Written by Chris Riley.
When you think of the Crusades, you tend to think of knights in chainmail with sword and horse, charging into hordes of Muslim infidels but, the high nobility weren’t the only or the first to take part in what would later be known as the First Crusade. As Pope Urban preached at Clermont, requesting the lords and barons of Europe to gather their armies, a lesser known French monk called Peter decided he’d quite like a stab at this monumental holy Pilgrimage.
Peter the Hermit
Born around the year 1050, Peter was a small town member of the French clergy, based in Amiens and the rumours go that some time before the events of 1095/96, Peter made a pilgrimage to the holy city of Jerusalem but was barred from entering by the Seljuk Turks and was so poorly treated that this, along with others stories, encouraged the Papal plea for mercenary help in the near east. It is unclear whether Peter was a catalyst for the call to arms or, that he even made a trip to the Holy Land!
A portrait of Peter the Hermit by Andre Thevet SOURCE: Private Collection/bridgemanimages.com
Anna Komnene states in the Alexiad (a history dedicated to the life and times of her father, Alexios I) that Peter made his pilgrimage but, we are unsure if said pilgrimage ever actually happened and, if Peter himself was at Clermont which many sources state he was. One thing that can be certain is that the words he heard either first hand or, via other clergymen had a profound effect on him and he began to preach the crusade through France and modern day Germany.
Preaching from Berry and Champagne to Cologne, Peter used his abilities as an orator to whip up religious hatred, and soon gathered a large following of Peasants numbering somewhere between 40,000 and 60,000. One common misconception of the People’s Crusade is that it was exclusively the lower orders of society that accompanied Peter but, historians are now in agreement that some lesser, perhaps more radical knights did in fact join Peter and his merry band of fanatical peasants.
Peter the Hermit preaching the First Crusade, Painting by James Archer SOURCE: Public Domain
The Jewish Massacres
Pope Urban’s appeal to the warrior elite had painted Muslims as the enemies of Christ, subhuman, loathsome, and in need of vanquishing. Peter's speeches on the other hand, were even more incendiary and didn’t just target Muslims. Unfortunately, the already racist and xenophobic mission took an even more sinister turn with widespread attacks on the Jewish populations of Mainz and Trier (to name a few places) leading to thousands of deaths. Ominously referred to as the ‘first Holocaust’ the attacks on the Jewish people continued as Peter and the mob marched across Europe towards Constantinople and the Holy Land, pillaging and burning any and all non-believers they came across.
The Jewish populations of Worms, Mainz, Trier and Cologne suffered under the watchful eye of Peter and the other leaders of the People’s Crusade but, as is so often the case, the treatment of the Jewish women and children was by far the worst. The level of hatred and murderous destruction carried out in the name of Christ leaves little to the imagination, leaving thousands and thousands dead, dying or at the very least mentally and physically scarred.
Peter and his Peasant ‘army’ were not alone in their anti-Semitism, throughout the middle ages and beyond, some Christians have used the Jewish people as a scapegoat, blaming them for the death of Jesus and groups such a Peters peasant Crusade saw Jewish pogroms as both necessary and pious acts.
Reaching the Holy Land
Peter the Hermit arrived in the Byzantine capital of Constantinople in the late summer of 1096 but, after hearing of the atrocities carried out in the name of ‘his’ Crusade, Alexios wasted no time in getting Peter all that he needed to keep his army happy. A common theme of the People’s Crusade is as the swollen masses arrived at towns and cities, they would ask or more accurately, demand supplies and if they could not be given, the population of said town or city would pay for it with their produce, money and quiet often, their lives.
Map of Constantinople (1422) by Florentine cartographer Cristoforo Buondelmonti SOURCE: Public Domain
Quickly ferried across the Bosphorus, Peter and his rabble entered the Holy Land in the Autumn of 1096, with sound advise from the Byzantine Emperor to wait for the rest of the Crusader forces to arrive, before moving any further into Seljuk held lands. Ignoring this advice and with just God’s protection, Peter, his few knights, and the thousands of peasants set out towards Jerusalem but were soon set upon by Turkish soldiers.
Arriving at the city of Nicomedia (Modern day Izmir in Turkey) in early October 1096, Peter soon lost all control of the now hopelessly out matched group of virtually weaponless serfs, leaving them to their fate running back to Constantinople. Peter left his faithful peasants at the mercy of the Seljuk forces who saw it fit to massacre and enslave over 20,000 European peasants whilst the orchestrator was able to flee and wait for the much more prepared Papal Crusade to arrive.
Joining up with the actual Crusaders under Papal instruction, Peter was able to timidly follow the events of the crusade to its eventual end at the siege of Jerusalem in 1099 before returning the Belgium where he later died sometime around 1115, after founding a Augustinian monastery at Neufmoustier.
The results of the Peasant’s Crusade
To call the Peasant’s Crusade a tragic disaster would be a massive understatement, with untold numbers of dead both of the crusaders themselves and, their unfortunate Jewish, Muslim and even other Christian victims. Peter the hermit and his band of serf brothers never really stood a chance against an actual military force and may have been able to contribute to the overall Christian struggle if they had simply waited for the rest of the forces to arrive.
The fact that the mob lasted such a short time outside of the protection of friendly territory shows the physical limitations of the pure faith of the pilgrims, with Peter’s band far more effective at killing defenseless Europeans than the supposed ‘infidel enemy’. The Peasant’s Crusade was the first in a long list of catastrophic failures and wasteful loss of life but the crusade of the common man deserves its place as part of the wider crusader story. Peter the Hermit has gone down in history as somewhat of a polarising character, celebrated for his religious work but, vilified for his terrible treatment of so called ‘non believers’
Written by Chris Riley.
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