The Real Hackstory of the Children’s Crusade

Alex Johnson - Content Writer

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Outside of youth hockey, soldiering is one of the most brutal and unethical things you can force a child to do. In the West, conflict zones where children are pressed into military service seem like something that happens far away, in some other, “third” world.

But, if you let your cynicism guide you, you’ll know that we did all that shit, too. And I’m not just talking about that time your grandpa lied about his age to fight in World War II. I’m talking about the year 1212 CE, when an army of youths vowed to take back Jerusalem from the Muslims.

This is the story of the Children’s Crusade—when 20,000 kids were asked, “if all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?” and all of them answered “Yes. God wills it.”

Never Send a Man to do a Child’s Job

Back in 1187 CE, Saladin, the Muslim Sultan, captured Jerusalem from the Christians. Jerusalem is very important, of course, for reasons I was likely explained in Catechism school, but can no longer recall. That’s OK—the important thing is that, once upon a time, Jerusalem was a hotly contested piece of real estate, coveted by all the Abrahamic religions. I know this is hard for modern people to imagine, but do your best.

Anyway, the Christians did as Jesus surely would have, and mobilized paramilitary forces under the banner of new “Crusades” to take the land back. These were the Third and Fourth Crusades, and they failed so miserably that neither of them ever reached Jerusalem.

“Oh, look. These children are off to fight a holy war. How droll.”

The Western Christians weren’t happy. They’d supported these retaliatory Crusades with blood and taxes, and they wanted a win. But the Third Crusade didn’t even get to Jerusalem, and the Fourth Crusade was distracted by the shiny Constantinople, and attacked that city instead. Neither of these approaches brought the West any closer to taking back Jerusalem. It was time for militant Christian zealots to think outside the bun.

Two young bucks—the French Stephen of Cloyes and the German Nicholas of Cologne—saw that using adult men just didn’t work. What the next Crusade needed wasn’t battle-hardened, fully grown veterans. What it needed was children who could give the Crusades a really fresh spin. 1

Kid A(rmy)

It all started when the aforementioned Stephen of Cloyes, a young French shepherd, was hand delivered a letter from—get this—the man-God-ghost himself, Jesus Christ. JC’s letter instructed Stephen to travel around Europe and proselytize for a new Crusade, gathering followers as he went.

A couple of things that seem odd about this: For one, weird that Jesus would preach for violence, but it doesn’t seem like folks back then saw any irony in this. Another thing: Stephen of Cloyes could read? A young shepherd? In 1212 CE? I call bullshit. You don’t need to read to bully sheep around a grassy field.

An artist’s rendering of what a successful Children’s Crusade might’ve looked like.
See that baby lynching a demon near the top? That’s something, huh?

Stephen somehow passed his story along to King Philip II of France, who was a good enough sport to hear the young shepherd out, but wasn’t buying any of it. Stephen was a pushy kid, though, so he went ahead and gathered up a load of (mostly) child followers, without the king’s help.

At the same time, the other boy—Nicholas—was in Cologne, Germany, doing pretty much the same thing. The Church had already done much of the legwork in both of these regions, hyping the locals for new Crusades. Medieval sources are unclear as to why these two areas appeared to produce kid crusaders in the same year. It is a hell of a coincidence. But they don’t call them the “Dark Ages” for nothing. You’ll just have to revel in the mystery there. 2

Child “Crusade” Fails, Nobody Surprised

Look, I’m just going to blow through the climax here without any fanfare: the Child Crusades didn’t work. Also, they weren’t technically Crusades, since they lacked any official support from the Pope.

In fact, if the Pope doesn’t ask you to go fighting in the Middle East, then it’s not a Crusade. And, while the Church has a lot of bad history to atone for, this Children’s Crusade doesn’t appear to be an official ecclesiastical fuckup. Say what you will about Church violence, but they at least knew to hire professional (or, at least post-pubescent) soldiers when they needed to spill some blood. Typically, they didn’t even like using full-grown commoners, who weren’t considered skilled, disciplined, or smart enough for martial ventures.

These kids appear to have brought with them a diminutive altar boy, a lute, and a single rondel dagger.
My money’s on Saladin for this one.

So, if this Children’s Crusade wasn’t funded by the Church, who bankrolled it? Well, that’s the thing, really: nobody did. Some 20,000 “children” just started walking from Germany and France with the goal of crossing the Italian alps, entering the Italian Peninsula, and taking ships from Genoa across the Mediterranean and into the Holy Land.

Of course, that was just the mobilization plan. You might be wondering, then, what the kids would do once they arrived at Jerusalem. How would they fight? Where would they get weapons and armor? Supplies? Training? Listen: don’t worry about it. They never made it nearly that far.

Adults aren’t always great planners, but kids are even worse. There simply was no plan—no realistic plan, anyway. Not for any of it. This horde of poor kids just walked their way from their homes to the Italian Alps. They had no money, instead relying on charity. Unfortunately, charity was in short supply. By the time the child army passed through the Alps, loads of them were dead from hunger.

The survivors, upon reaching Genoa, found that the Genoese weren’t so keen to help support this “Crusade” by offering free boat rides across the sea. Would they have done it for a bunch of kitted-out men-at-arms who actually stood a chance of pushing Saladin out of Jerusalem? Maybe. A bunch of poor, starving kids, though? Nah. The Children’s Crusade would end there, in Genoa. The whole thing had lasted only a few months, from May to September 1212. 3

Lost Boys—Well, Lost Pueri

Again, thanks to the fog of time and legend, we don’t know exactly what happened to all the kids who made it into Italy, but didn’t make it to the Levant. Many, no doubt, just started walking right back where they came from. A number of those probably died on the way home, just as many had done on the first leg of the trip south.

For the rest, the medieval version of the story—one that includes heaping amounts of conflicting rumors and legends—is that many were sold into slavery in the Mediterranean. If that happened, then at least some of these young crusaders did technically make their way to the Levant, only they arrived as slaves, rather than soldiers.

If there’s any cold comfort to be taken from this story, it’s that not all of these crusaders were necessarily children. See, the term that was mainly used to describe these crusaders was pueri. Some sources, which include Norman and Alpine monks, wrote that pueri was a term that actually included both adolescents and the elderly. In the broadest possible interpretation, the term may have just implied that this was a band of commoners, or people not typically associated with crusading—and not actual children. 4

That, or 1212 CE really was the year of the worst summer vacation in European history.

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Notes & Gossip 📌

  1. Cartwright, Mark. (2018, September 4). Children’s Crusade. Retrieved from https://www.ancient.eu/Children’s_Crusade/
  2. Cartwright, Mark. (2018, September 4). Children’s Crusade. Retrieved from https://www.ancient.eu/Children’s_Crusade/
  3. Cartwright, Mark. (2018, September 4). Children’s Crusade. Retrieved from https://www.ancient.eu/Children’s_Crusade/
  4. Cartwright, Mark. (2018, September 4). Children’s Crusade. Retrieved from https://www.ancient.eu/Children’s_Crusade/

Scholarly Shout-outs 🌟

  • Cartwright, Mark. (2018, September 4). Children’s Crusade. Retrieved from https://www.ancient.eu/Children's_Crusade/
  • Dickson, Gary. (Accessed October 28, 2018). Children’s Crusade. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/event/Childrens-Crusade#accordion-article-history

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