If the Children’s Crusade took place, the year was 1212. Whatever happened, that was the year. Pope Innocent III had been preaching Crusade, and more Crusade, for years. He was promoting the Spanish Crusade, the Crusade against the Cathars, and of course a new Crusade to the Holy Land (the 5th). Was it any wonder that an unauthorized Crusade might spring up in 1212?
It seems that something happened, but it’s unclear who was involved. Traditional legends say that two boys, one in France, one in Germany, began preaching Crusade to other children. Following their lead, bands of children swelled to crowds, a veritable unarmed army. Sure that their innocence would win where the sins of the adults had failed, they marched to the Mediterranean Sea and waited for it to miraculously open up. Then disaster took them as most were sold into slavery.
Contemporary historians are more cautious. Bands of unauthorized, unarmed (at best poorly armed) people did swarm like that in 1212, coming from France and Germany. But were they children? Or perhaps were they just swarms of paupers and beggars, who were also considered innocent like children? Did the two streams join and suffer one fate? Or were there two or more separate movements from these two places?
It seems most likely that all of these things were mostly true. Europe was becoming over-populated for its current economy, and there were some young men who could not find a good place in society. They were considered adults somewhere between 12 and 16, although in an apprenticing system they were not on their own until they were over 20. So probably we could call them children and adults, depending on how they’re seen. The leaders were shepherds, that is, rural workers in a marginal hill economy, not plowmen or vine-tenders in rich Burgundy. Their followers were probably similarly from poor, rural families that could not afford to settle sons in a town trade and could barely feed themselves. The diet of these European poor was mainly peas porridge, not the rich foods we think of as “European” now.
The young men picked up a religious vision in which they were not useless; in God’s kingdom they had value, and in this Crusade they could work miracles. In spirit, it was probably a lot like the popular movements of the 20th century in which people have gathered for the end of the world (or moved to Guyana). Many of the marchers believed they communicated specially with God or had miraculous powers. Town paupers joined the rural Crusaders as they passed through. They had nothing to lose.
The stream from Germany marched to Genoa, where they expected the sea to part. It did not, and some grew angry and felt cheated. However, many found work in the expanding shipping industry; Genoa was a good place for unemployed men to end up. The leader, Nicholas of Cologne, led a core band to Rome, where they met the Pope. The Pope blessed them but told them to return home. Exhausted by their travel over the Alps, few survived the walk back. Nicholas did not, but his father was held responsible by the furious families of other young men who died en route.
The stream from France first gathered around Paris, where the shepherd Stephan of Cloyes tried to deliver a letter from Jesus to the king. The people said that Stephan was working miracles, but the clerics at the University of Paris told the king to send them home. Stephan continued to preach as he made his way south toward the sea. Large bands of adults and adolescents followed him as far as they were able; the crowd grew and shrank, until finally thousands of them arrived in Marseilles. It’s not clear what happened in Marseilles. Probably many different things happened: some found passage on ships and later realized they were now slaves; some settled in Marseilles, some went home. The traditional story says that definitely they all became slaves; historians now question this conclusion.
Peter Raedts, a history professor in the Netherlands, made a detailed study of the original sources for the 1212 Crusade. In 1977, he published an article in the Journal of Medieval History that showed how thin its contemporary evidence was. Most sources gave a short passage about this Crusade, no more. Many sources that look contemporary to us were actually written 25 years later, so they were based on hearsay or distant memory. Apparently, the later the source, the more likely it is to say that children were involved.
Later sources may also be more likely to play up their being sold into slavery. Stories tend to grow in the telling. A single occurrence becomes a generality, and in the next telling it’s a universal. So in the end, we really don’t know. Europeans were still keeping records on parchment; it was in the next century that paper became widely available and regular people could start keeping journals and writing letters. Until then, if a king was not involved, we probably don’t know much about what happened.