Woe to the land that's governed by a child.
"As if this were the start of a dangerous adventure, the small boy puts his hand in the bigger boy's, and they follow a third boy through the square..."
When did I first hear the story of the Children's Crusade? Was it at home, in bed, from my mother, an anthology of classic legends perched in her hands? Was it at primary school, under the big window where we'd gather to hear tales of The Famous Five or Dr. Dolittle? At Sunday school, between singing "Onward Christian Soldiers" and receiving stars (gold and silver milk-bottle tops) for biblical know-how? Did I pick up Henry Treece's The Children's Crusade, published in 1958, a novel for under-twelves, at some raffle or jumble sale? Or was it later, at big school, in a history lesson on the Middle Ages, something chalked up on the board, "Read pp. 154-7 of your primer and describe in your own words the meaning of the Children's Crusade"? I don't know. I can't recall. But the story, or part of it, has stayed.
In the year 1212, Stephen, a shepherd boy aged twelve, is chosen to lead a crusade. He has a vision, out in the fields: Jesus appears and tells him to gather followers children like himself--to travel from France to Palestine. Have faith, says Jesus They must take the cross and go on a long journey together, the sea will dry up before them, they will pass through the waves like Moses and recapture the Holy Sepulchre, Islam will be vanquished under their sword. Stephen does as instructed: He wanders through northern France, preaching in town after town--just a trickle of followers at first, then hundreds. Priests denounce Stephen as a fake, a blasphemer, the devil in disguise. But most parents are happy to let their children go.
The children flock to Stephen's side, in thousands, and tens of thousands. They spread like locusts across the plain, more and more and more of them. Leprosy, some call it--a festering plague. But Stephen speaks of water in the desert, and triumphal swelling progress: raindrop, runnel, rivulet, river, sea. At Vendome, the Crusade's official starting point, thousands more are waiting. Stephen preaches to the multitude, reminding them of miracles: Daniel in the lions' den, the voice from the burning bush, David and Goliath, the parting of the Red Sea. Local shopkeepers donate food: oranges, melons, bread, cakes, honey, wine. The mayor has given a donkey cart, and volunteers paint it sky blue. A pipe band strikes up. The great journey begins.
Beside Stephen, in his donkey cart, little Crusaders walk barefoot, four and eight abreast. It is important to keep the pace up, while the weather's kind and legs are not too weary. Twenty miles a day, preferably thirty. Day on day, step after step, ditto, ditto, ditto. Deeper south, the little water they have runs out but Stephen, casting spells from his canopy, replenishes trickling becks and dried-up wells. No shortage of food, either. Old women in lonely villages, hearing the rustle of the army through the corn, come forth with trays of sweetmeats. A ram is found, its horns caught in a thicket. Flocks of geese flying north to cooler weather are brought down in hundreds by slingstones. In the mountains a snow shower meets them, with flakes that seem to taste of more than water. Manna from heaven. Loaves and fishes. Daily miracles.
The days are long, the journey is hard, but at last they see it--a wide gleam in the distance, not heat haze over vineyards but a sharp sliver of sea. Houses grow more numerous, clotting towards land's end. There are sails now, out in the bay, and then masts, unmoving, in the harbour. Finally, at sunset, the town square of Marseilles. The little army is fed and watered, spends the night curled up in doorways, then at dawn moves to the harbour, for the miracle. On his donkey cart, Stephen stands like Moses, like Canute, raising his arm to the waves. Through the water lies the new Canaan. The sea is going to part for him, for everyone, a miracle ...
My memory of the story peters out here, on the brink, triumph just a walk between the waves away. What happened next? More triumphs. More onward-marching Christian soldiers. So I thought then, or think I must have thought then, in the days of as if, when most things seemed possible--Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, the Easter bunny, witches, ghosts, the virgin birth, heaven, God. Back then, the Children's Crusade felt like something out of the Bible, with a bit of an Enid Blyton story thrown in. Children, it seemed to be saying--if they're brave, determined, trusting--can have the most amazing adventures. And beat the baddies as well.
It was a tale appropriate for the time, childhood, or my childhood, the late 1950s and early 1960s. We were innocent then, or wanted to be--even the adults who'd had (and were trying to unlearn) the experience of war. The world was all right. We crusaders were going to make it even better. Or so it seemed, from where I was, in a small village surrounded by gentle hills. I lived in a sort of biblical haze. My parents--both of them doctors, in the same general practice--were healers. Tillers of the fields moved beyond the window, with their sheepdogs. The Jersey cow had a golden calf. The larder ran with silverfish, like the Sea of Galilee. As if lay all around me. It wasn't hard to believe in the Children's Crusade.
