By most accounts of moral behavior the Children’s Crusade can only be termed a tragic event. In the summer of 1212, (the actual date is somewhat in dispute)  more than 30,000 children, most under the age of twelve assembled to march on the Holy Land.  This Crusade started as so many of them had, full of confidence and glory in their mission. It ended with an unknown disaster. Most of the children who participated in this event disappeared from history. Speculation places their fate as sold into slavery, murdered, and dying of disease while in transit. Gray argues in this work:

…to tell how, in this mighty movement there was a wave of child-life, to describe the part in that undying love for the Holy Land and in the weary seeking of its shores, that has been taken by children’s hearts and by children’s feet (25).

 

In the vernacular of Reverend Gray’s nineteenth century writing style he simply means to argue that the uniqueness of such an event as sending or allowing children to fight the battles of the cross during the Crusades is directly related to the uncompromising connection of Christians to the place of Christ’s birth. So close is the relationship of Christian history, theology and culture to Palestine that if the use of children can bring it under Christian control then it was Reverend Gray’s belief that God will undoubtedly support it. This is what the author intends to prove throughout the rest of this book, and he does this with all the intended biases that one would expect to see in such an argument.

I do not want to be too hard on Reverend Gray as I am fully aware that he is writing this account in the last half of the nineteenth century. I realized that unlike myself, Reverend Gray was not privy to the horrors of the last hundred years when the wholesale slaughter of innocents gained a certain acceptability during the past century. The Holocaust, the killing fields of Cambodia, the slaughter of Hutus by tutsis in Rwanda, indeed, all the genocides, war and bloodshed of the last century has served to give humankind a new morality. Humanity now uses its religions to promote what is just, not the expedience of dogma. I am a firm believer in not attaching twenty-first century values to earlier times when there was an obviously different outlook about things. Therefore, I urge the reader to judge Reverend Gray’s analysis in the context of the time it was written.

The story of the Children’s Crusade begins with the experiences of a Sheppard boy named Stephan in Cloyes, France who meets a rather shadowy character who fills his head with tales of exploits in the Holy Land. After winning the boy’s confidence this individual announced himself to be Jesus Christ and commanded the boy to preach the Crusades to the children of France (42). Stephan’s message caught on and within weeks had spread throughout France. More than thirty thousand children took up “the cross” and by the end of June the beginning of July 1212, set off on Crusade to Palestine.

So powerful was Stephan’s message that it also spread throughout Germany with two other children who also rallied children like Stephan (92). The first was led by a young man named Nicholas. When they marched across the Rhine they split off into two groups the other being headed by a third child who remains to this day unknown (93). What happened after that is somewhat sketchy. By August or September some made it to the Italian town of Brindisi, where they were taken advantage of and brutalized. Girls were raped and boys were subjected to unspeakable cruelty that Gray does not detail (99).

The unusual nature of a society sending children on such a dangerous journey raises certain questions about the leaders of that society. Gray labeled the king, Philip Augustus, “unprincipled”. Directed by politics, the king voiced approval in an attempt to embarrass King John of England. Soon afterward he was advised to reverse his position for unknown reasons.  Wanting to be careful because of the ramifications of suppressing a crusade he took his time about issuing an edict against it. It was too late. By the time he issued a decree it had little effect. “The matter had gone too far to be arrested by a command” (55). Local bishops and Friars, as well as the Pope who wanted a “means to excite the adults” allowed the event to take place. They were looking for a way to reinvigorate enthusiasm on the public because crusading had had several years of dismal showings with the Fourth and Fifth Crusades (55)

Of the opposition to the gathering of children for a crusade Gray wrote:

 Between the designs of those who were to gain by the movement, the superstition of the masses, and the enthusiasm of the children, there was enough to overcome all efforts to arrest the daily increasing excitement (55).

 

Opposition existed but was overpowered by the forces within the Church that wanted it. Those who were courageous enough to speak against the Church were accused of heresy. Gray does not indicate any further punishments, but the mere mention of heresy leads to the suspicion that inquisitions might have followed. Many, like the University of Paris, explained the phenomenon as some sort of magic or demonic association. One has to think that this was not appreciated by the powers that were driving the crusade.

Reverend Gray, nestled into the time period of 1870s Protestant America, made no secret of his distaste for the Catholic Church.  He draws attention to the fact that the beginning of the thirteenth century was a very violent time. He blames the pope, Innocent III, for creating conflicts all over Europe. He refers to him as “the most arrogant of popes” (28). He attributes three crusades to him, The Children’s Crusade, the Crusade against the Saracens in Spain, and the Albegensian Crusade in Southern France. His biased really is apparent in his sympathetic portrayal of the Albegensians. However, this is not surprising as he was a non-Catholic Christian preacher during the last half of the nineteenth century, (we are not told what sect of Christianity he professes) who probably identified with the rebellion of Southern France, considering his own roots in reformation Lutheranism.

The Children’s Crusade is one of those specific events in history where the information and evidence according to accurate sources are scarce. That might be the reason why modern secondary accounts are so limited. For example, Gray’s book, written over one hundred years ago is one of the pieces of dedicated literature on the subject.

With that in mind Gray is very aware of the scholarly approach necessary to be taken as a serious historian. At the beginning of the book he gives a semi-annotated bibliography. Of the thirty sources mentioned he indicates only the first six lived through the period. There is nothing to suggest however, that any of these chronicles are eyewitness accounts, only that they were written in that time period. The other twenty-four were all written later. Therefore, according to Gray, “their value is due to the fact that their materials were drawn from other contemporaneous documents that now are either destroyed or else cannot be found” (21).

I was quite surprised to find that there was so little available on the subject. There are mentions of the Children’s Crusade in other accounts that cover Crusader history but they are relatively short and do not go into any kind of depth. Gray’s work is very old and like I explained in the review carries with it inherent biases that interfere with modern historical gathering practices, to say nothing of the antiquated writing style. Be that as it may, I would say “Children’s Crusade” is a must for anyone wanted considering looking at the history of this event. Although the bibliography is 130 years old, it is probably exhaustive and therefore a valuable resource of primary documentation on the subject.

 

*All notes taken from The Children’s Crusade,  by George Zabriske Gray

New York: William Morrow and Company, 1972

 

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