The Crusades were weird.
It’s nearly impossible to write about them from a modern perspective, because they make very little sense from a modern understanding of religion and politics. The idea of a “religious war” is exclusively a modern one, because the idea that religion can be isolated from the rest of human endeavors is a modern one. To a medieval thinker, the question of whether a war was political, economic, religious, or something else, would have been a very strange one. Like, duh, any given war has political, and economic, and religious motivations.Nicholas led his followers through the Alps, because when you’re leading a bunch of 12-year-olds, you obviously go full Hannibal.
But while the jury might be out on the complicated stew of motivating factors behind the Crusades, the fact that they seemed to whip people into a religious fervor is pretty clear. The tales of everyone from knights to peasants shouting Deus vult! (“God wills it”) and following nearly anyone saying religious-sounding things on a barely-planned-out expedition to the Holy Land are too numerous to ignore.
One of the most prominent examples of this was the Children’s Crusade, which was so called because it was a bunch of children, engaging in a crusade. Except it technically wasn’t a crusade, because it never got the blessing of a pope, and it might not have been entirely, or even mostly, children. Modern historians are pretty divided on it. Actually, some question whether it actually happened at all (though several medieval historians do mention it). Other than that, though, it was totally legit.
In any case, the story of the Children’s Crusade begins in A.D. 1212, about 10 years after the Fourth Crusade, which you’ll recall was a major bust. (You can read the piece I wrote on it, but briefly: the Crusaders never even made it to the Holy Land and ended up sacking and pillaging Constantinople—essentially the world capital of Christianity at the time—just to pay for the journey. It was… bad.) The whole thing was pretty demoralizing for Europe, and what they really needed was an adorable, rascally kid to drag them out of their funk, the way Shirley Temple brought America out of the Great Depression. This, of course, was exactly what they got, except said kid was also a religious fanatic who was calling for yet another crusade.
The kid in question was a French one, Stephan of Cloyes, whose primary insight was that, if they wanted to win the Holy Land for Christianity, maybe they should try converting Muslims instead of killing them. He got the idea when, allegedly, Jesus appeared to him in person, giving him several letters to be delivered to King Philip II, because obviously giving letters to a kid was the best way Jesus could think of to get a message to the king of France, what with the fax machine still stubbornly refusing to be invented. Really, Stephan’s story was about as flimsy as everything in The Art of the Deal, but it was good enough that as many as 30,000 kids dropped what they were doing, took the Crusader’s vow, and marched with Stephan to Saint-Denis, where Philip II held court.
Unfortunately, King Philip refused to see them, which to be honest, I’m kind of baffled by. I don’t think the letters from Jesus were genuine, but man, I would have been dying to know what was in them, even if it was just “HA HA, MADE YOU LOOK” scrawled in crayon. In any case, though, since Philip was being a big stupid jerkface about the whole thing, most of Stephan’s followers appear to have given up, which makes sense, seeing as they were, y’know, just a bunch of kids. Some of them, however, appear to have continued on, marching as far as Cologne, Germany, presumably whistling the Little Rascals theme the whole way.
In Cologne, they fell under the wing of Nicholas, who was a German shepherd, by which I mean he was a human boy from Germany employed as a herder of sheep, not that he was a dog, although, now that I think about it, an actual dog would be a lot funnier, especially if it were a wisecracking, singing dog voiced by Sylvester Stallone, and seriously, someone at Disney, make that movie, and you’re welcome for the brilliant idea. Nicholas, who had already begun his own children’s crusade, welcomed Stephan’s scions and assured everyone that if they simply got as far as the Italian coast, God would part the Mediterranean for them just like he had the Red Sea for Moses, and they could march directly to Jerusalem.
Nicholas then led his followers through the Alps, because when you’re leading a bunch of 12-year-olds, you obviously go full Hannibal. As many as two thirds of them may have died on the way, because, duh, obviously they did, because they were a bunch of kids trying to cross the Alps. Still, the survivors made it as far as the port city of Genoa, which is is pretty impressive for a bunch of kids, but would have been really impressive for a bunch of kids led by a talking dog (I’m telling you, this screenplay writes itself). They stood on the shore and waited for the sea to part, which (unsurprisingly, I guess) it didn’t.
From there the record on the Children’s Crusade gets murky, by which I mean that it gets even murkier than the rest of it, which is saying something. Some historians suggest that they stood on the shore for days, praying that God would forgive them for their lack of faith, which is kind of a downer. Others say at least some of them were offered safe passage to the Holy Land by some merchants, who then sold them into slavery instead, which is even more of a downer. Others seem to have settled in Genoa and other Italian port cities, which at the time were booming and desperate for labor; still others seem to have continued to Rome to ask the pope to annul their Crusader’s vows, which, now that I think about it, shouldn’t they all technically have had to do that? (It’s almost like taking vows is a bad idea, or something.)
So. What can we learn from the Children’s Crusade? I’m not sure. The main thing Pope Innocent III learned from it was that there was still enthusiasm for crusades among the rabble, and so he used it as an excuse to launch the Fifth Crusade, yet another failed attempt to recapture Jerusalem, but at least its participants were actual soldiers, and at least they actually made it to the Holy Land, so, y’know, points for trying, I guess? So if anything, the main lesson seems to be this: there’s no movement so crazy and misled that there’s not a world leader cynical enough to take advantage of it for personal and political gain.
Let the reader understand.