The Children’s Crusade: A Change of Interpretation Over Time

By Andrew A. Latham and Liam Athas

“In this very year [1212] there happened a thing wonderful enough and indeed greatly to be marveled at, because it was unheard of in this age. For around Easter and Pentecost, from every part of Germany and France, with no one exhorting or preaching, driven by I know not what spirit, many thousands of pueri, from six years of age to full manhood, went off … to travel toward Jerusalem with banners raised high.” ~ The Chronicae regiae Coloniensis continuatio prima

There is this minute story in medieval history, sandwiched between that of the Fourth and Fifth Crusades, known only as the Children’s Crusade. Starting and ending in the year 1212, it’s a fabled event in which tens of thousands of children, spurred by kids touched with divine visions, rallied together to try and make their own attempt at taking back the Holy Land. From both France and Germany, large numbers of children reportedly left entire livelihoods behind to join together in this massive popular movement of the pueri.


These kids, however, would never get that far as after reaching the Italian city of Genoa in search of passage to Jerusalem, the movement splintered apart. Some were reported to have been captured by pirates, others made their way to Rome, and many settled within different cities along the Mediterranean coast. In the end, few would actually return back home.

With very little historical evidence to propagate an accurate depiction of what really happened during this strange moment in the year 1212, interpretations are vast and differential. There is a lot of debate over who exactly made up this movement of people and what happened to them to how this movement started and if it even was a Crusade at all. But one fascinating yet unexamined part about this strange Children’s Crusade of 1212 is less so the facts behind the story, and rather how the story changes over time. For though the Children’s Crusade occurred in the year 1212, it would not be until almost several hundred years later in the 18th and 19th centuries when the story would actually resurface into popular history and serve a meaningful purpose.


After the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, a large resurgence of Christianity rose to prominence to counteract remaining French revolutionary ideals. And with this resurgence of Christianity, coupled with nostalgia for the past, medieval history was brought to the focal point of historical study. This would be the time when both the concept of the Middle Ages along with the word Crusade itself would actually be coined in our modern sense.

As many across Europe looked back at those earlier centuries, they sought moments which they could reflect on with nostalgia and interpret in their more modern conceptions. The world of knights and castles were roped together to form this glorified era of chivalry for which they could strive for, and religious ‘Crusades’ abroad, deriving from the word cross, grew to define the pious and prestigiously perceived Christian form of religious warfare.

These Crusades, however, were not just another form of conquest abroad like that of the Scramble of Africa of the time. Rather, the word Crusade itself was used to elevate these medieval conflicts to becoming an epic defense of Christianity as a whole. Crusades were justified holy wars and represented important battles between what was perceived as good versus evil. During this resurgence of Christianity in the 19th century, there were many Crusades which were used to propel this popular perceptive. But it was the Children’s Crusade of 1212 which perfectly encapsulated this.

Throughout history, children are often seen as innocent, just, and pure. This can be discerned in numerous places across the world, such as France’s revered Joan of Arc and Qing China’s Fulin, the five-year-old Shunzhi Emperor, to even that of Baby Jesus. There’s something about the youth of children which creates an innocent and pure nature around it. Thus, this Crusade propagated and led by children in the 13th century was used as an example to portray Crusades as a whole in a more innocent and pure light. These two paintings dated from the 19th century corroborate this perspective. Within both pieces, children fill the focal points as they rally together in a very pious and gracious manner. They carry crosses, banners, and staffs as they proudly march before impressed onlookers ready for some seemingly noble religious quest.

Depiction of the Children’s Crusade by Gustave Doré from 1877
The Children’s Crusade depicted in Hutchinson’s Story of the British Nation (Hutchinson, c 1920) – By Edward Frederick Skinner (1865–1924)

Now for anyone who’s studied the Children’s Crusade or indeed the Crusades as whole, this glorified perception is rather misconstrued. The Crusades were violent and chaotic affairs. However they were in many regards religiously important and played a central role in medieval motivations, something that these two pieces of artwork grasp at. Thus when it comes to the story of the Children’s Crusade, the 19th century perceptions looking for prestigious and glorious religious events from the past fixated on this scarcely known Children’s Crusade and the word ‘Children’ attached to create a prime example of what they believed the Crusades were. Innocent, pious, and just religious movements abroad fought in the defense of their religion which were ordained and peaceful enough to where children could even participate.

However, after all of Europe faced two brutal world wars, economic depression, and a hegemonic loss as the world center-place, the nostalgia and luster for the great Crusades long ago were largely overshadowed into obscurity. It wouldn’t be until the turn into the 21st century when the story of the Children’s Crusade would reemerge back out of the history books.

The 21st century has seen a large decrease in religious values – especially within Christianity – as well as a mass shift away from Eurocentric historical narrative. The perspectives of Asian, African, and Middle Eastern history have all made their way to the forefront of Western academia, bringing with it changes in historic perceptions as well as interpretations. And the story of the Children’s Crusade is not exempt from this. While perceived in the 19th century as being an example of the Crusade’s just and innocence, the 21st-century interpretation of the Children’s Crusade has extracted an entirely opposite interpretation to reflect the outlandishness and absurdity modernly believed of the Crusades today. Indeed, with most people within the 21st century being disconnected from religious ideals along with increased nationalism in Islamic countries and small bits of oikophobia, the Crusades are typically portrayed as a story of European colonization abroad and the danger religious beliefs can impose on its followers. These two sources, a modern image and poem, exemplify this.


Poem by by Amit Majmudar in First Things

Compared to the 19th-century paintings above, this modern image portrays the Children’s Crusade almost like that of kids playing dress up. They ride wooden horses, carry miniature swords, and march in a rather childlike way, very unlike the gracious and pious interpretations created two centuries before. The poem also propels this modern perspective by equating the Children’s Crusade to that of kids in a candy store, stacking on top of each other to reach the sweets of Jerusalem on a high shelf. Together, these pieces fixate on the word children in ‘Children’s Crusade’ with the childish, manipulable, and lack of overall awareness children are known for to degrade the Crusades as a whole rather than the more positive, innocent, and just attributes that also surround depictions of kids which idolized the Crusades just a few centuries before.

Thus from a society seeking to prop up Crusades onto a pedestal to another aiming to push them down, the Children’s Crusade and the word ‘Children’ used to describe this movement in the year 1212 have been interpreted in several different ways throughout history to propagate different perceptions of the Crusading period in its entirety. From creating an innocent and pious movement of people to demonstrating modern perceptions of absurdity and outlandishness and everything in between.

However unique this change in perception in regards to Children’s Crusade might seem, this is rather a common theme throughout the whole of human history and its subchapters. As time moves forward and perceptions change, elements of history will always be interpreted in a different light based on narrative and beliefs. From the largest volumes like World War Two down to the most minute stories like the Children’s Crusade, it’s within the nature of history to change from interpretation to impact its meaning in the future. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to insert our own modern interpretations of past events. History is valuable because of the meaning we can pull from it.

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However, there is great importance in maintaining a certain level of objectivity and intact narration from those who made this history all those years ago so that we as a society can avoid misconstruing historical events like that of the Children’s Crusade and recognizing when that history is manipulated.


Dr. Andrew Latham is a professor of political science at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He is the author, most recently, of a monograph entitled Medieval Sovereignty, published in 2020 by ARC Humanities Press. You can visit Andrew’s website at or follow Andrew on Twitter @aalatham

Liam Athas studies at Macalester College.

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