Though a relatively minor episode of the Crusades, the "Children's Crusade" starkly reveals the atmosphere of the times. Distinguished historian Steven Runciman, in his three-volume A History of the Crusades, cut through the scholarly debate surrounding this bizarre episode. Here is a condensed version of his account of one branch of the venture.

One day in May 1212, there appeared at St. Denis, where King Philip of France was holding his court, a shepherd boy of about 12 years old called Stephen. He brought with him a letter for the king, which, he said, had been given to him by Christ in person, who had appeared to him as he was tending his sheep and who had bidden him go and preach the crusade. King Philip was not impressed by the child and told him to go home. But Stephen, whose enthusiasm had been fired by his mysterious visitor, saw himself now as an inspired leader who would succeed where his elders had failed. For the past 15 years, preachers had been going around the countryside urging a crusade against the Muslims of the East or of Spain or against the heretics of Languedoc [Albigensians]. It was easy for a hysterical boy to be infected with the idea that he too could be a preacher.

Undismayed by the king's indifference, he began to preach at the very entrance to the abbey of St. Denis and to announce that he would lead a band of children to rescue Christendom. The seas would dry up before them, and they would pass, like Moses through the Red Sea, safe to the Holy Land. Stephen was gifted with an extraordinary eloquence. Older folk were impressed, and children came flocking to his call. After his first success, he set out to journey around France summoning the children; and many of his converts went further afield ...

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