Friday, November 13, 2009

The Strange Tale of The Children's Crusade

An interesting, but disputed, tale from Medieval Europe is the story of the Children's Crusade. Every person who takes world history has at least heard the name, but most do not really know what really happened. Neither do the historians.

In the year 1212, it is said a small boy named Stephen, approached the King of France saying he had been told by Christ to lead a crusade of children to Palestine and reclaim the Holy Lands. The King was not interested, but the boy attracted a large following with his claims that the seas would part and they would walk to Palestine and peacefully convert the Moslems. Children came from all over France and followed him in a vast procession to Marseilles, where God was to part the seas. None of the crowd was said to be older than 12 years of age, and none of them had any supplies or food. They subsisted on hand-outs from strangers, and many were said to have starved or dropped dead by the roadside along the way.

When they reached Marseilles, they quickly went to the sea, expecting it to part for them. It did not, and the group became disenchanted, with a lot of the children attempting to wander home again, but most getting lost. A small group of merchants offers to take them to Palestine by ship, not wanting to see God's will fail. This group of children leaves across the sea by ship, and is never heard from again. Unknown to the French public, the children were really shipped to Palestine and sold as slaves by the unscrupulous merchants. The rest staggered home, dying from exhaustion and starvation.

Although quite a gloomy tale on it's own, it gets even stranger. A German tale, very similar to this one picks up at this point. There are some minor differences, but it is still a tale of children traveling (through Italy this time), and crossing the sea in ships to never be heard from again. The German children were said to be slightly older, and there were also vagabonds and prostitutes in their company. Prostitutes?

Modern research is shedding new light on these old tales. These stories may not represent an actual event, but a mythical telling of the story of the plight of the poor during this time period. These two stories borrow heavily from each other, and in many cases were written by historians up to 30 years past the time it was said to have occurred. Most of these stories were written in Latin, by Catholic historians. They called the children pueri, which has been inferred to mean children, but really is closer to "country boy", sort of like an early slang form of "hick". This, no doubt, has confused the story even more.

During this period (the 1200's), the economic conditions were such that many poor country families, or pueri, had to sell their land in order to avoid debt. This left them without means, and wandering the countryside with their children in tow. Many of them starved, or died on the road during their wanderings. It became so bad, there were many thousands of them, especially in France. It is surmised by modern historians, that the early Catholic Church ingrained this into stories of the crusade, whether knowingly or not, to generate public support for the crusades.

What this means, is that this strange and mythic tale of tragedy, is at it's core a tale of the plight of the forgotten rural poor in Medieval Europe. The tales of demise and the dangers faced by the children in the crusade stories, were the very same dangers faced by the rural poor. Even the tales of slavery, of which it was common at the time as Frankish slaves were highly sought after in Moslem countries.

These tales appear to be another case of history being hidden underneath the veil of mythology and legend, which is not really what it appears to be.

Here is a link to a traditional account of this tale...

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