The Children’s Crusade is one of those extraordinary stories of the Middle Ages which have caught the imagination of historians and preachers. A young shepherd, who believed he was called by God to save the city of Jerusalem, managed to collect together an enormous horde of children and lead them all the way to the southern coast of France. There, he assured them, the seas would part; they would march straight to the Holy Land and take back the city where Jesus had died. It is hard to say how much or how little of this story is true as records are sketchy — after all, the children concerned were mostly illiterate — but the spectacle, hardship and faith of the enterprise make for a dramatic tale.
Linda Press Wulf has wisely restricted the number of characters she gives us in her account. There are two main ones, Georgette, a peasant girl who learned her religion at the knees of a kindly, gentle parish priest, and Robert, an extremely gifted orphan whose talents have been used for his own benefit and advancement by a cold and calculating abbot. The two young people are fascinated by the dazzlingly handsome boy with the golden hair, and they leave their homes and everything they know to follow him. Georgette is prepared to risk suffering and danger to save God’s land, feeling herself called to a holy task. Robert feels the same, but for him this ardour is tinged with jealousy: he has spent his whole childhood in study and self-restraint, and yet God rejected him, choosing instead an uneducated peasant for this glorious destiny.
From the very first there are signs that things are not as exalted and pure as they seemed when the beautiful boy swayed them with his words. The children are quickly footsore, the ground they sleep on is hard, and the lice drive them to distraction. Georgette is horrified to hear many of them admit that religious fervour was not their motivation for joining the crusade: hunger, curiosity and a desire for adventure prompted many to leave their villages and families for the first time in their lives. More worrying still, the boy prophet enjoys comfort and luxury while his followers suffer. He rides a high-stepping white charger, sleeps in comfort and eats twice what the others do. And when the young pilgrims begin to die, brought down by plague, famine and exhaustion his youth and ignorance cause him to make decisions which are both foolish and heartless.
For any reader curious to learn about the Middle Ages, this is an excellent book. The account of everyday life on the road, and the attitudes of rich and poor alike to the travellers show a depth of research and imagination which cannot be faulted. Many modern readers struggle to understand the extent to which religion ruled people’s minds and hearts at this time, and various attitudes to belief and the Church are well demonstrated in this story. It does disappoint a little when it comes to depth of character, however: Georgette’s thoughts and feelings are clear, but Robert’s personality would have benefited from further exploration. This gives the last part of the book, where the two young people grow up and learn to question Church teaching and the position of women in society, a rather hurried and shallow quality. Perhaps the book would have left the reader feeling more emotionally satisfied if it had ended with Georgette and Robert’s bitter-sweet return to ordinary life. Still, the drama of the story and the attention to detail make for a fascinating tale which will certainly please history-loving young readers.