The Crusades of medieval western Europe became progressively uglier as centuries passed; gold and lives were squandered, and yet the Crusaders were no closer to wresting the Holy Land from the infidel Muslims.
In 1202, Crusaders ransacked Christian churches and Eastern European villages, much to the embarrassment of the Church and their communities back home. Morale in western Europe was at an all-time low.
It was in this atmosphere that two young boys emerged from the countryside of western Europe to act as God’s warriors. Stephen was a young shepherd boy from Cloyes, France.
Devout and eager, he claimed to have received a message from Jesus that he was to walk to Jerusalem and crush the infidels. Stephen soon managed to attract thousands of French boys to his cause, all hoping to change the world and right the wrongs of the Crusaders before them.
Parents cried and begged them not to go, but church officials, by many accounts, fully encouraged these youths in their quest.
At the same time, a similar scene was being played out in Germany. Nicholas, a local peasant boy from Cologne, said he had received specific instructions from a cross of lights in the sky. He managed to gather at least 7,000 young people to his cause.
Like lambs to slaughter, the two groups of unarmed children marched off to reclaim the Holy Sepulcher.
It’s a toss-up for which group fared worse. Most of the German children either froze to death or slid off the mountains trying to get through the Alps. The French children suffered from disease and hunger during their long march.
When they reached the Mediterranean Sea, they were disappointed to discover that the sea did not part and let them walk across, as Stephen had prophesied. Finally, seven ships were supplied by two rich merchants to carry the boys across the the Mediterranean.
Two of them sank in storms with 1,400 children aboard. The other five reached land on the other side but nowhere near the Holy Land, alas. The sailors had changed course to Egypt where they sold the boys into slavery. Many of them were put to death when they refused to convert to Islam.
Meanwhile, the German children who survived passage over the Alps split into smaller groups, each looking for the passage to Palestine. Some arrived at the Italian port of Genoa with no means of transportation.
Others just disappeared into the countryside to fates unknown. Of the thousands that set out from France and Germany, only a hundred or two were ever heard from again.
Some historians theorize that the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin—who magically led an entire German village of children away, never to be seen again—was an allegorical history of the parents’ and villagers’ deep sense of loss over their children who went off to the Children’s Crusade.