The Children’s Crusade:  A Lesson on Faith and Realism


Faith: what a mighty force in our lives it can be, and what great work it can do. And yet, how deadly it can become when we allow it to replace reason altogether, and give ourselves to it so completely that no counter-force to it remains.

"Counter-force?" some may ask. "Isn’t that precisely what undermines faith, and what must, therefore, be overcome if we are to ever restore faith’s power in our world?"

Centuries ago, a great event took place which gives us cause to wonder. The year was 1212, and for over a century, Christian Europe and the Muslim Middle East had been in conflict with each other, battling for control of the "Holy Land" - holy to both - in a series of violent wars known as the Crusades. In the First Crusade, launched in 1095, Christian knights recaptured the sacred city of Jerusalem from the Muslims, who had overrun it some time before. In the Second Crusade, a Christian counterattack against new Muslim successes failed. Then, in 1187, after the Muslim reconquest of Jerusalem, Europe launched the Third Crusade, highlighted by the chivalrous and valiant confrontation between King Richard the Lion-Hearted of England, and Saladin, mastermind of the Islamic defense. A just peace was made, at last, between these two great warriors, leaving Jerusalem in Muslim hands, but also guaranteeing the rights of Christian pilgrims to visit and worship in safety; but, sadly, the peace did not last long. A Fourth Crusade was launched from Europe against Islam in 1202, as ambition cast aside stability; but it actually ended up degenerating into a battle of Christian versus Christian, as the Crusaders, manipulated by Venetian merchants, and mesmerized by the riches of the Greek Orthodox city of Constantinople, never made it to the Middle East in force, but, instead, diverted their fighting fury against that legendary crossroads city, plundering it shamelessly, stealing, even, from its churches.

From the very first, the Crusades had been a complex and far from pure phenomenon, filled with self-aggrandizing motives and violent impulses, hidden amidst its righteous rhetoric. And yet, for many, and for a time, there had also been an amazing sense of purpose beneath it, a deep and life-giving spiritual mission, an empowering sense of redemption, rebirth, renewal and hope. The hearts of many had shone with light, and their eyes lifted up unto Heaven (though they knew not what they did). For a continent poor, tired, and trapped by its limitations, the Crusades had burst onto the scene like a fiery vision, and given meaning back to life.

But by the end of the Fourth Crusade, this zealous, exalted spirit was waning. The beautiful illusion of what the Crusades were supposed to be had finally begun to fade, revealing the ugly reality of quarreling knights, often cruel, self-centered, ruthless, and hypocritical, and of manipulative popes who wanted to destroy rival Christians, such as the Byzantines and Albigenesians, even more then they desired to recapture the Holy Land from the Muslims; and many began to see, at last, that it was land, gold, power, and glory, and not God, that was the driving force of the Crusades.

That is when the year 1212 came around, and a twelve-year-old shepherd boy from France, Stephen of Cloyes, suddenly came forth, out of nowhere, claiming to be inspired by Christ, and proclaiming a new Crusade, which he, himself, would lead into the Middle East, to recapture Jerusalem from the Muslims. The King of France ordered him to go back home to his parents at once, but the boy’s sense of purpose was too strong to just turn back, and his charisma - pure and incontestable, filled with innocence and bravery, radiant with a mighty faith that was a far cry from the cynicism and hypocrisy of the adult world surrounding him - aroused the wild children of France - young boys and girls like himself - who flocked to join him and march underneath his banner. Whether their parents could not control them, or whether they let them go as a way of cooperating in God’s plan; whether the children came from loving homes, with the blessings of their mothers and fathers, or whether they came as runaways, gamins, abandoned and abused children - is far from clear. What is clear is that within a short time, over 30,000 had left their homes to come to Stephen’s side, inspired to believe they could do what the mighty knights of their own land had been unable to accomplish against the powerful and brilliantly-led warriors of Islam. Christ had once said: "He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me." (Matthew 10:37-38.) And perhaps this is how this mass escape of children from their homes was able to take place, for according to the deepest core of the Christian faith, God is the highest loyalty, and family has no right to stand in the way. Thus, many parents, bewitched by the light of their children, who were, in turn, bewitched by Stephen’s mesmerizing dream, may have stood aside as their children left them - or did their children slip away in the night, after all? I have long been fascinated by this incredible event, and long wondered if, in this mass flight of French youths from their homes, could be seen - besides the learned vision of "liberating" the Holy Land - the poignant struggle of thousands of children and teenagers to escape from lives of beatings, discipline, drudgery, and powerlessness, to find the new and perfect parent - God - and the power of living within His love, the definitive escape from childhood’s smallness.