But perhaps, even then, I grasped there must be more to the story--could sense it had been edited down. Children can be credulous, and I was more credulous than most, but there were things about Stephen that didn't ring quite true. A story about a twelve-year-old set in 1212: it seemed too neat, numerologically, to be convincing. There were myths of frogs, birds, fish and dog packs travelling to the Holy Land: I knew they couldn't be true--did this belong with them? At some point--the start of adolescence, no doubt, my arms and legs sprouting hair like Esau's--I must have become distrustful. For when I think of the Children's Crusade now, a second, darker version comes back.
In this, the jaded version, Stephen isn't a seer but a charlatan. Enthroned like a little emperor in his donkey cart, he leads the children to disaster. Already, by dusk on the first day, the procession is straggling back over the horizon, the little ones not keeping up. Three days more, and several thousand children, bored, tired or losing faith, are heading home. Each day it gets a little hotter. There are no wells or streams to drink from, no vineyards to raid grapes from, only dust and endless roads. In time even older kids fall by the wayside, resting, then dying there. Every procession leaves rubbish in its wake, and this one is littered with small corpses. Before they reach the mountains, ten thousand of the thirty thousand die.
By the time Stephen reaches Marseilles, only a thousand of his followers are left. He stands on his donkey cart to perform the miracle of the parted sea, raises his arms and bids it come. A pause, a delay, a wait for God to get His act together. Nothing. Stephen opens his hands and holds them palm upward to the sky. The sea abides, unparted. Surprise, surprise, no miracle. A last try. He wades in, up to his thighs. The sea laps about him, unreacting. Stephen turns to face his troops. Some are for lynching him there and then. Others begin mapping the journey home. The annalists have their pens poised: "Thus deceived and confused, the children began to return; and those who had been earlier wont to traverse the lands in happy throngs, always singing to the heavens, now returned one at a time, the boys silent and hungry, the girls deflowered, fools in everyone's eyes."
So the second version goes, the revisionist version. A Massacre of Innocents. Despair instead of faith. Not trust and goodness, but manipulation and evil. Children--big, children--as devils, rather than angels. The Lord of the Flies view. A story for our century, or the end of it: religious cults, false messiahs, infants dying of disease and starvation, a long march ending in catastrophe. All of which makes it easier to believe. The Crusade, in this version, has lost its magic--is short on hope and conviction. The state seems widespread now, in the 1990s. You don't have to grow up to feel cynical. You don't even have to be a teenager. As if, my children say, as I used to say at their age, but the phrase doesn't mean what it did. We'll be sitting round the television together, the Nine o'clock News on, with its cries of pain from other countries (Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda), and every two minutes or so my son (who's twelve) will be there with his four letters, his two blunt words, coming down like a brick against anything that's wishful or implausible. Hopes are high that a peace agreement can be reached next week. As if. American scientists believe a new drug may provide a significant breakthrough in the treatment of cancer. As if. The England manager today named the squad which he is confident will bring home the next World Cup. As if. The trope used to be enlarging, wondrous, a means of seeing beyond our noses, an escape from the prison house of fact. As if. It was the sound the swing made as it scythed us upward through the air, the whisper of dreams and lovely promises. Much virtue in as if. Now, in kids' mouths, it means the opposite. Earthbound scepticism and diminution: tell me about it, dream on, get real. Not hope but the extinction of hope. As if. Not a candle to light us to bed, but a chopper to chop off our heads.
As if. Doubt is addictive. Doubt is catching. I've doubts even about the doubting version of the Children's Crusade. Maybe the story itself is a fantasy. But when I look it up in reference books, there it is, documented from fifty or more thirteenth-century sources. Stephen, it seems, wasn't the only boy visionary that year: there was another twelve-year-old, called Nicholas, who led a Crusade from Cologne. Most general histories of the Crusades carry a paragraph or two on the marching children. Like the stories of Christ and Robin Hood, the tale seems to have a basis in fact.
