was to gather up a flock and march to the Holy Land and recapture it.  Jesus also gave Stephen a letter to take to the French king, Philip II (1165-1223).

Stephen preached his message in the surrounding countryside, and armed with his letter he and some followers gathered more adherents, finally numbering about 30,000 (includinThe Children's Crusade (etching)Credit: Gustave Dore, public domaing some young children and some adults).  They made their way to Saint-Denis (now a northern suburb of Paris, but bucolic in medieval times). 

King Philip II heard Stephen’s case and pleas for financing to make a journey to the Holy Land.  He was skeptical as the Holy Land’s proposed liberator was nothing more than a child. [Some sources give Stephen’s age as 12; 15 seems more plausible.] Philip II consulted with clerics from the University of Paris on the matter.  In the end he wisely suggested they all simply turn around and go home.

Rather than be discouraged, Stephen and his group stayed in Saint-Denis and preached the message of Crusade at a nearby abbey. Word of his message reached other parts of France.  The Catholic Church was rightfully and highly skeptical of Stephen’s claims and refused to throw their financial and material support behind his venture.  Although many of the adults with whom he came into contact were impressed by his zeal, he was actually losing followers the longer he tarried in France.  By the time he decided on a course of action, over half his original 30,000 troops had absconded.   

Stephen convinced his group, as had Nicholas, that the Lord would provide, and they began a march toward the Mediterranean.  They left Paris’ environs in late June 1212.  Surviving Map of French Children's Crusade route (1212)Credit: Google mapsby begging for food, they made their way from Vendôme to Marseilles. The hardships of this trek to the sea were many, and en route, the majority gave up.  In dribs and drabs they abandoned Stephen and went back home. 

Their plight took a turn for the worse as Stephen and what remained of his followers reached the Mediterranean.  They had no way to get to the Holy Land; two shady merchants (professing faith in Stephen’s cause) said they had seven ships available to Stephen and the few hundreds of followers he had left.  These merchants were named Hughes Ferri and Guillaume de Porqueres.

After this there was no word from this French Children’s Crusade. They were never reported as seen in the Holy Land.
The Year 1212: Apocalypse or Apocrypha?
It was presumed all the ships carrying this Children’s Crusade had been lost at sea.  In 1230, almost two decades after the Crusade had been last seen in Marseilles, a priest returning from Northern Africa shed some light on the French Children’s Crusade.  He claims he had been a passenger on one of the ships disembarking from Marseilles in 1212. 

This priest reported two of the ships had indeed been lost at sea in a storm. They had been smashed to bits against the rocks near the tiny island of San Pietro (near the southwestern coast of Sardinia).  However, that accident was nothing compared to what lay in store for the survivors of the tempest.  The two nefarious merchants (who had granted the Crusaders free passage) simply sailed the remaining five vessels to Northern African ports.  The remaining roughly 700 Crusaders were sold into slavery, some were sold to “eunuch makers and the purveyors for the harems”, and others were packed off to work in the fields.  The priest himself was held in Egypt as a “guest”, not allowed to leave until many years had passed.

Reportedly, eighteen of these died after refusing to renounce their faith (presumably under torture).  Stephen’s fate is not known. The two merchants, Ferri and Porqueres (whose last names translate into “Iron” and “Pig” respectively), later were hired by the Saracens to kidnap the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (1194-1250).  They failed in this task, were captured, and were hanged for their efforts.

Although there were contemporary accounts of these Children’s Crusades, the first translated records of these two similar events were not written until a few decades after the fact.  However, most scholars who doubt the veracity of these tales are willing to concede that part of the problem with believing or disbelieving in the “Children’s Crusades” lies in the word that was later translated into the word “children”.

Recent research concludes the participants in these two crusades were not children (teenagers, perhaps, but not very young children).  Secondly, the word “pueri” in Latin (the word meaning literally “boys”) may have been misinterpreted by later chroniclers to mean literal boys instead of figurative ones.  The original use of the word “pueri” when referring to these young Crusaders was a derogatory one, similar to the use one might make in calling a grown man “boy”.  The rabble associated with these Crusades was among the poorest and most squalid of France’s people.  Thus, there was no dignity in giving them a glorious and lofty accolade such as “Crusaders”.  “Boy” seemed to fit the bill.  Unfortunately, this came to be interpreted as “children” later.  Realistically these two groups of Crusaders were probably teenagers and young adults, people of sufficient health and stamina for a lengthy journey (in medieval times, life expectancy might be as high as 64 if and only if one survived past his or her 21st year).  Regardless, the middle-aged in those times were not physically good candidates for adventure.

Starting in the earliest years of the 13th century roving bands of wandering poor people cropped up in pockets all over Europe.  These were people displaced by war, famine, or disease.  Many of the peasantryChildren's Crusade (on the march)Credit: public domain in France and Germany, thanks to harsh economic conditions, had to sell off whatever little property they held and joined the ranks of these nomads.  These groups were not welcomed wherever they arrived – the drain on resources these extra people caused was devastating to local economies.  Thus, they were referred to condescendingly as “pueri” or “boys”, regardless of age or gender. 

Although some scholars doubt the Children’s Crusades ever happened, they probably did.  It is not inconceivable for groups of disenfranchised people to take up a cause, hoping for something better somewhere else.  It is only the misinterpretation of the word “pueri” that kept these two failed Crusades from perhaps being called the “Crushing-Poverty Crusades”.  Enough contemporary documentation exists, however, to support the reality of the events, just not the constituency.  These were not truly children, but they will continue to be known as the “Children’s Crusades”.


Author’s note: There is enough confusion in the ordering of the two Crusades that one may presume the French Crusade predated the German one.  However, the ordering is not terribly relevant as both events were roughly concurrent, and one was certainly inspired by the other – the similarities between the two Crusades have led many chroniclers to confuse their details, assigning one behavior to Nicholas, for example, that perhaps was really performed by Stephen. 

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