As for how these starry-eyed children, possessed by a beautiful, yet seemingly impossible dream, planned to accomplish their mission of liberating Jerusalem from the mighty Muslim warriors who had turned back the fiercest of Christendom’s warriors, it seems likely that they felt their innocence would act as a shield - and perhaps a lance! Had Christ not said that children - and those who held onto childhood’s innocence - were the greatest of all in the Kingdom of Heaven? "Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven." (Matthew 18:3.) I believe that Stephen must have felt his purity, as a child, and the purity of his child-followers - a vast energy source of devotion - would act as a magnet for power, attracting divine support and intervention. Had not Moses, back from his desert exile, come into Egypt with only his staff and God’s power to set his captive people free? Had not signs, and plagues, and curses descended upon Egypt, and the power and will of Pharaoh been broken without the need of an army? Perhaps Stephen planned to mesmerize his enemies with his goodwill and innocence, and to convert the Muslims to Christianity; or to intimidate them with Godly signs, like Moses; and act as a medium to bring calamity upon them if they did not heed his warnings, and restore Jerusalem to Christian hands. Whatever the case, it is a known fact that Stephen’s plan for reaching the Middle East was to lead his child’s army across the Mediterranean Sea, whose waters were expected to part before his multitude like the waters of the Red Sea had parted before Moses, allowing them to walk across the dry sea bed into the Holy Land.

The march of the children’s army from its staging area at Vendome to the port of Marseilles was difficult, as food and water were in short supply, but the power of Stephen’s vision - the vision of all of them now - kept them going, even though many died along the way. At last reaching Marseilles, the exhausted rabble came up to the edge of the sea - the mighty blue sea - and waited. Waited for it to vanish, overpowered by their dream. And waited. Disappointment began to set in as the expected miracle failed to occur - as the waves of the sea kept rolling up onto the beaches, pounding the shore with a might and dependability that was disturbing. Questions must have begun to surface in the troubled young minds of those who had dared to give up everything - the best of what they knew - for what they could imagine. Probably, many kept their doubts to themselves, not wanting to break the magic spell, and a strange quiet must have descended upon the sacred space between what was longed for, and what was there.

That is when the miracle finally seemed to occur, in the form of two merchants who suddenly stepped forward to offer free transport for Stephen and his stranded horde of child-followers: free transport across the sea, aboard a fleet of ships materialized from generosity, from awe, it seemed. For Stephen, it was a variation on the miracle he had expected - and a valuable lesson: that God has many ways to produce the same effect, and that a gift denied is often really only the seed of a new gift. And perhaps he saw it as a hint of things to come - of the power of his children’s army - of his children’s crusade - to affect the hearts of men, and to do what armies of warriors and cabals of rich men could not.

Sad to say, however, Stephen was only being deceived. The merchants did not really intend to take him to the Holy Land, free of charge, out of the goodness of their hearts. Instead, their true objective was to take his army of helpless children aboard, and to ferry them over to Muslim North Africa, where they would be sold in slave markets and fetch a handsome profit for the treacherous merchants. And this is, in fact, precisely what happened - after a storm first wrecked two of the seven ships, resulting in the drowning death of many hundreds of the children. The rest of Stephen’s brave dreamers, who had set out to change the world, to do what the "wise and the prudent" had been unable to do, ended up in chains, spending the rest of their lives in slavery in North Africa and elsewhere, some treated tolerably in Egypt, others brutalized and even killed in Baghdad, for refusing to give up their religion. It was a dismal end to such an idealistic project; such a captivating dream, believed in so fervently; such an elevated level of faith, embraced so earnestly. (And a second children’s crusade, launched from Germany, ended up nearly as disastrously, destroyed by hunger and exposure.)

Are there any lessons in this heartbreaking tragedy of the past for us, today? Any lessons other than those of the absolute rationalists, like Charles Mackay, who used the Children’s Crusade as just one more example of human folly, in his classic opus Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds? Any lessons, other than the lessons that faith is foolish, and spirituality dangerous and delusional? That Reason, and Reason alone, is our only refuge in the night?

I think that one of the most important concepts in the universe, for we human beings, at least, is the concept of balance, and I can think of no better application of it than in the case of faith. As the brilliant oriental concept of yin and yang teaches us, the most perfect harmony and power is achieved through a balance, a collaboration, of opposites. In the case of faith, it seems likely that, in order to help us most, it must be alloyed with a component of skepticism, doubt, or reason: just as pure yin, isolated and weak without yang, and pure yang, isolated and weak without yin, needs to be enriched with its opposite in order to have power, resilience, and fertility.

Of course, doubt may sometimes be a painful partner - an unwanted partner. But just as too high a concentration of doubt in the mix may sabotage faith, and prevent it from manifesting its power, so too low a concentration in the mix may lose control of faith, allowing it to fly away from us, carrying us into realms of self-deception and passivity. As a car has a gas pedal and brakes, perhaps our minds, our hearts and souls, need both faith and doubt.

