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The Children’s Crusade: Medieval History and Modern Mythistory (review)

From: The Catholic Historical Review
Volume 95, Number 3, July 2009
pp. 594-596 | 10.1353/cat.0.0421

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The Children’s Crusade has long deserved a treatment in depth. Sometimes rejected as pure myth, other times taken as a real event, it has always been surrounded with an impenetrable quality that challenged all who tried to sort reality from myth or just storytelling. Gary Dickson has given us a work that is entirely worthy of its subject. In doing so, he has placed the history of the Children’s Crusade in a context that will make his work one that all historians will find intellectually enriching. Indeed, this is a case in which the vessel may be more important than its contents. This is a book about mythistory that also happens to be history of the Children’s Crusade. The author provides an understanding of mythistory that adheres to and enriches the historical narrative, which he views as a hybrid that cannot exist without history. In doing so, he recognizes a valid point about medieval sources, namely that myth provides a source for explaining alongside of and even within the factual schema. Therefore, the historian must deal with it as an important part of the history. The author takes up this daunting task and helps us to better understand the complex story of the Children’s Crusade.

But he goes further, recognizing that the Children’s Crusade must be placed in the context of those movements that spring up throughout history and reflect the emotional depths of human reactions. He has himself written extensively about crowd psychology and religious enthusiasm, including studies of the Shepherds’ Crusades in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. His approach is not from the perspective of psychology, although he is obviously well informed, but as an historian. For him, the meticulous piecing together of the story of the Children’s Crusade is the key to making those events understandable. He situates the beginnings of the movement in the Chartrain region, a rich agricultural region in Western Europe. Although he notes the discussion of overpopulation in his search for a cause of the popular movement, he focuses chiefly on the charismatic leadership of Stephen of Cloyes, whom he sees as the leader of the French contingent that made its way northward to St. Denis and the court of Philip Augustus. He traces some ties between the French group and a group that formed in the areas around Aachen and Cologne. This group, probably larger than that under Stephen, who disappears from the scene, is led by a youth named Nicholas, about whom there is better evidence than for Stephen. It made its way southward through one of the Alpine passes to Piacenza, and Dickson traces its path westward to Genoa. This change in direction is interesting in light of the anti-Venetian sentiment found in some circles after the Fourth Crusade. He deals with the various accounts in medieval chronicles, providing a valuable, step-by- step picture of the development of mythistory in such authors as Alberic of Trois-Fontaines. He explores in depth the horror stories of the bad end met by the French crusaders at Marseilles and the Germans in Genoa as well as the stories of enslavement by Muslims, but he strongly advocates for the view that many either returned home or settled where they ended up. He spends considerable space on the issue that has long produced the most romantic image of the crusade, the picture of children caught up in a rapture of enthusiasm marching toward Jerusalem, expecting the sea to part so that they might cross it in the way of the Israelites under Moses passing through the Red Sea. Recent scholarship has presented a picture that argues against the idea of children in favor of a movement of urban and rural young people, with some elders, as the core of the crusade. The view that contemporaries were not misled in labeling the Children’s Crusade seems plausible, although the term may have been derisive more than descriptive. One point seems definite: There were no notable members of the aristocracy associated with it. No contemporary would have missed out on the opportunity to mention any nobles who were present.

Dickson has done a remarkable job of sorting out the...