What Was the Children's Crusade?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The Children's Crusade was a Crusade led by a young boy who wanted to join adults defending Christendom during the tumult of the Middle Ages. There is some debate as to whether the boy was French or German, but in 1212, he motivated a large crowd which followed him to Italy, and then to the Middle East, where the young Crusaders were ultimately captured and sold into slavery. It certainly sounds like a fascinating story, especially to modern readers interested in medieval history; unfortunately, all the evidence suggests that the Children's Crusade didn't actually happen.

The issue of land was one of the driving forces behind the Crusades.
The issue of land was one of the driving forces behind the Crusades.

As often happens in history, the precise origin of the legends about the Children's Crusade isn't known, since the alleged event occurred so long ago. However, once enough sources picked up the story and claimed that it was true, people bought the bait, and generally agreed that there was, in fact, a crusade led by a motivated shepherd boy who claimed to have received visions from God. The supposed miracles which facilitated the passage to the Middle East should have been a tipoff, but apparently people were eager to believe in the idea of the Children's Crusade, and it wasn't until the late 20th century that historians decided to get to the bottom of the story.

The Children's Crusade ended in the Middle East, where the crusaders were captured and sold into slavery.
The Children's Crusade ended in the Middle East, where the crusaders were captured and sold into slavery.

What they discovered is that the idea of the “Children's Crusade” was probably largely brought about entirely by accident. The myth was created due to a confusion in translation. The Latin word for “boys,” pueri, was also used in the Middle Ages as a slang term to refer to the landless poor. Translators who didn't understand the implications read contemporary accounts of groups of pueri wandering the countryside with claims of being on Crusade, and translated these texts with children in mind, not impoverished adults.

In fact, evidence seems to suggest that the so-called ce was actually ausader motley crew of landless individuals who wandered Europe after being displaced. Once of the driving forces behind the Crusades was the issue of land and inheritance, because as the population of Europe grew, so did pressures on family lands. Landless individuals often joined forces in the search for charity or a new place to settle, and at least one landless group in 1212 did indeed claim to be going on Crusade, although evidence suggests that they never got out of Europe.

The story of the Children's Crusade is a fascinating example of the ways in which history can be misinterpreted, and it's a sobering lesson. You should always check the sources for your information about a historical event, whether the event happened 2,000 years ago or last week, because a single misprint or mistranslation can be rapidly disseminated and it can endure for centuries.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@babalaas- That is an interesting thought. There are plenty of examples of stories and fairy tales being used to teach children about issues surrounding multigenerational trauma at a young age. This is especially true for war, famine, social hysteria, and disease. These stories help to explain both the original crisis, and the lingering social trauma created by these crises.

These issues can be hard for a child to understand, but a child is often graphically aware of these issues when these social traumas occur. Some examples of these types of children’s rhymes and fairy tales that come to mind are ring around the rosy, little red riding hood, and the medieval crusades tale Old Man in the Mountain.


I almost have to wonder if this story was a way for parents to teach their children about their religion during a tough time in history. The crusades were essentially a religious war to regain control of the Holy lands. Just as in most wars, a number of children lost their fathers during the crusades. I think that a story like this could have been conceivably been created to teach children to be brave. The crusades lasted between two to three centuries so there must have been some fear amongst children of invaders coming to take their cities. A story about children crusaders could have been the “be brave like your father” story of the day.

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