How much is myth, and how much is history, we’ll never know, but either way what the Children’s Crusade tells us is that there’s not a whole lot that’s new under the sun. What’s widely acknowledged is that in the Year of Our Lord 1212, a twelve-year-old rabble-rouser named Stephen of Cloyes lead – was it a few dozen or was it 30,000? – children on a march first to Paris to ask leave of the king, Phillip II, to proceed to the Holy Land to reclaim it from the Savior-denying Moslems, and then, when that leave was refused, they continued south to Marseilles, where the sea did not part for them as promised, and so those few who did not die of starvation or were sold into slavery, returned home with their enthusiasm significantly curbed. And in the same year another ten-year-old aspiring TV evangelist named Nicholas of Cologne lead a similar number of children from the Rhineland, across the Alps, first to Genoa, and then to Rome, where Innocent III patted the few survivors on the head and sent them off to a similar fate. (Nicholas, by the way, is thought to have inspired the fable now known as the Pied Piper.) Both sets of wannabe proselytizers were apparently unarmed, convinced that they would, by merely sharing the Gospel, draw the unbeliever into the bosom of Christ. After all, how could the Empty Tomb and Resurrection be disbelieved?!
I say nothing new under the sun because today we have sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg leading over a million and a half children out of their classrooms and into the streets on a more updated version of saving the world from disbelief. Greta admits she knows nothing of the science driving her crusade. Nor does she claim to know what’s to be done to save the world. But as long as enough children are clamouring for something to be done, that something, whatever it is, will be done. Not unlike Stephen’s conviction that, all we need do is ask, that “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
What this shows is that a leader, and a movement, can at one and the same time be both feckless and charming. Nicholas never made it back to his village, and his father was lynched by the townspeople for his son having lead their children to perdition. The difference is that, apart from a few missed classes, this crusade seems to be harmless. Hell, Greta may even snag a Nobel Prize out of it.
Barack Obama got a Nobel Prize for doing absolutely nothing too. Poor Alfred is rolling over in his grave. As, no doubt, are those nameless Crusaders who did eventually reclaim Jerusalem.