The Children's Crusade
E. B. BROWNING: A Vision of Poets.
D URING the ten years that followed the taking of Constantinople, Pope Innocent tried to stir up another Crusade, which he hoped should actually fulfil its high ideals.
But the old enthusiasm for the Holy War had died down. The chief kingdoms of Europe were too busy quarrelling with one another to have leisure to think of the distant lands of the East. John of England was getting into trouble both with his own people and with the Pope himself; Philip Augustus of France was building up his kingdom into a great and united nation; Otho of Germany and Frederick IL, grandson of Barbarossa, the Crusader, were in fierce conflict with regard to Germany.
While Europe was thus absorbed in more or less selfish aims and ideals, a bitter cry for help was heard from the East. A terrible famine, followed by pestilence, both caused by the failure of the Nile to overflow its banks and fertilize the soil, had reduced the people of Palestine and Egypt to a state of absolute misery. Mothers were said actually to have killed and eaten their own babes in their extremity of hunger, and hundreds of people simply lay down and died by the roadside.
The extreme limit of misery and human desolation was reached when to famine and pestilence was added an earthquake which destroyed whole cities. Heavy, indeed, seemed the hand of God upon His land, and there were not wanting many who said that He was punishing it for past sins and present negligence, since Jerusalem was still in the hands of the infidel.
Suddenly, while Pope Innocent was vainly trying to rouse Europe to undertake a Sixth Crusade, an astonishing movement began to be seen amongst the children of the different lands. Throughout France and Germany boy leaders drilled their little regiments, fastened on the Cross, and prepared seriously to go forth to the Holy War. At first they met with opposition, and ridicule; but such was the earnest zeal of these little people that even the most hardened onlooker ceased to jeer or hinder. Mothers, with aching hearts, saw their little ones march forth, and put out no hand to prevent them, and as the procession passed along the high roads, the children swarmed out froze cottage and castle to join the ranks.
From Germany a band of seven thousand children set out for the port of Genoa, from whence they hoped to embark for the Holy Land. They were led by a boy named Nicholas, who swayed them by the most extraordinary power, and was almost worshipped by his little host.
But to get to Genoa, they had to cross the Alps, and there cold and hunger left thousands of the poor mites dead upon the mountain side. The remnant, a sad and sorry spectacle, ragged, starving and dirty, made its way at length into Genoa. There they hoped to find friends and help to cross the sea; but the citizens of the port looked with scant favour upon the little Crusaders, and the Senate ordered that they should forthwith depart from the city. Some wealthy inlitbitants, kinder of heart than the rest, adopted a few of the fairer and more attractive children; a few more struggled on to Rome to lay their cause at the feet of the Pope. The rest, heart-sick and weary, tried to struggle back to their homes. Enthusiasm was long since dead, they were laughed at, as failures, and saddest of all, when they were asked why they had left their homes, they now made weary answer that "they could not tell."
Few indeed, ever saw their native land again.
Another band of German boys and girls succeeded in reaching the port of Brindisi, where they were actually put on board ships bound for the East. What was their fate remains a mystery; they were never heard of more.
The largest band of all staried from Vend6me in France, under the leadership of a nameless shepherdboy, who wore a little sheepskin coat and carried a banner upon which was worked a lamb.
He seemed to possess a magic power over his playmates, for at the sound of his clear, high young voice, hundreds and thousands of children flocked to his banner and received the cross from his hands. Not even grown persons, not even the most obstinate parent could stand against his persuasions and entreaties. Full of devotion, full of zeal, the children marched upon the long road to Marseilles, singing psalms and hymns, and crying constantly aloud—
"O Lord Christ! Restore to us thy Cross!"
"You know not what is before you," said the wise greybeards of the villages through which they passed. "What do you mean to do?"
"To get to the Holy Land," was the invariable and undaunted answer.
Weary and hungry, with their ranks much thinned by fatigue and the hardships of the way, the Child Crusade entered Marseilles with gallant hearts. For they fully expected that they would find the sea cleft asunder by a miracle, and a pathway prepared for them to the other side. When they found they were mistaken, some turned their faces homeward; but most stayed to see if by any means they could get boats to take them to the Holy Land. To them came presently two merchants, Hugh Ferrens, and William Beco, or Porcus, who had already discovered how to make a fortune by selling European children as slaves to the Saracens. Approaching the eager little ones with kindly words, they offered to lend them seven ships wherein they might be taken across the sea to their destination.
Joyfully the children agreed and set forth with songs and merry cries, cheered by a vast multitude who watched them from the shore. Of that bright-faced band not one ever reached the Holy Land or returned to Europe to tell the tale. At the end of two days, two of the ships were wrecked in a terrible storm and all on board perished.
The rest escaped this peril, and sailed on to Alexandria and other ports, where the poor little passengers were landed and sold as slaves to the Saracens. Twelve of these are said to have won the martyr's crown, because they preferred to die rather than renounce their faith, a few reached the Christian city of Ptolemais after a time, and told their sad story to the enraged inhabitants, the rest were condemned to a life of slavery among the sons of Islam.
Theirs is a sad story, yet we may find in it the awakening of that spirit of devotion which seemed to have died out in Europe.
Pope Innocent, when he heard of this Crusade, might well say, "These children are a reproach to us for slumbering while they fly to the succour of the Holy Land."
From that time preparations for the Sixth Crusade began in good earnest.