Revisiting a Powerful Myth

A new history and an opera retell the tale of the Children’s Crusade.

We all know, or believe we know, the story of the children’s crusade. In the year 1212, many thousands of French and German children spontaneously set out on foot toward the Mediterranean, thence hoping to make their way to Jerusalem and evict the infidels from the Holy Land. Some may remember the event from parental readings of popular children’s stories such as Jerusalem and the Crusades (1913), Joan’s Crusade (1947), The Children’s Crusade (1958), An Army of Children (1978) and The Scarlet Cross (2006)—a small selection from a significant body of literature.

Others will be familiar with Sting’s song “Children’s Crusade” (available as a ringtone), or perhaps one or more of the 20th-century literary or operatic versions by Bertolt Brecht, Gabriele d’Annunzio, Benjamin Britten, Gian Carlo Menotti and Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse Five is subtitled The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death).

The crusade of the children is certainly what Carl Jung would have called an archetype, a potent meme embodying one of the existential dilemmas of human consciousness. In this case, it would be the absurd but inextinguishable hope that our children will become the perfected humans that we have failed to be. Only through them can we reach heaven, or Jerusalem: that place where evil is conquered by youthful faith and not by the polluted hands of adults, which seem always to lead to the trenches of the First World War or the cells of Abu Ghraib.

The peregrinatio puerorum (crusade of the children) has inspired two new major works. Gary Dickson, an American medievalist who has taught in Edinburgh since 1974, wrote The Children’s Crusade: Medieval History, Modern Mythistory as a scholarly rebalancing of what we know and do not know about the tale and its power over us. It is a welcome in-depth study of an underserved topic. The other, composer R. Murray Schafer’s Children’s Crusade, is a music drama that attempts nothing less than to evoke the transcendental experience of the children. To this end it employs choirs of Latin-singing angels, medieval bells (called crotales), lutes, recorders and an Arabic instrument called the qanun, which conjures the children’s hoped-for destination.

It is not difficult to make the case for the persistent allure of the tale, whose 800th anniversary will arrive in 2012. As Dickson’s admirably researched study makes clear, it has served as a vehicle not only for transcendental longings but also for the hopes and fears of western society almost from the moment it took place. Having examined more than 50 narrative texts, “written in Latin prose before 1301,” Dickson finds that even then the tale was alchemizing into “mythistory,” a word he borrows from American historian William McNeill. He mentions, for example, Sicard, bishop of Cremona, who was alive at the time of the event and lived not far from its route through Italy. The good bishop insisted that it was led by a “child (infans) younger than ten,” a statement preposterous in itself and steadily undermined by contemporary historical research. Why would he say such a thing? Because, as Dickson points out, without a child leader “the notion of a youth movement vanishes” and the power is drained from the story. It is almost as if Sicard sensed the plot elements it would require in order to survive.

Contrarily, it is also worth noting that, even at the height of what we now dreamily call the Age of Faith, many 13th-century observers were hard-eyed and caustic in their reaction. The monk Herman of Niederaltaich in Bavaria called it a “ridiculous expedition of children.” A chronicler in Strasbourg called it “a pilgrimage of foolish boys.” A reliable document dated 1213 in the French royal archives said that it caused a riot in the village of Rocourt, likely because the bishop tried to discourage it while the townspeople were inspired by it. The crusade, being spontaneous, had no mandate from the pope and threatened religious authority.

At the same time, monkish chroniclers could not resist the purity and pathos of the story. A contemporary observer, the Laon Anonymous, records that its leader, a shepherd boy named Stephen of Cloyes, met Jesus Christ himself by a dusty roadside. The Son of Man demanded a children’s crusade and gave Stephen a letter to take to King Phillip. The king’s response was that the boys should go home. And this is just what they did, says the chronicler, adding that he is sorry it worked out that way: “it seemed to many that by means of such innocents the Lord would do something great and new upon the earth, which turned out to be far from the case.”