But the accounts vary. The interpretations are infinite. There are as many versions of the Children's Crusade as there are sources. And even where there's agreement about the narrative, there are questions still to resolve. Motivation, for instance. What were the parents doing, letting their children go off like that? And why were the children so enthusiastic to go? Did they hate the life they had? Was their crusading a kind of mass hysteria? And given the distance they walked, can we really be talking four-, six-, eight-, ten-and twelve-year-olds here? I'm perplexed. It doesn't feel right. I dig around, without success. Then a friend gives me an article, by a Dutch academic, Peter Raedts, published in the Journal of Medieval History. Raedts points out that the word used in contemporary accounts of the Crusade was pueri, which can mean children, but also meant, more generally, youngish persons (anything from seven to twenty-eight), and, more loosely still, farmhands, labourers, dependents, servants, and younger sons not due to inherit. In some mouths, puer seems to have been (as "puerile" is) a derogatory term, a put-down, more to do with social status than with age. The sources also say that some of the pueri were married. So the "children," it seems, were young people, most of them unemployed and without prospects, the no-hopers of the feudal economy, a mob of disgruntled teenagers with nothing to lose, and Stephen the leader of their gang.
The closer I look, the bigger the children in the Children's Crusade seem to be. And when I come to read what happened after Marseilles, the story changes again. In this, the third version (a story not of innocent children, or evil children, but children betrayed), it's adults who play the leading role. The chief culprits are two merchants, Hugh the Iron and William the Pig, who come to Stephen after he has failed to part the sea and offer to sail the Crusaders to Palestine, free of charge. Stephen is suspicious at first. Whoever heard of merchants doing something for nothing? But they say they are pious men, with sins to atone for, and he accepts their offer. Seven ships set sail next day. The young Crusaders are stuffed in the cattle hold, with mouldy bread to eat. In bad weather off Sardinia, two ships capsize, all crew and passengers drowned. Five ships sail on, and reach their haven, with half the human cargo still alive. Dhows sail from the harbour to them: a welcome party of Saracens, who don't seem very welcoming. "Is this not Palestine?" Stephen asks. Laughter. No, this is Bougie, Algeria, and the Crusaders--thanks to a deal done by Hugh the Iron and William the Pig--have been sold to the caliph as slaves.
There is a postscript to the story, darker still, when one of the original Crusaders returns to Europe eighteen years later, as a priest. He explains to eager listeners--for the Children's Crusade is now a famous legend--what happened after Bougie. The slaves were dispersed to all parts of Islam, he says. In Baghdad, eighteen of the Crusaders became martyrs, executed for refusing to worship Muhammed. Others, like him, were luckier: they earned no money, were underfed, despised and mistreated, but were allowed to keep their Christian faith. And Stephen? No word of Stephen. That rumour of him going to work for the governor of Egypt? No truth in it, as far as he knows. The priest keeps to himself the other, more likely story, that Stephen was put to death by his own followers. He runs this story through his head, though, constantly, as I do: the stones raining on Stephen, then the chains, and a blade from somewhere, and all the anger of months released at Stephen's head.
I've been thinking of the Children's Crusade a good deal lately. It came into my head because of another, more recent story, which is the subject of this book--a very different story, but one which also raises questions about innocence and culpability, and which involves a long march ending in death. In February 1993, in Liverpool, England, two ten-year-old boys abducted a two-year-old called James Bulger from a shopping centre, walked with him for two and a half miles to a railway line and there, as darkness fell, with bricks and an iron bar, battered him to death. Some deaths are emblematic, tipping the scales, and little James's death--green fruit shaken from the bough, an ear of grain sown back in the earth--seemed like the murder of hope: the unthinkable thought of, the undoable done. If child killings are the worst killings, then a child child-killing must be worse than worst, a new superlative in horror. All that winter and spring, it was as if there'd been a breach in nature: the tides frozen; stars nailed to the sky; the moon weeping far from sight. Those nameless boys had killed not just a child but the idea of childhood, all its happy first associations. Ten-year-olds were looked at with a new suspicion, and toddlers kept on tight reins.
