The People’s Crusade: The Rise of Peter
The departure date for the first Crusade was set for August 15, 1096. However, there were some, like Peter the Hermit, who were poised to get to Jerusalem first. Despite caution from Pope Urban II that those “unfit for bearing arms” (Stark, 115) should not attempt to make the 2,000 mile trip to Jerusalem (Kostick, 32). Men like Peter the Hermit did not heed this warning. Instead, preaching passionately to the masses from town to town, he gathered a multitude “…of peasants and villagers, including many women and children” (Stark, 115).
Peter the Hermit, by all accounts, was a captivating and persuasive preacher. Oldenbourg writes, “He was one of those men who have the power to fascinate literally everyone with whom they come into contact, and he had a gift of eloquence which made those who heard him feel they were listening to an angel from heaven” (Oldenbourg, 79). Some have suggested that Peter himself was partly responsible for convincing Urban II to call for the first Crusade. Allegedly, Peter made a trek to Palestine where he “…first conceived of the grand idea of rousing the powers of Christendom to the rescue of the Christians of the East…” (1850, 44). The Illustrated London Reading Book says, “The subject engrossed his whole mind. Even in the visions of the night he was full of it. One dream made such an impression upon him, that he devoutly believed the Saviour of the world Himself appeared before him, and promised him aid and protection in his holy undertaking” (1850, 44).
“Full of it…” he most certainly was. Oldenbourg refutes this idea that Peter ever made a trek to Palestine prior to his preaching the Crusades, and sees no reason to believe that Peter had any influence on Urban II’s decision. “Now it is an established fact that Peter did not go to Rome in the years preceding the Council and that he had never met the Pope. As for the letter, he did in fact speak of it, and even showed it to his hearers, actually claiming that it had been given into his hands by Jesus Christ, all of which suggest that the legend must have been of his own creation” (Oldenborg, 78-79). Adding to the mystery, Stark writes that Peter “…apparently had attempted a pilgrimage to Jerusalem sometime before 1096 but was turned back and tortured by the Turks…” (Stark, 115). Later, He points out that “[i]t is uncertain whether he was at Clermont to hear the pope speak…” (Stark, 116). It appears as though the weight of evidence is against the notion that Peter had anything to do with influencing Urban II. Still, he did influence the first wave of the First Crusade, often called the People’s Crusade.
Peter, though a short man (Stark, 115) was a powerfully convincing preacher. According to Stark “…his train of followers is thought to have numbered fifteen thousand men, women, and children” (Stark, 116). Upon arrival in Constantinople Alexius I encouraged Peter, now joined by the forces of Walter the Penniless, to wait for the rest of the Crusaders. Unfortunately, for all his preaching prowess, Peter was not able to keep his army from looting the locals. Alexius I, it seems more out of a desire to get rid of this rowdy bunch than anything, agreed to transport them across the Bosporus (Madden, 16–17).
Upon entering Asia Minor, Peter’s army went to war with little regard for who the “enemy” actually was. Oldenbourg recounts, “A party of men, led by a certain Reynald, left the camp and began ravaging the countryside. They stormed a fortified village…mistaking the Christian villagers for Saracens, the “Crusaders” butchered them all with unheard-of refinement of cruetly… [where it was reported that] children [were] being spitted and roasted alive” (Oldenbourg, 85).
Madden describes the factions that were emerging among Peter’s Crusaders as mostly regional in nature. He credits the German faction with attacking the Turks who were already “…alive to the danger.” Oldenbourg describes this event somewhat humorously, “One particularly enterprising party took it into their heads to advance into enemy territory and attack the Turks—the real ones this time—and actually succeeded…before the Turks fell upon them and slaughtered them to the man” (Oldenbourg, 85). This defeat would lead to the end of the People’s Crusade. The Turks sent a forged letter from the Germans, to the French, baiting them into battle. “In their rush, the French had blindly walked into an ambush. The entire army was wiped out” (Madden, 18).
