The Middle Ages in Europe was a time of religious fervor, portents, visions, and the unbridled zeal to abolish the Infidel by any means possible. All this abject nuttiness came together to inspire the Crusades — pilgrimages made by good Christian men to the Holy Land to free it from the clutches of Islam.
Dying during the process (and many did) was considered but a trifle. Your heavenly reward for snuffing it in the midst of such a noble mission would surely be worth the earthly sacrifice.
This crusading business wasn’t a strictly 18+ activity either. Young children, as well as adults, made the incredibly risky and often deadly trip from Europe to Jerusalem.
Seriously though, can you imagine what kind of leverage parents who survived a Crusade as a kid had with their own brood?
“When I was your age, I walked thousands of miles from Paris to Jerusalem and back!” blows your Grandpa’s “I walked five miles to school every day, uphill both ways, through the snow!” lament completely out of the water.
It all started with a 12-year-old French lad named Stephen. He gave a scrap of bread to a beggar who just so happened to be Jesus. J.C. gave Stephen a letter to pass along to the French king and told the boy it would be his job to lead the next crusade.
Better than the deal Mary of Nazareth got if you ask me. At least Stephen wasn’t pregnant.
So Stephen journeyed to St. Denys and was treated to the sight of many miracles and visions along his way. He had no trouble winning over an impressive number of followers. An apparition of Jesus was a pretty good reference in those days.
Stephen managed to gather a crowd of 30,000, and when they reached Marseilles, two merchant seamen offered to give everyone a lift in their vessels. What luck!
Or so you’d think. Unfortunately, two of the seven ships crammed full of kids (probably whining “are we there yet?”) were lost during a storm.
The other five made it to Africa, where all the pilgrims on board were promptly sold to the Saracens as slaves. So much for their firm belief that any Infidels they encountered would be so overcome by their innocence and purity, they would convert to Christianity on the spot and treat them with the grateful reverence they deserved.
LOL they really thought that.
In Germany, similar goings-on were brewing at the same time, but with a couple of notable differences. Several groups began organizing in separate parts of the country. They eventually joined forces under the leadership of a guy named Nicholas. These groups weren’t kids, but mostly teenagers and young adults (from what can be gathered.)
Why do historians believe this bunch was mostly young folks? Because the Latin word that was used to describe the Crusaders was puer, which could be translated as either “boy” or “young man of low social standing.” It’s entirely possible that the true meaning got lost through the centuries. This bunch may possibly have intended to make a go of heading for the Holy Land, having nothing to lose by doing so.
It was no joy ride, however. A great number of them perished on the trip over the Alps. The Crusade reached a critical turning point on August 25, 1212, when Nicholas and 12,000 followers reached the port of Genoa in Italy. Nick promised the crowd that the Mediterranean would part, allowing them all to stroll right over to the Holy Land. When he couldn’t pull off a Moses-type sea-parting, the Crusade was no more. The stragglers that could make it home returned feeling pretty disgusted by their own level of gullibility.
Or so the story goes. The most we can say for sure is that there were probably a couple of good-sized economically disenfranchised groups of young folks (but almost certainly not little children) wandering around Europe in 1212, but beyond that, verifiable claims are slim to none.