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The children's crusades: 1212-1230

The strangest and saddest incidents in the whole crusading saga are the two children's crusades of 1212. Inspired by the example of Peter the Hermit, a 12-year-old French shepherd boy declares that Christ has entrusted him with a mission to lead other children against the infidel. They will succeed where the adults have failed. More specifically, they will march to the Mediterranean where the sea will part before them so that they can walk to the Holy Land.

Not to be outdone, the Germans soon have a boy of about the same age preaching the same message. Children, high-born as well as poor, flock in their thousands to join these great adventures.

Many of the German children die trudging south through Alpine passes. The survivors are distressed when the sea fails to part for them at Genoa. They try again at Pisa, with no better result. Some reach Rome, where the pope tells them to go home and to keep their crusading ideals fresh for later. Many stay in Italy. A few straggle home. Outraged parents seek out and hang the father of the boy who has preached the crusade.

The French children are even less fortunate. When the sea fails to part for them at Marseilles, two merchants offer to ferry them to the Holy Land in seven ships. The children accept. For many years nothing more is heard of them.

Eventually word filters back of what has happened. Two of the seven ships are lost at sea. The other five reach Africa where - by prearrangement, it appears - the children are handed over to Muslim slave-traders.

Most of these French children spend the rest of their lives as slaves in Algeria. The more literate among them, together with some young priests, are sent on to Egypt - to be employed on clerical tasks in a slightly more tolerable existence. One of the priests, eighteen years later, makes his way back to France and reveals what has happened.

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