This ambivalence, and particularly the yearning note of the chronicler’s hope that the children would do something new upon the earth, accounts for the story’s subsequent success in imprinting itself on the Zeitgeist of each succeeding era. That, and its reality. It appears that some thousands of young people did in fact make the crusade, in spite of the disapproval of kings and bishops.

According to Dickson’s research, some French children continued on the march and may have joined a better-documented crusade of young people that began in Cologne, one of the great pilgrimage destinations in 13th-century Europe. Dickson can summon an action writer’s pen when he needs it. He sketches the scene: Relics of the Three Kings had recently been brought to the city, raising its religious fervour and attracting “assorted religious con-men.” Young pilgrims in the city began to identify themselves as crusaders, under the leadership of a puer (boy) named Nicholas. Some were stripped by thieves, but others shuffled southward, proclaiming their intention of crossing the Mediterranean “dry-shod” (that is, the waters would open for them, or they would walk on the waters).

What motivated them? It may be that the unhappy peasants of northern Europe, usually “likened to the beasts they tended,” were further tormented at the time by a land shortage. It created a frustrated sub-class of young men too poor to marry. Although Dickson warns that it is risky to speculate on the mentality of people at such a remove from ourselves, he also succumbs to the temptation, arguing that for these dispossessed people an ecstatic religious expedition might have been the only way to gather together any sort of status and self-respect. Modest surviving evidence suggests that they did actually wear shifts painted with the design of a cross, marking them as successors to the four legitimate crusades that had previously taken place. A chronicler notes that an angel had spoken to them (which supports Murray Schafer’s ecstatic version of the tale).

Their goal was nothing less than to liberate the True Cross, a piece of wood discovered in Jerusalem’s Holy Sepulchre shortly after the European conquest of the city in 1099—and then lost to the Saracens at the Battle of Hattin in 1187. It was a horrific psychic blow to Christianity, made worse by the failure of the Third and Fourth crusades to recover it. Where violence and warriorship had failed to win back the True Cross, surely the pure love of unarmed children would succeed.

The denouement of the story is desperately sad. Once in Italy, exhausted from hunger and illness, many simply settled down and never went home. Dickson does not believe that they ever stood on the seashore and asked for the waters to part in front of them, however cinematic the image. Several chroniclers said they looked for ships and did not find any. “Another group moved down the western coast of Italy to Brindisi, where the bishop made sure that no ship would accept them.”

A deeper “mythistorical” mark was left by a group that possibly made its way to Marseille and was offered transport. Five ships arrived in North Africa, where the children were sold as slaves to the Muslims. There is little evidence for any of this, but it supports another thread of the story: that the children fell into the hands of greedy Christians (the shipping merchants are named “pig” and “iron”) or an evil magician called the Old Man of the Mountain.

Others returned home discouraged and penniless. Several sources mention that many girl crusaders “lost the flower of their chastity.”

So, there was a peregrinatio puerorum. But beyond that there is little agreement, and Dickson is meticulous in weighing the credibility of the contemporary sources. Using his broad scholarship, he leads in evidence from related subjects (including the story of Francis of Assisi’s journey to the Holy Land and the Crusade of 1215, both of which were influenced by the children’s crusade). He does everything possible to stitch things together, to make the fabric of fact as whole as it can be.

But he also acknowledges the many holes and rents in the fabric, and makes a questionable decision: “what cannot be proved can at least be hypothesized.” There follow many pages in which the dominant verbs are “could have” and “might have.”

One thing Dickson cannot give up, however ambiguous the evidence, is the idea that these were indeed children or at most teenagers. It is essential to his larger thesis, in which the crusade becomes a marker of intergenerational conflict. Perhaps looking for contemporary relevance, he is anxious to link it with the “peace and love” phenomenon of the generation that came of age in the 1960s. His book begins with a consideration of Agatha Christie’s highly paranoid 1970 novel Passenger to Frankfurt, which says the hippies are “rather like the children’s crusade. Starting with idealism … and ending with death.”

This is followed by a consideration of Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign, the youthful followers of which were dubbed by the press a “children’s crusade.” In this sense the dead students at Kent State University become crusaders for a better, more honest world.

