I love novels about the crusades. As much as I recognize the waste and tragedy of the crusades themselves, they make for compelling fiction. (Jerusalem by Cecelia Holland is one of my all-time favorite historical novels.)
When you read nonfiction about the crusades, you’ll generally come across a short blurb about "the Children’s Crusade." It was a short-lived and completely doomed expedition, heartbreaking to imagine. Details are sparse because the people involved were so anonymous.
Here, for example, is what Judith Bennett has to say about it in Medieval Europe. A Short History (11th edition) – In 1212 a visionary, ill-organized enterprise known as the "Children’s Crusade" ended in tragedy. Thousands of boys and girls flocked into the ports of southern Europe, gripped by religious fervor and convinced (wrongly) that the Mediterranean would dry up so that they could walk to the Holy Land. Some returned home; some were sold into slavery; some died.
(I like how Bennett sticks in the "wrongly." Just in case any of us might have been confused on that point.)
At any rate, what a horror. And yet, what a setting for a historical novel. Think of the people involved. They were individuals. Real people. Real children. These children and teens set out in a religious fervor (or for other reasons) to reach the Holy Land. Leaving everything behind. And not succeeding. Imagine what inspiring characters fictional they could be.
Robert is a brilliant young orphan who has been taken up and taught by the Abbot of Blois. The crusading horde descends upon the abbey in need of a night’s lodging and food. Robert decides that he, too, is called to join the crusade. His motives are also mixed. He can’t understand why a mere shepherd has been given the gift of leadership while he, with all his learning, puts people off.
The children march onward. Wulf does a marvelous job of portraying the hardships the young crusaders endure. She shows that children were subject to the same conflicting motivations as crusading adults and risked falling prey to the same errors. Innocence is so easily lost.
The book succeeds best, for me, as a story of the crusade. It may be because that’s why I bought the book – that’s what I wanted to read about. There was something a bit predictable and rushed about the aftermath. Even though it was nice to see what happened to Georgette and Robert, I felt the characters were more realistic on crusade. Afterwards it was more of a wrap-up and got a bit preachy.
Still, the Children’s Crusade is an exciting and tragic historical episode, and Crusade by Linda Press Wulf does justice to the tale.