History Remade: The Children’s Crusade

How are we to know when legend has been taken as history?


A German documentary series called Fairy Tales Exposed: Facts Behind the Fiction looks at popular fairy stories and investigates their origins. One of those stories is The Pied Piper of Hamelin.

I have always believed that this story was inspired by the Children’s Crusade, so I expected the documentary to either support or debunk this theory. However, I was most surprised to see that the Children’s Crusade wasn’t even mentioned. I found this most puzzling, so the next day I googled the Pied Piper and the Children’s Crusade and made an amazing discovery — the Children’s Crusade never happened.

Now this was quite a shock, because although I thought it was a terrible, almost unbelievable story, I had never seen it refuted.

In case you’ve never heard it, the story goes that in 1212 a shepherd boy preached that the children of Christendom should attempt to win back the Holy Land by marching unarmed to Palestine. Huge numbers of children followed him, but they disappeared on the way and never got to the Holy Land. When they got to the Mediterranean, evil ship owners had offered to carry them to Palestine, but instead sold them into slavery.

So, how could such a story have been created and passed down as true? It is an interesting case study, and a cautionary tale to all students of history.

Apparently there is more than a grain of truth in the story. The early thirteenth century was a time of religious fervour and social upheaval. Crusades were being preached against the infidel in the Holy Land and heretics in Europe. Meanwhile large numbers of peasants had lost their land and were wandering the countryside in search of work. In actual fact, two young preachers rose up at about the same time — one in France and one in Germany. Large numbers of these homeless peasants followed them, turning their nomadic wanderings into a mass pilgrimage.

However there is no evidence they were headed for Jerusalem or intended going on a crusade. It is believed that the French movement converged on Paris, but then dispersed. The German movement reached Italy, but again dispersed with a large portion of them moving on to Rome.

As the medieval chroniclers retold and recopied the story, it was elaborated, misconstrued and recast to fit their religious purposes. Over time the two preachers became one. A mistranslation of the Latin pueri — literally children, but actually a derogatory term for the homeless peasants — turned the followers into children. The religious context of the time suggested that the pilgrimage should become a crusade, and the need for a satisfying resolution and the intervention of agents of the Devil, conjured up the children’s tragic fate.

It was not until 1977, when German historian Peter Raedts actually studied the original sources, that The Children’s Crusade was discovered to be a myth, and the real story uncovered. However, the myth will not die. Raedts’ findings have been contested, and you can still find the old legend being retold as fact.

Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time looks at this phenomenon through the story of Richard III and the fate of the Princes in the Tower. She suggests that ‘human nature [finds] it difficult to give up pre-conceived beliefs. That there [is] some vague inward opposition to, and resentment of, a reversal of accepted fact.’ Or as a modern journalist might say, ‘Why let the facts stand in the way of a good story?’


© Pauline Montagna 2016


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