The Children's Crusade: Medieval History, Modern Mythistory

~by Gary Dickson

The Children's Crusade recently came up as a topic of conversation. Most of the people who were participating in the discussion had learned of it in middle school. I, on the other hand, quickly discovered that while I was vaguely aware of the Children's Crusade, I actually knew very little about it. As usual when I am faced with a subject that I am unfamiliar with, I looked for a book to read. This is how I came to discover Gary Dickson's The Children's Crusade: Medieval History, Modern Mythistory which seemed to be just what I was looking for, addressing both the history of the Children's Crusade as well as the legend it has become. Published by Palgrave Macmillan as a hardcover in 2007 and then again as a paperback in 2012, Dickson's The Children's Crusade is one of the first and only modern academic study examining the Children's Crusade in great detail. It made sense to me that I would begin my exploration of the topic there as well.

In 1212, a group of youth led a popular crusade in France which then caused or influenced a similar youth movement later that year in Germany. The crusade is mentioned in over fifty surviving Latin texts from the era, but unfortunately very few of these texts are historically reliable, making it difficult to determine exactly what happened before, during, or after the Children's Crusade. What should have amounted to nothing more than a historical footnote--the youth's actions were neither sanctioned by the papal state, nor were they successful in their goals--the Children's Crusade ignited the imaginations of historians, novelist, poets, artists, and composer, who embellished known events and cemented their place into popular history and social memory. In children's literature alone the crusade is presented as "religion gone mad, an ego trip, great fun, a sentimental tear-jerker and cautionary tale, an inspiration, a voluntary project, or a protest song." Obscure history has become myth, metaphor, and propaganda.

In The Children's Crusade, Dickson addresses and ties together three aspects of the movement: its history, its mythistory, and its memory. After an introduction, the next two chapters, "The Pope and the Pueri" and "Birthpangs of the Children's Crusade," put the Children's Crusade into historical context and examines its relationship to other crusades of the time period. "Charisma" explores what is known of the French movement of youth while "On the Road" explores its connection with the German movement which is then further examined in the final history chapter, "The Great Migration." Dickson devotes only one chapter to the crusade's influential mythistory, "The Shape of a Story." The Children's Crusade concludes with two memory chapters looking at the crusades representation from the fourteenth to eighteenth centuries and nineteenth to twentieth centuries respectively.

Dickson does assume the reader already has some knowledge of the Children's Crusade and the sources discussed, which makes The Children's Crusade difficult to recommend as an introduction to the subject. Additionally, the writing is fairly dense. However, Dickson's work is one of the most comprehensive and coherent resources available in English. The volume can feel disjointed at times and it's difficult to discern from it an orderly narrative of the Children's Crusade, but that is mostly because one doesn't exist. It is also almost impossible to completely separate the mythistory from the legitimate history. However, Dickson does an admirable job of pulling together disparate and conflicting accounts and tracing the influence of the Children's Crusade through the centuries. The actual history is just as intriguing as the story of how the Children's Crusade became a lasting cultural touchstone. It has been eight centuries since the unprecedented youth movement and yet it continues to be a compelling tale. The Children's Crusade is a fascinating and useful volume.

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