Don's diary: crusades hit princeton

July 9, 2004

Out of cyberspace comes the invitation. Princeton University wants me. A conference titled "Under Fire: Childhood in the Shadow of War" is being organised at Princeton's Cotsen Children's Library.

I've cohabited with my assigned topic for years. The Children's Crusade of 1212 is a famously obscure episode in crusade history, when medieval peasant youths sought to recreate the Israelites' dry-shod crossing of the Red Sea to the Holy Land. Theirs was an adventure that captured the imagination, medieval and modern. Here is my chance to say something about its "mythistory" - that is to say, the mythic motifs, storylines and villains that medieval chroniclers (who claimed to be writing history) projected onto it. The head of school emails: "Go." Whatever Princeton wants, Princeton gets.

Thursday

I arrive at Princeton 15 minutes into the first paper on children's literature and war. Best conference aside: when "Little" appears before the hero's name in 19th-century fiction (for example, Little Nell), it's a death sentence.

The conference-related exhibition at the Cotsen Library includes Japanese wartime propaganda books for children, showing Japanese soldiers paying their respects at the graves of the Chinese they have killed.

The evening film is overpowering. Behind Closed Eyes , directed by Duco Tellegen, shows former child-warriors in Liberia begging forgiveness from village elders, along with child-victims in Rwanda, Cambodia and Macedonia - a searing end to the day.

Friday

After talks on British children's literature in the Age of Napoleon (on how war-awareness paved the way for anti-war stories) and images of Germans in British children's fiction (positive views of individual Germans in the First and Second World Wars began to appear only post-1967), I play truant and walk over to the Institute for Advanced Study. Enveloped by happy memories of residence there as a member in 1997-98, I have a chat with Giles Constable, a fine medievalist and one of the luminaries of the institute.

There's just time to pop into Princeton University Press and leave a scrawled note about my projected book, The Mythistory of the Children's Crusade . Like one of my mythistoricised medieval lost boys on the Children's Crusade, it needs adoption. This evening's film, Into the Arms of Strangers , is on the Kindertransport , showing how Jewish children escaping the Nazis found refuge in the UK. Britain's finest hour. Tomorrow is my talk. I wonder if the conference title "Under Fire" is a bad omen?

Saturday

My slide of Simone Martini's 12-year-old puer Christus (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool) confronting his parents after disappearing for three days in Jerusalem (highlighting the resonances between Jesus the runaway and the youthful crusaders of 1212) provokes unexpected laughter.

The animated reactions of Mary and Joseph and the scowl on Jesus's face, take the audience by surprise.

The conference concludes with a talk on "Tolkien and war"; another on children "captured by the war spirit" in Civil War America; and a final paper on the success of Munro Leaf's The Story of Ferdinand .

Dinner is attended by the donor of the library, Lloyd Cotsen, and the former president of Princeton. It is a bibulous and bibliophilic occasion.

The history and literature of childhood, such a rich subject, could do with a higher profile in the UK.

Monday

Sleep-deprived and unshowered, I land in my office ten minutes before class, exhilarated.

Gary Dickson is reader in history, School of History and Classics, Edinburgh University.

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