However, Dickson’s metaphor sometimes runs away with him. We move from Kent State and the civil rights struggle to the post-2001 “crusade against terror” and the ancient anger it rekindles in the Muslim world—a roping together of critters that don’t belong in the same corral.

He also has a fondness for witty intellectual wordplay (“a myth-reading rather than a misreading of history”), which betrays an underlying weakness for broad-stroke speculative thinking. His thesis is that the promiscuous blend of myth and history that created the medieval chronicles is psychically related to the contemporary culture of “factoid films, docudramas” and costumed re-enactments of historical events. This is the kind of omnibus thinking that causes the chords of “I Am the Walrus” (“I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together”) to come welling up from my subconscious.

Another prominent crusade scholar, Peter Raedts, has argued that the word “puer” at the time had a colloquial meaning akin to bumpkin or country cousin, and did not necessarily mean child or even young man. Dickson acknowledges the point, but disagrees that “pueri is meaningless as an age category.” He points out that contemporary observers often said that mature women and older people joined the pueri at a later point in their march, which he believes implies that the movement began with young people.

This is an honest scholarly disagreement. But, at the same time, Dickson seems to need it to be true that young people instigated the Crusade of 1212. If they did not, then it was not a children’s crusade at all, and the subsequent myth is based on nothing more than a linguistic misunderstanding. Dickson plainly prefers to believe that it was an event uncanny even in its own time.

If Gary Dickson has, in fact, been seduced by the power of the story, he is in good company. The latter part of his book is an eight-century chronology of other estimable minds that became fascinated by it, from the 14th-century storyteller who created the crusade-like tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelyn through to Voltaire, who felt the crusade proved that religion is a form of infectious mental illness. To these we might add Sting, who uses it to memorialize the slaughter of a generation of near-children in the First World War. Or paranoid right-wingers, who claim that Al Gore is seducing a new generation of child crusaders with a phony story about global warming. Or a very nice priest in Combermere, Ontario, who is proclaiming a children’s crusade to persuade boys to become Catholic priests.

Where, then, to place R. Murray Schafer in all of this? His ambitious contemporary music drama, Children’s Crusade, commissioned by Soundstreams and the Luminato festival, will feature nearly 100 performers, many from the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus. The Toronto Consort will perform the complex modernist score. The setting will be a disused industrial warehouse in Toronto’s Parkdale district featuring steeply pitched interior ceilings reminiscent of cathedrals but executed in a rough industrial style. The audience will follow the performers through the various “stages” of the drama, echoing the medieval convention of staging scenes on separate pageant wagons.

The story, which follows the French children’s crusade, begins with a boy called the Holy Child (presumably Stephen) encountering a stranger (presumably Jesus) who gives him a letter to take to King Philip. A group of street thugs are converted to his cause when a choir of singing children appears in the sky, and the Holy Child leads them (through a landscape of pickpockets, beggars and jugglers) toward Philip’s court. En route he has a vision of a Saracen girl, Ariana, who tells him that they previously lived together in heaven. At court the king overrules stodgy adults, such as the university rector, who fear the child’s destabilizing influence. “As flies chase honey,” he says, “may children chase their dreams.”

The Ariana story echoes the great theme of Schafer’s massive Patria series, which is a sacred love story concerning the struggle of a male and female soul to become united. The balance of the new music drama wanders from the historical issues raised by the crusade in favour of Schafer’s preferred transcendental concerns. The Holy Child is tempted by an elderly one-eyed whore who works for the evil deity Moloch, while the monks, who should watch out for the Child, are blinded by worldliness, symbolized by the asses’ heads they wear. But the music, infused with the ecstatic optimism of children, carries them forward toward the waters of the Mediterranean—which will part, or not.

Schafer has said that the impediment to the real children’s crusade “was the adults who tried to prevent it or feared it.” On one level this is true, but it implies that had the adults been supportive it might have succeeded. This could only be possible in the magical world of Schafer’s imagination, where fallen human nature is abolished.

But that of course is precisely the archetypal dream that has imbued the historically bounded crusade of children with its lingering mythopoeic power.