Thinking about the Children’s Crusade

9:35 pm - January 1st 2008

by Gracchi    

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The Children’s Crusade happened seven hundred and ninety five years ago. The latest research upon it concludes that we know very little about it. We know the names of only three individuals who took part- Stephen of Cloyes, Nicholas of Cologne and an Otto. Some historians doubt that any children were involved at all- though again the most recent research suggests that they were. We have almost no evidence as to numbers. We think that the movement such as it was was split and had different objectives- with a French and several German branches. We are sure that it petered out and it seems to have had no impact on contemporary history. Furthermore it is hard to imagine today that a movement of shepherds and apprentices could start and stream over the Alps and down to the coast of Italy on a quest to attack Jerusalem, aided by a conviction that when they arrived at the coast the Lord would, as he had in Egypt, make the seas part so they could march through the Meditereanean to rescue the True Cross. Embedded in Medieval history, the Children’s Crusade, you might think has little to teach the modern left. You would be cataclysmically wrong.

The Children’s Crusade, as its most recent chronicler Dr Gary Dickson, Emeritus Fellow of History at Edinburgh University declares, was a single instance of a much more widespread phenomenon in medieval society. Throughout medieval history one comes up against crusades which came from below- Europe was afire throughout the Middle Ages with crusading fervour. In some areas- the Chartrain where the crusade of 1212 originated- frequent tours by preachers bred a receptive population who dwelt firmly with the conviction that they had an obligation to redeem the Holy Land. Often these movements, springing from below, were not what their instigators expected. Dr Dickson beleives that the inspiration for the Children’s Crusade was a tour of the Chartrain to collect men to go and fight in Spain, not to wander off to Southern Italy in search for passage to Jerusalem. The elites of the time were terrified- a crusade of young men (possibly  it would be better to call this crusade the adolescent’s crusade) coming uncontrolled through Germany and France into Italy was not what they had in mind. Furthermore such crusading undermined the authority of parents, it undermined the authority of the church and the state to decide what avenues religious fervour ought to pursue.

 Those questions seem medieval but in reality they are not. They are central to how we understand stability in the modern world and particularly terrorism. Lets abstract them a little for a second from their context. Essentially the Children’s Crusade proves a couple of things- or shows a couple of things in action. The events of 1212 demonstrate that religious messages of conflict will not neccessarily be received by those who hear them in the ways that the speakers design. Whether its Papal attacks on Islam or Saudi attacks on America, the literate minded recipient of the information will most likely interpret it in their own way, no matter what a more politique leadership might suggest that they think about it. That means that whereas the specific ends of the policy from the Papacy or the Ulema is unimportant, its vocabulary is vital. In a society like medieval Europe in which information was strictly rationed, that vocabulary conditioned the ways that people behaved politically. Consequently with a movement like the Children’s Crusade- a variety of motives, economic, intergenerational and others were all expressed in the medium of an eschatalogical crusade. Rhetoric from the top influences but does not control the way that popular anger is expressed- Spain might have been the Papacy’s preferred destination but the children didn’t hear about that, they heard that Jerusalem was in danger and went on the march.

Understanding something like the Children’s Crusade- the way it both adopted and challenged the ideas of the elite- enables us to understand a bit more say about the thinking of terrorists in the West Bank or of the religious right in the United States. In order to work out strategies to defeat those movements, we need to think about their mindsets. I’d suggest that when we do, we look at the way that people involved in them interpret the world, using vocabularies supplied by those who provide them with information. It won’t neccessarily matter what say Iranian TV says about bombing America today if it tells people that Americans are evil every day. It might even be worth applying such analysis in the West- though the presence of more sources of information makes it more complicated. Even so its worth remembering that the influence of the media that we have is more important when it comes to our general framework in which we interpret the world, than our interpretation of specific events. We are educated ideologically by the news, we respond to events according to our understanding of that ideology. Obviously this can go too far- but its worth thinking about the Children’s Crusade and other events like it, when you analyse the way that information is disseminated through society. The importance of propaganda is often not in provoking a reaction to a particular event, propaganda provides the canvass and that largely governs the nature of the picture- even if its an alarming one for the rest of society.

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About the author
'Gracchi' is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He started a blog last year which deals with culture and politics and history, where his interest lies. He is fascinated by all sorts of things including good films and books and undogmatic discussion of ideas. This seems like a good place to do the latter... Also at: Westminister Wisdom
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