Though a relatively minor episode of the Crusades, the "Children's Crusade" starkly reveals the atmosphere of the times. Distinguished historian Steven Runciman, in his three-volume A History of the Crusades, cut through the scholarly debate surrounding this bizarre episode. Here is a condensed version of his account of one branch of the venture.

One day in May 1212, there appeared at St. Denis, where King Philip of France was holding his court, a shepherd boy of about 12 years old called Stephen. He brought with him a letter for the king, which, he said, had been given to him by Christ in person, who had appeared to him as he was tending his sheep and who had bidden him go and preach the crusade. King Philip was not impressed by the child and told him to go home. But Stephen, whose enthusiasm had been fired by his mysterious visitor, saw himself now as an inspired leader who would succeed where his elders had failed. For the past 15 years, preachers had been going around the countryside urging a crusade against the Muslims of the East or of Spain or against the heretics of Languedoc [Albigensians]. It was easy for a hysterical boy to be infected with the idea that he too could be a preacher.

Undismayed by the king's indifference, he began to preach at the very entrance to the abbey of St. Denis and to announce that he would lead a band of children to rescue Christendom. The seas would dry up before them, and they would pass, like Moses through the Red Sea, safe to the Holy Land. Stephen was gifted with an extraordinary eloquence. Older folk were impressed, and children came flocking to his call. After his first success, he set out to journey around France summoning the children; and many of his converts went further afield to work on his behalf. They were all to meet together at Vendome in about a month's time and start out from there to the East.

March to the sea

Toward the end of June, the children massed at Vendome. Awed contemporaries spoke of 30,000, not one over 12 years of age. There were certainly several thousand of them, collected from all parts of the country, some of them simple peasants, whose parents in many cases had willingly let them go on their great mission. But there were also boys of noble birth who had slipped away from home to join Stephen and his following of 'minor prophets,' as the chroniclers called them.

There were also girls, a few young priests, and a few older pilgrims, some drawn by piety, others, perhaps, from pity, and others certain to share in the gifts showered upon them all. The bands came crowding into the town, each with a leader carrying a copy of the oriflamme [red-orange flag of the abbey of St. Denis]. The town could not contain them all, and they camped in the fields outside.

When the blessing of friendly priests had been given, and when the last sorrowing parents had been pushed aside, the expedition started out southward. Nearly all of them went on foot. But Stephen, as befitted the leader, insisted on having a gaily decorated cart for himself, with a canopy to shade him from the sun. At his side rode boys of noble birth, each rich enough to possess a horse. No one resented the inspired prophet traveling in comfort. On the contrary, he was treated as a saint, and locks of his hair and pieces of his garments were collected as precious relics.

They took the road past Tours and Lyons, making for Marseilles. It was a painful journey. The summer was unusually hot. They depended on charity for their food, and the drought left little to spare in the country, and water was scarce. Many of the children died by the wayside. Others dropped out and tried to wander home. But at last the little crusade reached Marseilles.

The citizens of Marseilles greeted the children kindly. Many found houses in which to lodge. Others camped in the streets. Next morning, the whole expedition rushed down to the harbor to see the sea divide before them.

When the miracle did not take place, there was bitter disappointment. Some of the children turned against Stephen, crying that he had betrayed them, and began to retrace their steps. But most of them stayed on by the seaside, expecting each morning that God would relent.

After a few days, two merchants of Marseilles (called, according to tradition, Hugh the Iron and William the Pig) offered to put ships at their disposal and to carry them free of charge, for the glory of God, to Palestine. Stephen eagerly accepted the kindly offer. Seven vessels were hired by the merchants, and the children were taken aboard and set out to sea. Eighteen years passed before there was any further news of them.…

A priest's sad tale

In the year 1230, a priest arrived in France from the East with a curious tale to tell. He had been, he said, one of the young priests who had accompanied Stephen to Marseilles and had embarked with them on the ships provided by the merchants. A few days out, they had run into bad weather, and two of the ships were wrecked on the island of San Pietro, and all the passengers were drowned.

The five ships that survived the storm found themselves soon surrounded by a Saracen squadron from Africa, and the passengers learned they had been brought there by arrangement, to be sold into captivity. They were all taken to Bougie, on the Algerian coast. Many of them were bought on their arrival and spent the rest of their lives in captivity. Others, the young priest among them, were shipped on to Egypt, where Frankish slaves fetched a better price. When they arrived at Alexandria, the greater part of the consignment was bought by the governor, to work on his estates.

According to the priest, there were still about 700 of them living. A small company was taken to the slave markets of Baghdad; and there 18 of them were martyred for refusing to accept Islam.

More fortunate were the young priests and the few others that were literate. The governor of Egypt, al-Ail's son al-Kamil, was interested in Western languages and letters. He bought them and kept them as interpreters, teachers, and secretaries, and made no attempt to convert them to his faith. They stayed on in Cairo in a comfortable captivity; and eventually this one priest was allowed to return to France.

He told the questioning parents of his comrades all that he knew, and then disappeared into obscurity.