As you probably know from history class back in high school, the crusades were well known during the time of the Middle Ages. With the word crusade comes the thoughts of French, German, and other European knights that traveled into the Middle East to "take back the holy lands" from the Muslims that occupied the region at the time.

What you may not know is that at some points of the time there were large groups of children ranging to over thirty-thousand children, whom felt that by faith alone, could take back the holy lands. The children involved were around the age of 12.

Stephen de Coyes’ Crusade

In the year of 1212 AD, a group of these children met in Vendome, France following a 12-year-old shepherd boy by the name of Stephen de Cloyes marched on to Jerusalem. This meeting was brought together because of Stephens’ claim that he received a letter from the King of France, which originated from Jesus. His band of crusaders grew rapidly because he was said to have done miracles for the crowds.

Among the thousands of children were peasant boys who had been allowed to go along with some noble children who joined without telling their parents. Without the aid of maps, weapons or even food, their march took them through southern France after which the reached the Mediterranean Sea. Along the way there, the children passed through many towns begging for food and shelter. Though mostly unsuccessful at getting food and shelter, they received much enthusiasm from parents and priests as to their quest.

Once the group reached Marseilles, the Mediterranean failed to part as Stephen had thought it would. Thus, Stephen enlisted the help of some merchants whom granted the group to come aboard. Of the seven ships that set sail, two of them ships sank drowning hundreds. The rest of the children were enslaved and sold in Algeria.

Of the ships that made it through the storm, the children onboard were later sold to Saraceans as was arranged with the two merchants. After many of the children were initially sold into slavery in the city of Bougie in Algeria. Many others were shipped down into Egypt at which they reached Alexandria. Of the remaining 700, 18 died for not converting to Islam while others were bought by a governor in Egpyt who had an interest in European culture. One priest who grew up working for this governor was later allowed to return to his home in France. At which comes the source of these details of which parents of the lost children questioned him.

The two merchants aforementioned were later caught in the act of kidnapping Emperor Frederick for the Saracens. As such, it would seem that the merchants received what they deserved.

Nicholas’ Crusade

A second crusade in 1212 AD, led by a German youth called Nicholas along with seven-thousand followers, brought around twenty-thousand children to their deaths on a treacherous march through the Alps. Those who did not die or turn back (one third of the original crusaders) reached Rome at which point, Pope Innocent halted their crusade deeming it foolish. When only two thousand children returned, furious parents who lost their sons on the march later hanged the father of Nicholas, who advised his son to take on the crusade.

In other cases, when children actually reached the holy lands, things didn't turn out as planned. The main idea in the minds of the children was that the Muslims couldn't possibly think to kill children and would therefore lay down their swords and give in to them. This however, was not the case.

The source of crusaders for the two crusades mentioned could possibly have come from groups of very poor peasants that had been expatriated into the countryside and such because of economic troubles of the time. Most prominently in France and Germany, these peasants were “compelled” to sell off their lands. These groups where sometimes called pueri which in Latin means “boys.” A possible misinterpretation in later news sources of the time however interpreted the earlier texts as being about children without completely knowing the true meaning of the word. This leads one to think that the crusades mentioned could have been with much older people. Though this is possible, the outcomes of the two crusades still would have happened as they did, children or not. The term pueri is somewhat similar to how “ farm town” people in the US will be considered “country boys,” often used in a derogatory sense. Thus, the French shepherd boy Stephen de Cloyes and Nicholas of Germany most likely came from groups of pueri, each uniting many groups forming religious journeys.

The Children’s Crusade is also known for its’ being an alternate title for the book written by Kurt Vonnegut called Slaughterhouse Five. The connection here is that Kurt Vonnegut writes about World War II and the young people fighting on both sides. This then elaborates into how wars will always be with us creating a need for soldiers that are much younger. This relates to how the Children’s Crusade was basically the idea of going to war with Muslims using children as young as six years old.

These crusades could possibly be the origin of the Pied Piper legend.

References:, © 2000 Steven Kreis
Cartoon Activities in World History, © 1987 J. Weston Walch