The Fourth Crusade had exposed the corruption of the ruling elites, particularly the greed of the Italian city-states, and had patently failed to achieve the objective of freeing Jerusalem. Yet religious fervor was again on the rise. Genuine grass-roots passion for a new crusade took tragic shape in a movement to free Jerusalem by love rather than force.
A French shepherd boy, Stephan, claimed to have had a vision of Christ dressed as a pilgrim. Almost simultaneously, in Germany, a 10-year-old boy, Nicolas, had a similar vision. The concept of this crusade was that the sins of the earlier crusaders – and the very fact that they sought to use force to achieve their objective – made them unworthy of success. Only the innocent could free Jerusalem – or so the leaders and adherents of this new crusade believed. They expected Jesus to welcome them to his homeland and drive out the Saracen.
An estimated 20,000 children followed Nicolas’ call to free Jerusalem. Allegedly entire villages were emptied of children, and many believe that the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin has its roots in this crusade. Most of these children died crossing the Alps, and those who reached Rome were freed from their crusading vow by the Pope.
Meanwhile, Stephan had led his some ten thousand followers to Marseilles, only to discover that merchants and ship owners had no intention of transporting his child crusaders to Outremer free of charge. Eventually, however, some Genoese ship owners agreed to provide passage to the children – and promptly sold them to Arab slave traders.