The Children’s Crusades, then and now

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Greta Thunberg
Wikimedia Commons/European Parliament

It’s enough to make you believe in reincarnation.

Etienne de Cloyes and Nikolaus von Koln seem to have come back as Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish high school truant who started cutting class on Fridays in order to stand in front of the Swedish parliament and demand that it “do something” about climate change.

If the names Etienne de Cloyes and Nikolaus von Koln don’t ring a bell, well, they lived a long time ago. They both had their 15 minutes of fame in 1212 AD, 807 years ago.

Etienne de Cloyes and Nikolaus von Koln, or Stephen of Cloyes and Nicholas of Cologne in English, were the leaders of the Children’s Crusade. Or more precisely, of the Children’s Crusades: there were two separate crusades, one originating in France led by de Cloyes and one originating in the Rhineland in Germany led by von Koln.

Like Stephen and Nicholas, Ms. Thunberg emerged seemingly out of nowhere to become the face and titular leader of a latter-day Children’s Crusade, and a lot of what she’s doing could be taken out of the de Cloyes/von Koln playbook.

Both Stephen and Nicholas were 12-year-old shepherds who believed they were on a mission from God. Ms. Thunberg believes she is on a mission from Gaia, or at least from the International Panel on Climate Change.

Stephen took up the cause after he was visited, while tending his flock, by a pilgrim with whom he shared bread. The pilgrim told Stephen stories about his participation in a crusade, which eventually climaxed with the pilgrim revealing himself to be Jesus Christ. He then gave Stephen letters addressed to the King of France, Phillip II, urging him to lead a new crusade.

Stephen and several fellow shepherds set out from Cloyes to deliver the letters to the king in Paris, some 90 miles away. Along the route Steven preached — it turned out that like Ms. Thunberg the kid was a charismatic preacher — and attracted thousands of followers.

By the time he got to Paris his procession had grown to 30,000. The letters were delivered to the king — who told the kids to go home.

Instead, Stephen and his followers repaired to the Abbey of Saint Denis, now a suburb of Paris, where Stephen continued his preaching. From there he took the show on the road, traveling around France promising to lead a march to Jerusalem. He attracted a number of adult followers as well, including several hundred clerics.

The idea was for the crusaders to convert Muslims to Christianity peaceably by the force of argument and by the purity of their passion and faith. Ms. Thunberg seems to be following a similar strategy in her crusade against climate change.

Toward the end of June, Stephen and about 15,000 of his followers set off for Marseilles, about 500 miles from Paris.

Meanwhile, over in the Rhineland,Nicholas was attracting followers with similar preaching and a similar message. He didn’t have letters from “Jesus,” but he did have a father who was serving as his agent. Like Stephen, Nicholas was a charismatic speaker, who quickly attracted a following of thousands, and in the early spring they set out for Jerusalem — by marching south over the Alps to Italy.

In late August about 7,000 survivors arrived in Genoa.

Both Stephen’s and Nickolas’ bands believed that when they got to the Mediterranean God would part the waters allowing them to walk dry shod to the Holy Land.

When Nicholas’ party reached Genoa, they went immediately to the port to await the parting of the waters. Which didn’t part. But the Genovese were impressed by the kids’ spunk, and offered citizenship to any of them who wanted to stay. A lot took them up on it. Others, including Nicholas, pushed on to see the Pope. Who told them to go home. Nicholas is thought to have died trying to re-cross the Alps.

When the few survivors returned to Germany, the outraged parents who had lost children tried and hanged Nicholas’ father.

Stephen’s march also ended badly. While he probably didn’t have as many casualties on the march, he had more drop-outs. And as at Genoa, the waters at Marseilles weren’t parting. But then some kindly ship owners offered to give the crusader kids and the adult hangers on free passage to the Holy Land.

Several ship-loads set sail. Three sank in a storm. The surviving vessels reached Muslim North Africa, where the kindly ship owners sold the crusaders into slavery. A crucial parallel of the Children’s Crusade of 1212 and Ms. Thunberg’s is that while Stephen, Nicholas and Greta were/are charismatic, they were all manipulated by adults: Stephen’s phony Jesus, Nicholas’ father, and the environmental groups that are paying the bills and handling the logistics of Greta’s appearances.

In all three cases people were/are expected to forego critical examination of kids’ beliefs because they are children. And pure.

At the U.N. earlier this week, a number of the world’s leaders spoke about what their countries were doing to combat climate change. Greta accused them of speaking “empty words” and claimed they had “robbed her of her childhood” by not having solved the climate crisis yesterday.

A further parallel was that the programs of all three are ludicrously unrealistic. Even in 1212 AD, it didn’t take a genius to recognize that the waters of the Mediterranean weren’t going to part for kiddy crusaders or anyone else, never mind that Muslims weren’t very likely to be converted to Christianity by child evangelists.

And it doesn’t take a genius to recognize that the adults who run 21st century nation-states don’t have the luxury of taking the demands of a 16-year-old for de-carbonization yesterday seriously. Not when the grown-ups are expected to keep their economies functioning and their cities warm next winter, even if it takes burning coal, oil or natural gas.

The truth is that the world is going to keep dumping billions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere for at least 20 or 30 years — until the present multi-trillion dollar investment in fossil fueled powered global infrastructure wears out and is replaced by non-CO2 producing energy technologies. This will happen because the non-CO2-producing technologies are surpassing CO2-producing ones in terms of both performance and cost.

James Watt invented the first practical steam engine in 1763. The industrial revolution it began and the civilization it birthed has been under construction, and pumping CO2 into the atmosphere, for 256 years. That civilization can and will be retooled and repowered with wind, solar and nuclear energy sources.

But it will not happen on teenage standard time, no matter how much Ms. Thunberg and her fellow crusaders might wish it.  

this opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.