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The Holy Child Led Epic Children's Crusade of 1212

The Children's Crusade

Going to Jerusalem to free the tomb of Christ; there is the foolish goal pursued by thousands of children on the tragic paths of a crusade that historians find it difficult to explain.

In June 1212, a young shepherd named Stephen proclaimed everywhere that Jesus appeared to him and entrusted him with a letter for the King of France. Here he is soon on his way, accompanied by other shepherds of the same age but also men whom his charisma attracts. The "holy child," as he is called, goes to Philip Augustus at the head of a large procession singing hymns and carrying banners. But the king is hardly convinced. Disappointed, the crowd disperses; some men are enlisting for the Albigensian Crusade which will fight against the Cathars in the south of the kingdom.

The holy children

In the Rhine Valley, a little earlier in the same spring 1212, similar events take place, but of greater magnitude. Very young childrens - from 6 or 7 years old - escape the supervision of their parents and, in groups of a few dozen, take the road to Jerusalem. The movement started from Cologne, where the young Nicholas came from, who took the lead of the largest group.

Leaving Germany, listening neither to the advice of caution nor to the invitations to go and fight the Cathar heresy, which is an enemy less distant than the Muslims, these young people first crossed Alsace and then the Alps.

A tragic epic

Exalted priests no doubt accompany them, but the clergy as a whole condemns a foolish enterprise. Only a few lay people sympathize with such a spontaneous movement and help the young travelers to survive. Arriving in August on the Italian coasts (or, for a few, in Marseilles), few can embark for the Holy Land, and many of them will be sold as slaves. Only a tiny fraction of the children will still have the strength to make their way home. As for Nicholas, according to records he would later participate in the Fifth Crusade, unless he was killed in Italy. In the failure of this crusade, contemporaries saw the work of the devil: if the children failed, was it not because God was hostile to their project? The historians of the twentieth century, for their part, are trying to find explanations for this large-scale phenomenon of children’s crusade, which, in one form or another (for example with the so-called Shepherds' Crusade in 1251), will be repeated in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

The strength of predictions

Why, in fact, do children and adolescents rush onto the roads repeatedly in search of such a distant goal? It is true that after the fall of Jerusalem in 1187 before the army of Saladin, the various crusades failed. The fight between Christianity and Islam is now taking place not only in the Holy Land but also in Anatolia and Spain where, precisely in 1212, the Christian kingdoms won the decisive victory of Las Navas de Tolosa. There was no lack of preachers then to call for the reconquest of the city of God - Jerusalem, and no doubt the presence of "infidels" at the gates of the kingdom had exacerbated religious fervor, even among the youngest. But it was the regions of northeastern France, Flanders and the Rhine Valley, that were the most affected even where social ferment was superimposed on religious effervescence: the economy was then in full swing, cities are growing, the population is growing rapidly and with it poverty.

The impact of preachers extolling the riches of the Holy Land is then increased tenfold among the poorest. But neither mysticism nor economic necessity is enough to justify such young people setting out on the roads to Jerusalem in what is now known as the Children’s Crusade.