Children’s Crusade Fail: Turns Out Children Really Suck at War
Kids these days
The Crusades hath had the Kingdom all abuzz with excitement in recent centuries, what with conquering the Holy Land, bringing glory to The King, and doing something other than plowing the same field over and over again until you die. One wouldst believe our elation when someone proposed a bold new twist on Crusading: A Children’s Crusade!
Children are pretty much useless around the fief, anyway, and they’re too weak to man a trebuchet during a siege back home. Sending them on Crusade seemed like a win-win.
But it looks like we got our hopes up for nothing: It turns out children really suck at war.
We should have known from the start that this would be a disaster. It was nigh on impossible to get a band of a thousand 8-year-oldes to march in anything resembling a disciplined formation, let alone form a shield wall. Then when we told them to paint their shields and armour with fearsome dragons, lions, and the like, they instead adorned them with stick-figure bunnies and random blobs of sparkles. Do you even know how embarrassing it is to go into battle when the entire first rank of your shield wall is covered in sparkle bunnies?
The 8-year-oldes weren’t even the worst of the bunch. That distinction falls to the teenagers. Their faces were constantly buried in books and letters, one could hardly even get them to look up and participate in the world around them. They’d be in the midst of a mêlée with a hoard of Saracens, but rather than fight they would sit down and write a letter to some fair-eyed dame back home then start fiddling with themselves.
Seeing how bad they were at fighting, we figured maybe the children would be goode at rear echelon warfare skills, such as planning or logistics. But, as it happens, they were even worse at that. Without getting into the details, we’ll just say that’s the last tyme we let a five-year-olde conduct the logistical planning to transport 30,000 troops and supplies across 2,000 miles of hostile seas.
About the only war-related task these children were goode at was digging holes. One has to give it to them, they were actually pretty impressive at that. We employed them with our engineers to tunnel under the enemy’s fortifications, and they had a blast getting all muddy and dirty whilst razing the enemy’s walls from below. On the downside, they vehemently refused to take a bath afterwards, and we had to carry them kicking and screaming to the river to warsh off.
Other than digging they were totally useless.
Consider this a lesson for the next tyme we consider sending our Kingdom’s youth on a Children’s Crusade: They really suck at war. If we happen to have extra children sitting around, ‘tis probably more productive to send them to the quarries.
Addendum: Kid Crusaders
The Children’s Crusade of 1212 is a bit of a mystery. The theories about what played out range from “it wasn’t a crusade and not much happened” to “they were all sold into slavery and/or starved to death” to something involving the Pied Piper and/or Satan. How it started is an even greater mystery, summed up best by a monk writing a few decades after the fact:
“I really don’t know what brought it about.”1
There were two separate but possibly related “Children’s Crusades” in 1212, one in France, one in Germany. In each of them, the terms “Children’s” and “Crusade” should be taken with a grain of salt. Neither was an actual “Crusade” in that they did not receive approval from the pope, and they are not even recorded in the papal registers for that year. It’s likely that neither was composed solely of “children,” although children probably made up a portion of each.
The few near-contemporary sources that mention these events seem to treat them as separate, so let’s look at each in turn.
The French Children’s Crusade
In June 1212, a boy named Stephen from the city of Cloyes says God appeared to him dressed as a poor pilgrim. Stephen goes around France working miracles and ends up gathering about 30,000 followers, many of whom it seems were children. They march through France praising God and singing songs for a while, but it’s never clear what their end goal is. When people ask them where they’re going they respond simply, “To God,” which is not a very reassuring response.
Here’s a few different accounts of what might have happened to them, in order from most to least plausible.
The king tells them to stop because the whole thing is stupid, so they all go home. They march around for a while, then seek the king’s approval to go on a crusade, or to do something else of that nature. King Phillip II consults with some professors at the University of Paris, who advise him that this is a terrible idea. He orders the child crusaders to stand down, and they abide. (Source: Laon chronicle)
All of them die. Also the whole thing was Satan’s idea. Matthew Paris, writing in the mid-1200s, says they make it down to the Mediterranean, where “by Satan’s design, all perished either on land or in the sea.” (Source: Matthew Paris, Chronica Majora, Volume II2)
Many of them die. The rest are sold into slavery. The band of child crusaders travels from Paris to the coast at Marseilles. There, two traders named Hugo Ferreus and William Porcus offer to carry them across the sea for free. Since nothing in this life is free, Stephen should be skeptical about this, but he’s like twelve so we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. The merchants fill seven ships with children. Two are shipwrecked and everyone drowns. The rest are taken to North Africa where they are all sold into slavery. Here, one unreliable source gives some highly specific numbers, some of which make no sense: 80 of the children are priests; eighteen of the children are tortured to death for refusing to renounce Christianity; none of the other children renounce Christianity, but for some reason they’re not tortured to death; one escapes to tell the tale. Eighteen years later it is reported that the ruler of Alexandria still has 700 of these children working for him. In the end, some justice is served: The two merchants that sold them into slavery are discovered and hung. (Source, Alberic of Trois-Fontaines, summarized in D. C. Munro, “The Children’s Crusade”)
The French theater of the Children’s Crusade wasn’t much of a Crusade at all. It’s unclear whether their objective was to conquer the Holy Land or to generally just rabble around France praising God. The latter is more plausible. The idea that they were going on a Crusade appears to be due more to popular lore that developed around the event in later years, possibly by conflating it with a similar event in Germany, which began a few months earlier.
The German Children’s Crusade
Compared to its French counterpart, the German theater of the Children’s Crusade appears to be much more of a proper “Crusade,” in that their intent was actually to go to war. The sources generally agree that it went something like this3:
Around Easter 1212, a boy from Cologne named Nicholas gathers many followers — men, women, boys, and girls — with the objective of embarking on a crusade and/or pilgrimage. Their parents are not thrilled about this but the kids don’t care.
They march south over the Alps into Italy, gathering followers as they go, and losing others who either turn back or die.
They arrive at Genoa on Saturday, August 25, by which time their merry band of zealous child soldiers numbers about 7,000.
After about a week in Genoa, things start to go downhill. The group starts to break up into smaller bands who travel to various port cities around the Mediterranean seeking passage to the Holy Land. Some of them are captured by pirates and sold into slavery, others die of starvation and exposure. Some are “despoiled by the Lombards,” which sounds even worse than dying of starvation. Still others return home ashamed and defeated.
One source says Nicholas went on to fight bravely at the sieges of Acre4 and Damietta in 1218-1219, before returning home. Another says his dad went on the crusade with him. To dispel any notion that it was cool how Nicholas’s father supported his son by going on crusade with him: this version says he coordinated the whole thing in order to sell the children into slavery. Not cool, dad. In this account Nicholas dies in Brindisi after the whole boondoggle breaks up, and his father commits suicide.
Yet another tale links the Children’s Crusade with the Pied Piper of Hamelin, aka “Rattenfänger.” Perhaps the Pied Piper luring the children of Hamelin into the river with his music symbolized the seductive call to war that led these children, as well as many other generations of Crusaders, to their graves.
Peter Raedts, “The Children’s Crusade of 1212”, on the Internet Archive
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Quoted in Peter Raedts, “The Children’s Crusade of 1212”, page 285. From the chronicle of the abbey of Ebersheim-münster.
This version on the Internet Archive is in Latin. I used Google Translate to get a rough English translation. The part about the Children’s Crusade is on page 558.
From Munro. This must be referring to a different, less famous siege of Acre, since the more well-known sieges of Acre took place in 1104, 1189-1191, 1263, and 1291. I guess Acre was a fun place to besiege.