Journey into darkness

As a child there was one story that I found particularly haunting - the Pied Piper of Hamelin. For some reason I found it very distressing, far more so than wicked witches trying to cook Hansel and Gretel, or the big bad wolf wanting to eat Red Riding Hood. (Personally I found RRH so irritating, I wished the wolf luck with her). I think what upset me about the Pied Piper story was the realisation that someone you trusted could turn out to be so nasty. Not that the townspeople themselves had anything to be proud of, but the children liked and trusted the Piper, how could things go so wrong? The other thing about the story was that for me, there always seemed to be an element of truth about it. It was undoubtedly exaggerated, but I felt that there was a core element that was based on fact.

For those who don't know the story have a look at Robert Browning's masterful poetic version. But in a nutshell the story tells of a plague of rats that strike the small German town of Hamelin. Over-run with rats the townsfolk turn to a piper, who promises that he can rid the town of its vermin in return for a financial reward. The townspeople agree, and the piper does what he promises, but then the mayor decides to renege on the deal. The piper then plays once more, and dances into a mountain followed by every child in the village. The mountain closes behind them and children and piper are lost forever; all except for one small crippled boy who is left to tell the tale.

So was there an element of truth in the story? I think there may have been. My suspicion is that the original story may have been influenced by extraordinary events in the thirteenth century. In 1212, a French shepherd boy named Stephen of Cloyes, made an extraordinary appeal to the children of France to follow him, and launch a new crusade to free the Holy Land. There's a variant version (which I suspect is more closely allied to the Hamelin story) in which the Children's crusade is preached by a young German boy, Nicholas. The German children travelled over the Alps into Italy, many perished en route, the Pope persuaded many to turn back during their sojourn through Italy, and some (though not all) eventually returned home.

The Children's Crusade by Gustave Dore
The French story is even sadder. The children travelled to Marseilles, where Stephen had promised that he would be able to part the waters of the Mediterranean, so that the kids could get to the Holy Land on foot. Of course the waters didn't part, but unscrupulous men provided ships to take the children to North Africa, where many were sold into slavery, those that hadn't drowned en route. Few, if any, made it to the Holy Land, and most ended their days in misery.

There is some doubt now as to the truth of the Children's Crusade. Whether there was one crusade or two, whether it was partly or largely fictional. My gut feeling is that there probably is some element of truth to it that has remained ever since in European folklore. At its heart is a tale that is as old and sad as the hills, of innocence corrupted, of trust betrayed. It's a tale that hangs large in European literature from Pinocchio to the Pied Piper.

Henry Treece's 1958 novel The children's crusade tells the story of two children, Alys and Geoffrey, offspring of a wealthy French family, who get caught up in the madness of Stephen of Cloyes' mission to the Holy Land. It's a surprisingly even-handed account, even if some of the social mores can feel a little uncomfortable now. There are evil Europeans, just as there are wicked Saracens. But many of the Saracens treat the children kindly, and are portrayed as being intellectually often at a higher level than their (white) European counterparts. The ending doesn't sit altogether comfortably as it does rather feel as though it was tacked on so that everyone could live happily ever after, for much of the novel is extraordinarily sad. You can hardly blame Treece though for tacking on a happy ending, for otherwise the novel would be unbearably poignant.

It's a prescient read at this time too when so many children (often unaccompanied) are making the journey across the Mediterranean in the opposite direction looking for their own version of the Promised Land, and an escape from war and hunger. Treece writes brilliantly about the emotional cost of a journey into the unknown, and the dangers that beset innocent travellers a long way from home. It's a stunningly readable tale, at times hard to read - as the best fiction should be. Written less than 15 years after the end of the Second World War, which saw many children pounding the roads of Europe, this story of the lost children of medieval Europe still tugs at the heart today.


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