Of course, the result is tension - and tension is never as pleasant, to the soul, as certainty. But, once again turning to ancient wisdom, Heraclitus, the mystic Greek philosopher - brilliant, confrontational, cryptic - concluded that there is no such thing as real peace and real tranquility in the universe, for beneath the surface of all such manifestations of calmness, is struggle, tension, strife, a conflict of opposites. The appearance of peace is attained when there is a balance between the opposite forces, as between the string and frame of the warrior’s bow when it is strung, but at rest. The bow is inert, static, yet filled with tension. And yet - the tension is not without its benefits. For that is what gives the bow its power, providing it with the force to shoot the arrow once the time of battle has arrived.

In this same way, doubt and faith, locked in unending battle, may be a source of tremendous productivity for us.

Using scripture, for a moment, to reinforce this point, turn to the episode of Jesus’ temptation in the desert, after fasting for forty days and forty nights. There, at a moment of intersecting greatness and fragility, the Devil came up to him, and sought to undo all of the work Jesus had done in building up his soul. As the Bible describes the second temptation: "Then the Devil taketh him up into the holy city, and setteth him on a pinnacle of the temple. And saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone." And Jesus is said to have replied: "It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God." (Matthew 4:5-7.) The lesson for us seems to be that it is a misuse of faith to hurl ourselves into an impossible situation whose only remedy is divine intervention; that we should seek to act in a sensible way - which does not have to mean in a conformist or cowardly way - and create our victories out of the stuff of our earthly reality, according to the known dynamics and rules of our limited, terrestrial existence. A similar attitude is expressed by the age-old adage: "God helps those who help themselves."

Of course, this does not mean that faith, that "magic", that miracles are excluded from our lives. But it seems to suggest that this otherworldly power may more often manifest in subtle ways, as part of our earthly approach to things, not completely taking the place of our prudent, intelligent, and determined actions and strategies, but filling up these actions and strategies with extra power, and providing them with opportunities. Thus, in the year 1700, Charles XII of Sweden, who had an army and knew how to use it, was provided with the added help of a snowstorm which enabled him to mask the fact that his army was outnumbered 5 to 1 by the Russian invaders outside Narva. He charged through the storm, and conquered with the intensity of his spirit, transmitting the sense of a vast army to his enemies, who could not see the size of his forces rushing through the snow.

Thus, in the year 1429, Joan of Arc, coming to raise the siege of Orleans, arrived in armor, to lead the French in knightly battle against the English invaders. But at a critical moment, when the winds were blowing the wrong way for a French river fleet to sail to its destination, Joan prayed, whereupon the winds changed direction, and she was able to proceed: a bit of extra help from God. From then on, the hearts of all the French who were with her were filled with confidence, just like sails of their ships were filled with the wind, and they were ready to accomplish anything she asked of them.

Thus, in the mid-1800s, General G.C. Gordon, a Christian mercenary in China - a meticulous war-planner, astute strategist, and gifted engineer - suddenly found himself face to face with an artillery piece of the enemy, pointed straight at him, as he led a charge against the heart of the enemy’s stronghold. But somehow, his incredible faith and devout conduct produced a rich benefit that day. The gun failed to fire; and he went on to overrun the enemy position.

In all of these cases - examples chosen from war in order to illustrate the concept of struggle at its most intense - not to glorify war, or to imply that God favors violence as a solution to earthly problems (though He may sometimes work with the material of our follies to give a certain direction to history, and sometimes reach down to us through our vices, to spare us for another day) - faith was never used to utterly supplant earthly means of gaining victory. Instead, faith animated and increased the power of earthly tools and earthly mechanisms for accomplishing goals. It filled wise, or at least, competent strategies with a secret energy; and provided miracles as a last resort: not undeniable miracles like horsemen charging out of the sky, or angels flying down onto the battlefield, with mighty wings and fiery armor; not parting seas or sudden floods to drown the wicked. But events of extreme significance and suggestiveness - "ordinary" but for the place, the time, and the context - clear miracles to all who were there, yet only interesting "coincidences" to skeptical, distant generations.

And perhaps this is where the Children’s Crusade went wrong, for it had too little of an earthly shell with which to transport the energy of the divine; it depended completely upon miracles, and did not have the means to carry God’s power into a world which God uses to make us grow, not to reward every fantasy by turning it into a reality. And perhaps, this is the most important lesson of all which the Children’s Crusade has to offer to us, and our own times. The lesson that in our present earthly condition, Faith and Doubt are close relatives who must never lose touch with each other, painful though that family bond may be; and that, most often, we ought to seek to infuse our common-sense plans, strategies, and actions with the benefits of faith, rather than replacing them altogether with a brand of faith that has broken utterly free of the world we know and live in.

SOURCES: The Crusades, Henry Treece.

Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Charles Mackay.

A Military History of the Western World, vols. 1-2, JFC Fuller.

Gordon at Khartoum: The Saga of a Victorian Hero, John H. Waller.


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