It was the video footage from a security camera, jumpy and poignant as a home movie, that made the case famous. The little boy could be seen loose among shoppers, then following two older boys, then disappearing with them--the beginning of the long march to his death. Since then, there've been other killings by children. In France, as the Bulger trial opened, three boys, one of them only ten, kicked and beat a tramp to death. In Norway, a five-year-old girl was battered and left to die in the snow by three boys of six. In Chicago, two boys aged ten and eleven dropped a five-year-old boy fourteen stories to his death, after he'd refused to give them sweets. There weren't public trials in those cases; the killers weren't treated as adults in an adult court only the Bulger case has that distinction. But many papers have carried reports of child depravity: "Boys aged 10 and 11 are charged with rape," "Boy, 13, accused of killing 85-year-old woman," "Boy, 8, attempts armed robbery," "Boy, 13, denies rape in sandpit," "Boy, 12, beats pensioner with iron bar," "Boy burglar, 6, batters baby to death." It's the age of Bad Boys--dwarf killers, noon shadows of men complete. And we're the Frankensteins who made them.
In the autumn of 1993, nine months after the killing, the boys accused of murdering James Bulger appeared in court in Preston, thirty miles from where the killing had taken place. An American magazine, The New Yorker, invited me to attend the trial and write about the case; I said yes, like a shot. Friends found my enthusiasm difficult to understand; my wife did, too. I remember standing with her on the doorstep of our house, the night before the trial, waiting to go to Euston station. My bag was packed with shirts, trousers, razors, useful addresses and copies of two books by Rousseau: Emile, his theory of childhood, and the Confessions, his story of him. It was a Sunday night, Hallowe'en, and the air was full of smoke from Guy Fawkes bonfires set off early. Our three children, black cloaks and scare masks over their jeans and tennis shoes, were tricking and treating down the street. The murder trial would be gruelling: Why was I so keen on going? Kathy wanted to know. I think she suspected me of running away from work, or our children, or home, or her. None of which was true, or admissible. But what was the reason? I couldn't explain. I stood there holding her hand and twizzling her wedding ring between my finger and thumb, rotating it below the knuckle, as if to tighten a screw, or loosen it maybe, turning us back to a time before she wore it, before marriage and babies, back to childhood, before we met. Then the taxi cab was there, a kiss, a hug, a faraway shout to the kids, and off I went through the smoky night, like a man escaping the fire that will consume his house and family, guilty, lonely, exultant to be free.
I stayed in Preston for a month, coming back at weekends. I found the experience disturbing, even traumatic, but once my article was published, I thought--knowing the rhythms of journalism, and how quickly an assignment can be set aside--I would be able to forget it. The world moved on: war in Bosnia, peace in Bosnia, mad cow disease panicking western Europe, the beginning and end of an IRA cease-fire in Northern Ireland, girls' bodies found in the basement of Fred and Rosemary West's house in Cheltenham, England, a series of paedophile murders in Belgium, a man with a gun walking into a classroom in Dunblane, Scotland, and shooting dead sixteen five-year-olds. The world moved on, but I didn't. I was still stuck in Preston, with the sights and sounds of that long month: the faces of the boys as their taped confessions were played over the public-address system; the Bulger relations sitting in a row; the lawyers, judge, jury, witnesses, psychiatrists, policemen, social workers, journalists and court ushers; the man with the Geiger rod who used to search us as we entered court. I couldn't get rid of all this. I began to wonder if I wanted to. It was as if something important had happened there that still hadn't been faced or explained.
In truth, my difficulties started the moment the trial did, though I couldn't admit it at the time. I'd gone there expecting an answer to the question that everyone wanted answered: Why? What made two ten-year-old boys kill an innocent child? But murder trials are about Where and When and Who and How, not Why, and even during the case I found myself having to look for answers elsewhere--outside the court, not inside it. Increasingly, trying to answer Why seemed to require some leap of empathy, or speculation: from the churningly gruesome facts of the case into more general thoughts about what it is to be a child--and a parent. All roads lead inward, to the imagination. Perhaps that's why the Bulger case was and is so haunting, to me and others: it may have happened out there, at a safe distance, but it goes on happening here, in our hearts and minds.
Stephen in his sky-blue donkey cart is as far from Bootle Strand Shopping Centre as the year 1212 is from 1993. Yet the Children's Crusade and the killing of James Bulger do have elements in common. Innocence and the loss of innocence. Faith and the betrayal of faith. Abduction: the blind leading the blind. A long walk. A desperate conclusion. The problem of allocating blame. The difficulty in interpreting the behaviour of the participants. Narrative multiplicity--how to decide which of several conflicting versions is true. Above all, there's the inadmissible but unmistakable presence of adults. Both stories seem to have children as their subject. But really they're stories about grown-ups.