Post-classical history

Shepherds' Crusade, First (1251)

The Shepherds’ Crusade (Lat. Crucesignatio pastorellorum) of 1251 was an unofficial or popular crusade of poor shepherds and peasants from the Low Countries and northern France who set out with the declared aim of aiding and avenging King Louis IX of France and rescuing the Holy Land from the Muslims.

These unauthorized crusaders were known collectively as “shepherds” (Lat. pastores, Fr. pastoureaux). This was not only because there were many actual shepherds (including Roger, one of their leaders), cowherds, and dairy maids among the several bands of agrarian laborers, but also because shepherds claimed a privileged role in the Christian story, having been the first to see the Christ Child. The Annunciation to the Shepherds was sculpted above cathedral portals and dramatized in contemporary Nativity plays. Seeing themselves depicted in this way, ordinary shepherds could thus regard themselves as chosen by God. Often youthful, landless, mobile, and frequently in one another’s company, shepherds constituted an ideal nucleus for a popular crusading movement, as they appear to have done in the Children’s Crusade of 1212. In 1251, displaying banners of the Lamb and the Cross, traveling bands of armed shepherds asserted both their religious identity and their crusading intent. The crusade of the pastores probably originated in Flanders or Brabant toward Eastertide (16-23 April 1251), rapidly gathering recruits in the towns and villages of Hainaut, at Amiens in Picardy, and later at Rouen in Normandy. There they were joined by artisans and members of the urban underclass, who were often recent migrants from the countryside.

The circumstances out of which this popular crusade enthusiasm arose are reasonably clear. First of all, the miserable end of Louis IX’s Egyptian crusade (1248-1254) and the king’s subsequent captivity were no doubt widely known in Flanders. A large Flemish contingent had participated in Louis’s crusade, including William of Dampierre, count of Flanders. After Louis was ransomed (6 May 1250), it is possible that some of his Flemish captains returned home. Pope Innocent IV’s letter on Louis’s incarceration (12-31 August 1250), intended for wide circulation, also urged public liturgies of supplication on Louis’s behalf. Probably more important was the letter that Louis himself composed in Acre (10 August 1250) in which he refers to the Christian prisoners still being held in Egypt and announces his desperate need for more troops. In his letter Louis says that the men should depart for the Holy Land the next April or May. That date, corresponding as it does with the probable origins of the movement, is significant. Around that time as well, crusading excitement in the Low Countries was being fanned by the preaching of the papal crusade against Conrad IV, king of Germany. The Franciscan friar John of Diest may have been preaching this anti-Staufen crusade in Flanders in late March or early April 1251. Strong opposition to this preaching from Queen Blanche of Castile, Louis’s mother and regent, may have triggered increased sympathy for and attention to the plight of her son. As with the Children’s Crusade of 1212, popular enthusiasm generated by one crusade was readily deflected onto another, especially if the focus of the latter was the Holy Land. Speculation aside, what is important to emphasize is that popular crusades like that of the pastores frequently occurred in the midst of official crusade activities aimed at generating mass enthusiasm.

Once the pastores arrived at Paris (probably in early June 1251), their most prominent leader, the charismatic Jacob, known as “the Master of Hungary” and described as a runaway monk, was well received by Queen Blanche. Reportedly, she believed that the shepherds were intending to come to the aid of her son. But it was in Paris, apparently for the first time, that the pastores engaged in anticlerical violence. Perhaps it was the surprising reception that the queen gave them that, by seeming to confirm their providential status, destabilized them. In Paris they began to attack the clergy, while the Master of Hungary assumed the costume of a bishop and usurped clerical functions at the Church of St. Eustace. Starting out as an orthodox (although unauthorized) crusading venture, the shepherds had become a vast, rebellious, heretical mob. With his long beard and his pale, ascetic, and venerable appearance, together with a (supposed) letter from the Virgin Mary, the Master of Hungary swayed his followers as only a charismatic leader could. Two Englishmen, the chronicler Matthew Paris and the philosopher Roger Bacon, were intrigued by his understanding of crowd psychology. Matthew Paris was well informed about the movement, having interviewed the archbishop of Canterbury, who had been in France at the time, and Thomas of Sherborne, an English monk taken prisoner by the pastores. According to Matthew Paris, the Master of Hungary “infatuated” the people who heard him, whereas Bacon, who witnessed his spellbinding performance in Paris, spoke of “fascination” as the key to his success.

After Paris, most of the troops of shepherds headed southward. Violence erupted at Tours, where friars were attacked, and at Orléans, where scholars, students, and priests were robbed, beaten, and killed. At Bourges the pas- tores pillaged and persecuted the Jews with the connivance of local people. Probably it was at this point that Queen Blanche commanded that the shepherds be put down. The Master of Hungary was killed and many of his followers executed. Some shepherds made their way to Marseilles, Aigues-Mortes, Bordeaux, or even to Shoreham in England, but nearly all were apprehended, and many were hanged. The response of the clergy to the violence directed against them, oftentimes with the complicity of the local populace, was outrage and fear. The Franciscan chronicler Salimbene, who was in France at the time, was horrified by the violent attacks of the “innumerable host of Shepherds” upon his fellow mendicants because “they had preached the crusade [of Louis IX] and given men crosses to go beyond seas with the King” [Coulton, From St. Francis to Dante, p. 188]. He thus makes it clear that antimendicant sentiment, provoked by the failure of the crusade the friars had preached, endeared the shepherds to the people, even when the result was anticlerical violence.

Clerical chroniclers, like the early fourteenth-century Dominican Bernard Gui, never forgot the pastores of 1251. As if in disbelief, he acknowledged that the common people rejoiced in the persecution of the clergy. To him, this was the most disquieting aspect of the Shepherds’ Crusade of 1251. Thus the Second Shepherds’ Crusade of 1320 stirred old memories and reawakened old fears.