During the medieval era, Christians from Europe, sanctioned by the Church, were encouraged to embark on religious invasions, disguised as pilgrimages, to the Holy Lands in the Middle East. The goal was to reclaim the Holy Land, and secure important religious artifacts, from the Muslim’s who controlled the region, but the Crusades also had political goals as well. Over the span of about two centuries, beginning in 1095, there were eight unsuccessful Crusades to the Middle East. The failings of these Crusades, however, didn’t dissuade the Church and the adults of Europe from stopping their children from joining the Children’s Crusade of 1212, which turned out to be a tragically disastrous event.
The Children’s Crusade of 1212 was said to have been inspired by the holy visions received by two young boys, Stephen of Cloyes of France and Nicholas of Germany. Both boys stated that they were visited by Jesus who explained to them that the Muslims could be converted to Christianity by innocence and peace…the kind that only young children could offer.
Both Stephen and Nicholas stated that, during their visions, Jesus instructed them to lead a Crusade to the Holy Land. The youngsters spoke of their visions and their independent goal of forming a Crusade. By the time Stephen’s group left France and Nicholas’ group left Germany, there were as many as 30,000 children who joined the Children’s Crusade and were committed to making the long and arduous trek to the Middle East.
Nicholas told his band of German children that they would cross the Alps and travel into Italy. There, he said, the Mediterranean Sea would miraculously part for them, just as the Red Sea parted for Moses and his followers. He claimed he had no intentions of fighting the Muslims. He believed the children could convert the citizens to Christianity, and once that was done, the Muslim kingdoms would crumble. In reality, most of the children did not reach the Holy Land. Two-thirds of the children died during the journey over the Alps and many others abandoned the trek and returned home.
There were about 7,000 children left when the group arrived in Genoa at the end of August. They made their way to the seashore, expecting the water to open a pathway for them. When that failed to happen, many of the young Crusaders pointed accusing fingers at Nicholas. Still, others simply waited, sure that the event would eventually happen. The leaders of Genoa told the children that if any of them wanted to stay in the city, they would be granted citizenship. Many of the youngsters seized this opportunity.
Nicholas, however, was still committed to the Crusade. He and his remaining followers journeyed to the Papal States to meet with Pope Innocent III. The Pope instructed the children to be good and return to their families. Nicholas died while crossing back over the Alps. Back home in Germany, his father was arrested and executed by angry parents who believed Nicholas pressured their children into joining him.
Stephen of Cloyes was a mere 12-year-old boy when he gathered thousands of French children to join his Crusade, which left a few months after Nicholas’ group. In June of 1212, Stephen and his followers presented King Philip II of France with a letter that they claim was written by Jesus. Philip II was not moved by the letter or by the dedication of the children. They were just kids, after all, so he did not take them seriously.
Undaunted, Stephen continued to lead his group of followers from town to town in France, spreading the word of his vision with others and vowing to lead a Crusade of children to the Holy Land. At first, many of the adults who listened to his message were impressed with him and offered support and encouragement. But as time went on, many of his followers left him and returned home. Still others, eager to reach the Holy Land to begin their work, were duped by merchants who promised them passage to the Middle East. Instead, a number of the children were sold into slavery.
The failure of the Children’s Crusade can be attributed to the zealot leaders who aroused passion for the journey and the eagerness of parents for their children to contribute to the reclaiming of the Holy Land. In the end, however, the event was a tragic failure resulting in the deaths of thousands of children.