December 26, 2007

The Children's Crusade

In Chartres, amidst the calls for knights and noblemen to go to Spain to fight against Islam, a group of shepherds led by Stephen of Cloyes one of their number, got up and started marching to deliver a letter from Christ to the King of France. Months later in Cologne Nicholas of Cologne set off with a group of German adolescents to take ship to the Holy land and recover the true Cross and with it Jerusalem. The movements may have been related- we don't know. We don't know though we can guess who took part, we have little knowledge of what happened to those that did take part- and we know only three people's names who were on the expeditions- Stephen and Nicholas referred to above- and an Otto who petitioned the papal curia in 1220 to be releived from his vows to crusade. And yet these crusades have become famous, passed from chronicler to historian, from poet to philosopher, from novelist to children's novelist, until they became part of the common currency of our times. The Children's Crusade is one of those events that shocked Europe at the time- yet had almost no consequences- it survived as a myth- a rumour- a disquieting revelation about human nature that kept the leaders of the Church and the doctors of the enlightenment awake at night.

What were the Children's Crusades? Well firstly there were as I said two of them. On both medieval chroniclers say that 'pueri' (latin for 'boys') took part. Some historians beleive that those pueri were a social group- marginalised young men on the edge of medieval society- some beleive that they were an age group- the young. Gary Dickson who has produced the most authoritative modern treatment suggests a mixture of the two- that the pueri were most likely shepherds and the dispossessed- young men before their marriage who left their homes and went to join these movements. The crusades happened in the Chartres region of France and in Germany. At our best guess, the crusade around Chartres developed after a request was sent out to the churches of the Chartrain to furnish soldiers for Christian armies under pressure in Northern Spain. The Chartres crusade arose out of processions around the great cathedral at Chartres- our best guess is that Stephen of Cloyes, mentioned by a chronicle from Laon, went home and was inspired by those processions to mount his own procession to bear a letter from Christ to King Phillip of France at St Denis. We know that that excitement led to perhaps hundreds and maybe thousands (numbers are hard with our limited information) to go south to St Denis. After St Denis, for some reason the remnant of the crusade headed off into the Rhineland- we have them recorded in a document at St Quentin, 140 miles north east of St Denis and a possible eye witness account by Renier of Liege at Liege in the first fifteen days of July 1212. From there they went onto Cologne where the movement seems to have grown in size. Dickson comments that fewer shepherds and more young people seem to have been present because the references in the chronicles emphasize the youth more. Nicholas of Cologne's group passed from Cologne southward- over the Alps and into Italy heading for the meditereanean- before attempting to board ships at various ports down the coast, culminating we think at Brundisium on the southern coast of Italy.

A spontaneous popular movement like this is not something that passed without comment. Monastic chroniclers were terrified of its implications- angry at the outburst of enthusiasm and fearful of the ways that the pueri had deserted the authority in particular of their parents. But nor was it unusual in the medieval world. There were movements before this- that behind the crusade launched by Peter the Hermit in the 1090s for example (though his movement did attract aristocratic support which the Children's Crusades didn't) and later movements like the Shepherd's Crusade of 1251 for example also had a popular nature. Popular revivals of religious sentiment were a feature of European religious history right up until the reformation and beyond: in 1457-9 thousands of French youths headed for Mont Saint Michel to pray and chronicles talked of the countryside emptying, similar things happened in the sixteenth century for example John of Leiden roused his supporters behind a manifesto of equality and free love based on the scripture. Such upheavals were the price society payed for a surplus of young men who were unemployed and ready to be roused to a biblically literalist interpretation of Christianity. They had other effects too- Dickson the author of the latest study of the Children's Crusade argues that one of those effects was mass migration. Effectively the pueri moved from Germany down to Northern Italy and many of them stayed behind within Italian towns- legends still connect many families in Genoa with the families of pueri who stayed behind, and Otto our petitioner to the papal curia was himself an emmigrant to Italy. Furthermore Dickson argues the effect of the crusade was to popularise the discourse about Crusades and hence about identity within medieval Europe: the call to crusade, made by Pope Innocent in 1213, was the first to address the people of Europe as well as its princes.

The Crusade has passed latterly into fiction and fairytale. Many of whose elements are unreliable- we have little evidence that there were mass sales into slavery at the end of the crusade- its not that likely that babies took part as one rather inspired chronicle has it. Nor that as medieval writers asserted the whole thing was a dasterdly plot by the Old Man of the Mountain or by Stephen of Cloyes's father who had sold his soul to Satan or for that matter by anyone else. Protestants in the 17th Century accused the Pope of selling out the crusaders and loved the self inspired nature of the movement. Voltaire in the 18th Century thought of it as a testament to his new doctrine of a socially contagious mental disease- religion. Victorians imagined it as the march of the innocent- H.G. Wells thought it was a 'dreadful affair'- Bertolt Brecht saw it as an analogy for wartorn central Europe and even a historian whose credentials were as impressive as the British Byzantist Sir Stephen Runciman couldn't resist gilding the history. The truth is though that the movement was a revivalist movement- launched from within the lower classes. We don't know an awful much about it- but what we do know makes it more fascinating than any myth would have it- we have a group of people marching away from their homes in the service of a living God, a God who breaks up authorities and family. The God of truly radical religion- not radical in our sense of the word- but radical in a much more profound sense- the God that destabilises.

The Children's Crusade is a useful marker in that sense- and Dr Dickens's book a useful testament- to the power of religion.


Crushed by Ingsoc said...

It has been said that the legend of the pied piper has its origin in the children's crusade.

It's hard to guage the dynamics behind it, but I would put it somewhere between the pictures we see of hordes of Young Germans clamouring to enlist in 1914 and some of the sentiments that affected the London Bombers.

They were marching out of poverty towards salvation.