In the early spring of 1212 crusading fever was sweeping Europe. Many speculated (as they always did) that the return of Christ was imminent and that today’s Christians lived in the end times.
Only a few decades before, in 1187, Christendom lost control of the holy city of Jerusalem to the Muslim king Saladin and the 3rd Crusade had failed to take it back. There was a profound sense of fear across Europe that unless something was done the holy land may be lost forever to Christendom, forever.
But lo, Salvation was at hand! A young shepherd boy called Nicholas, of no particular fame or wealth, but who was by all accounts very eloquent, came from the German city of Cologne, and whose lungs burned on the oxygen of righteousness, began to preach to locals. He claimed to have had a revelation about the failure of the crusades thus far. The reason was simple. Crusaders had been tainted by the world in which they lived, they were filled with sin. The only solution was for the pure, the untainted, the virgin youth to march on Jerusalem. It was time for the children to take the ‘cross of crusade’ and in holy glory retake the mother of cities.
The young shepherd’s prophecy was simple; if children took part in the crusade they would not need ships or weapons, the Mediterranean Sea would part before them. Upon arriving in the Islamic controlled lands the local people would instantly convert to Christianity, overthrow their heathen kings and reclaim Jerusalem for Christ.
Thousands of children of all ages began to follow Nicholas, along the way they were fed and supported by many adults rich and poor alike, dumbstruck by the children’s piety and singularity of purpose. The children’s crusade made to cross the Alps and thence to the Holy Land.
The church, which usually put a stop to nonsense like this, thought that this whole thing might embarrass the nobility into going on a real crusade themselves, to take action in defence of the faith.
The Alps were not enthralled, unsupported by any real logistics, anywhere up to two thirds of the child crusaders died on the crossing. Eventually the survivors reached the city of Genoa in Italy where, much to their shock, the sea did not part for their passage.
Fury erupted as many came to blame the young shepherd Nicholas for the disaster, others prayed to ask God why he had changed his mind. A small hard-core group of crusaders continued on to Rome, where after being starved and beaten and robbed by bandits a rather embarrassed pope absolved them of their crusading duties and sent them home.
The fate of Nicholas is unknown, however his father, who was suspected of encouraging Nicholas to preach, was lynched by local parents who were angry at the death of their children on the doomed crusade.
So why tell a story about the 13th century and some long forgotten madness?
There are some eerie parallels between the climate strike of our time and the children’s crusade.
Much like the crusade children inspired by the fear and teaching of their parents are taking up the great cause of the age.
Much like the crusade the children are supported by adults who see them are pure fighters for a great mission.
When Greta speaks to the great and the powerful she captures that human fascination with the “purity” of children and she inspires child and adult alike.
Much like Nicholas, Greta is big on conversations about sin and not so focused on actual workable solutions to the great crisis of the age.
The children’s crusade is not our only example of how prophetic visions of children have led to disaster: the 15-year-old Xhosa prophetess, Nongqawuse, lead her people into killing their cattle and burning their crops which left the Xhosa destitute and subjugated by the British.
We’ve seen the story of Greta Thurnberg before and it doesn’t end well. The only appropriate response of a decent society is to put an end to the sermons and leave the solving of our great issues to the adults.
Nicholas Lorimer is the executive assistant to the CEO of the IRR