The French contingent, despite chroniclers' later embellishments, probably didn't get far. The German movement, however, inspired by a 10-year-old from Cologne called Nicholas, crossed the Alps and reached Italy. Nicholas claimed to have had a vision of the cross and heard a voice promising that the seas would part to let them travel over dry land to Jerusalem, which would yield immediately.
"Many thousands of boys ranging from six to full maturity left the ploughs or carts they were driving, the flocks they were pasturing," wrote one contemporary. "Bolted doors could not keep them in, nor could their parents call them back," wrote another.
The freezing Alps took their toll on children already weakened by lack of food and contaminated water: hundreds died and were left unburied. In Lombardy they were attacked. Even so, 7,000 boys, girls and adults arrived at Genoa, where the expected miracle failed to materialise. They dispersed along the coast: many were seized and sold as slaves, some were taken by pirates, others shipwrecked. One group went to Rome and were released from their vows. Ruined, degraded and ridiculed, only a few stragglers ever returned.
The event exerted a powerful hold over the medieval imagination and was much used in crusader propaganda. It may even provide the origin of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. This story appears in 1284 and features hundreds of children disappearing into a mountain following a magical figure, only to reappear on the road of Charles the Great - the traditional crusader route to the Holy Land.