Desertion at Antioch: Peter’s Fall From Grace
Surprisingly, Peter the Hermit somehow survived the massacre and would live to join the first official wave of Crusaders. Having led thousands to massacre by his passionate preaching it is astonishing that he did not die with his men on the battlefield. Then again, history tells us a little bit more about Peter the Hermit. For all his inspirational preaching, he proved to be a bit of a faithless coward when things got to their worst in Antioch in 1098. The Crusaders, having put Antioch under siege, found themselves, literally, between a rock and a hard place. News reached the Crusaders that a massive army called the “Kerbogha” was en route to Antioch. “Decimated by hunger and disease, the crusade was in serious danger of being crushed between the Turkish forces and the walls of Antioch” (Madden, 27).
In this moment, Peter the Hermit, who had inspired many by preaching confidence that God would give victory as he gave victory to David in battle, fled the battlefield altogether: “…Peter the Hermit, the famed preacher who still bore his letter from heaven, slipped out of the camp and ran for home; he was capture and returned” (Madden, 27). Conor Kostick, in a piece on “Courage and Cowardice” suggests that Peter may have deserted with “…William ‘the Carpenter’ (named for his hewing down of opponents)…” (Kostick, 37). William was captured by “…Tancred, a young Norman prince…and brought them back in utter disgrace” (Kostick, 37). Rodney Stark confirms this suspicion of Kostick when he writes, “…Peter the Hermit and William the Carpenter…deserted and headed for Constantinople. Bohemond’s nephew Tancred pursued them and brought them back in disgrace” (Stark, 149). Upon his return “[w]ith profuse tears, [Peter] begged the crusaders to forgive him for his loss of faith, and they did” (Madden, 27).
Victory At Jerusalem – Peter Inspires The Crusaders Again
One might think that after leading thousands of untrained civilians prematurely into battle, and then deserting his comrades at Antioch, that Peter the Hermit would have been left in disgrace for the rest of his days. Such is not the case. After a miraculous victory over the Kerbogha at Antioch, the Crusader armies once again faced extreme difficulty when they came to Jerusalem. Infighting and internal disagreement kept the Crusaders from coming up with a plan sufficient to take Jerusalem. It was on July 6, 1099, Peter Desiderius speaking on behalf of the now dead papal legate, Adhemar, rebuked the armies and called them to take Jerusalem (Madden, 33). He ordered a fast, and a procession around Jerusalem that would lead to success in battle in nine short days. It was in this moment that Peter the Hermit would once again take his place as an inspirational preacher. “The procession ended on the Mount of Olives, where Peter the Hermit (once again in good graces) preached an impassioned sermon” (Stark, 157).
“On July 8, the Muslim defenders on the walls of Jerusalem watched with astonishment as the army of the Franks became a barefoot, unarmed pilgrimage. Singing prayers and bearing relics…[they] walked around the walls of Jerusalem coming at last to the mount of Olives. There, Peter the Hermit delivered a sermon inspiring the thousands just as he had done on the plains of France…” at the start of the Crusades (Madden, 34).
There are many conclusions that might be drawn regarding the life of Peter the Hermit. It could be argued that he was a coward, a fool, a lunatic, a fearless leader, a deserter, or a devoted minister of Christ. Whatever may be said of Peter the Hermit, whether good or bad, it is without question that Peter the Hermit stands out as one of the most inspirational preachers of the first Crusade. His sermons, whether they are written off as delusional, inspirational, or fraudulent, nevertheless inspired thousands upon thousands of Crusaders to go into the battle. It’s true that Pope Urban II issued the decree to go to Jerusalem, and other priests and bishops led, mediated, and inspired. Still, only one man preached the first Crusade, and inspired the crusaders, from its early inception, to its final battle…Peter the Hermit.
- 1850. “Peter the Hermit, and the First Crusade.” Illustrated London Reading Book 44-45. Literary Reference Center, EBSCOhost (accessed April 11, 2014).
- Kostick, Conor. 2013. “Courage and Cowardice on the First Crusade, 1096–1099.” War In History 20, no. 1: 32-49. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed April 11, 2014).
- Madden, Thomas F. 2006. The New Concise History of the Crusades. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc.
- Oldenbourg, Zoe. 1966. The Crusades. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.
- Stark, Rodney. 2009. The Case for the Crusaders. New York, NY: Harper Collins.