The Children's Crusade

During the fourth crusade, in the year 1212, an excitement that could no longer affect sane adults was spread among the children in the south of France and in the Rhone Valley. Though forbidden by King Philip Augustus, thousands of French, Italian and German children flocked to the banner of a twelve year old boy from France. The boy, Stephen believed that Jesus had appeared to him and promised that what grownups had been unable to do, the children should accomplish. The message was hypnotic and appealed to the young mediaeval mind so enamored with words from the Virgin Mary and the miraculous powers of relics. The chief sales pitch that drove them was the noble cause of "Save the Holy Sepulchre!" Let them trust, not in their swords and their strong right arms, but in the Lord of Hosts, who would work miracles for them and cause the sea to roll back that they might pass on dry earth like Moses and the Children of Israel. With the zeal of the apocalyptic 144,000 virgins, they took up the cause and left their families to bring in the kingdom.

Stephen took his stand at the spot where Pilgrims thronged and called to the children of France to join the new Crusade. They came. By thousands they came. The mothers and fathers could not hold them back. A great host of them, some girls but mostly boys of around twelve years of age. It was the love of Jesus that stirred these hearts filled with delusion and the prospect of the crown of glory. The German children started first, singing as they went. The ignorance of Pope Innocent III made great capital out of this strange business. "The very children put us to shame," he said; and sought to whip up enthusiasm for a fifth crusade. As their numbers increased into the thousands, the local townsfolk and elders were shamed into supporting these children. It is said that about 20,000 children took part in the march.

This must be the apex of the tragic crusading futility when these throngs of French and German children went down to the Mediterranean Sea and expected the waters would divide before them and open a path to the Holy Land where they would march to a bloodless victory. When this failed to happen, several thousand pushed on to Marseilles and other seaports. A crowd of many French boys were lured on board ship by slave traders and were not heard from again for 30 years. Finally a priest who had been with them returned to tell the story. This was a dreadful thing. The Rhineland children tramped into Italy, many perishing by the way, and there dispersed. How are we to understand the awesome power that had come over these children. What could possibly possess a young mind to leave house and home, security and their loved ones to march thousands of miles only to be lost at sea or enslaved or die in the desert. Of course we could explain that they were impressionable and after all just children, but what faith. Is faith the answer? Misplaced faith to be sure, but what an example to the so many of us who think of ouselves as a child of God, only to be enslaved by our own ways, our own desires and our own understanding.
[03, 05, 25, 26, 28]

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