Medieval Mass Hysteria: The Youth Crusade that Defied the Pope
The tragic tale of a 13th century children’s movement you’ve never heard of.
They put us to shame. While they rush to the recovery of the Holy Land, we sleep”
— Pope Innocent III
I first heard about the Children’s Crusade in 90s from a DC Comic/Vertigo series Dead Boy Detectives: A Children’s Crusade by Neil Gaiman. I was entranced by the story and wondered if any of it could be true. Gaiman throws in tons of classical references in his work. I found out the Children’s Crusade was true, and the horrific ending was worse than the comic portrayed.
I wrote an essay about this radical children’s movement for my crowd psychology class: A Study of Riots, Cults, and Social Movements. Definitely one of my favorite classes ever and we were lucky that our professor was an expert witness for the defense during the David Koresh/Waco trials the year before, so we got all the juicy details of the case pertaining to groupthink and brain washing.
It was the early 90s and computers weren’t everywhere. I had to search out actual books in the University of Texas’s sprawling library building, I found one book about the actual movement, and one paragraph referencing it in another massive reference book about the crusades. Recently, I watched the 2006 documentary Barefoot to the Promised Land: The Children’s Crusade to refresh my memory and it was as sad as I remembered.
In the April of 1212, two young prophets emerged from the filth of the medieval ghettos to lead a peaceful march to retake Jerusalem. Stephen (12 yrs old) of Cloyes, France and Nicholas (10 yrs old) of Cologne, Germany. Both were sheep herders that had visions of Jesus telling them to retake the Holy Land. Stephen claimed to have met Jesus in a graveyard and was given a letter to present to Phillip the II, King of France. Nicholas had seen a fiery cross in the sky. Stephan had 30,000 followers, while Nicholas mustered around 21,000. It wasn’t until 50 years later, in 1262, that their story was recorded by a traveling monk named Alberic of Trois-Fontaine. He met a man named Rupert who claimed to have followed Nicholas of Cologne on his Crusade.
Nicholas and his followers marched 700 miles across Germany before crossing the…