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Peter the Hermit |
The mad march of the little people

Peter the Hermit is drawn from Chapter One, beginning on page 16, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

After the smelly spellbinder Peter the Hermit calls for a common man’s crusade, uncontrollable hordes loot their way across Europe to a death far short of Jerusalem

Peter the Hermit - The mad march of the little people

Peter the Hermit - The mad march of the little people
In this nineteenth-century painting by Eugenio Lucas Velazquez, a train of peasant crusaders snakes its way through the European countryside, where they took their frustration out on the Jews. Hungarians, exasperated by their pillaging, drove many back home, and few actually made it much past Constantinople, where an ill-advised attack on the Turks results in their death or enslavement.

In appearance he was decidedly uncharismatic. A short, swarthy man with a long, homely face rather like a mule’s, he favored a filthy cape and was invariably barefoot. He also smelled. Nevertheless, he was the most powerful recruiter of the First Crusade, one of its many problems, and possibly its worst embarrassment.

Peter the Hermit, they called him. An itinerant monk born somewhere near Amiens, in France, the fiery evangelist ate neither bread nor meat, but he did eat fish and drink wine. Most significantly, he was an impassioned and riveting preacher who believed that Christians must at all costs rescue the Holy Land. “Whatever he said or did,” wrote contemporary Guibert of Nogent, “it seemed like something half-divine.” And wherever he went, men and women left their homes to follow him.

Astride his donkey, Peter galvanized much of northern Europe in what became known as the Peasants’ Crusade, a collective term for five large bands of enthusiasts who left separately from Germany in the late spring and early summer of 1096. Each intended to march to Jerusalem by way of Constantinople. Some made it. Most perished and were never heard of again.

Initially, recruiting for the Crusades did not go well in Germany. The feud between Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV and the papacy (volume 6, chapter 3) kept high-ranking German nobles from forming a regional army like those in France and southern Italy. As a consequence, leadership and organization splintered among lesser nobles and clergy. Knights did take part, along with many prosperous middle-class freeholders and townsmen. But the German contribution consisted principally of arms-bearing peasants beyond the control of the pope, the barons, the clergy, the knights, or anybody else. Apart, that is, from Peter, who, while he could certainly inspire, could not control anything.

Peter began drawing crowds and followers in the central French province of Berry in December 1095. His appeal was apocalyptic, populist, and visionary, in contrast to the more theological message of Pope Urban and his bishops, who talked church authority and penance. Peter promised forgiveness. Many of the poorest believed he would lead them to the New Jerusalem and an earthly paradise of milk and honey.

Over three months he gathered more disciples in the countryside of Orleanais, Champagne, and Lorraine and then Aachen and the cities around the Meuse River. In mid-April he reached Cologne, a wealthy center where he hoped to attract more nobles. There his French followers, who had been traipsing along with him, grew impatient. Several thousand set out immediately on the road to Hungary under one of the few baronial devotees, Walter-sans-Avoir of Boissy. A few days later Peter followed Walter with more than fifteen thousand. Although incidents of stealing food, misunderstandings of local customs, absence of authority and discipline, and general unruliness led to bloodshed in Hungary and Bulgaria, by August both groups had arrived in Constantinople.

After these forces departed, three other armies coalesced in Germany. These inaugurated their crusades by attacking the Jews–inspired by Peter’s assertions of Christian superiority and his emphasis on the need to avenge Christ Crucified, and in spite of the efforts of the bishops in many cities to prevent the slaughter. Most notorious were the Rhinelanders and Swabians under Emich of Leiningen, who began their massacres at Speyer, presided over more pogroms at Worms and Mainz (where they were joined by recruits from Lorraine, England, and France), and then killed more Jews in Cologne, Trier, and Metz. Unlike the other forces, these included five German and French counts and their knights.

A second army of Saxons and Bohemians under a priest named Volkmar conducted pogroms in Magdeburg, Wesel, and Prague. In northern Germany a fifth army formed under a Rhineland priest named Gottschalk. These massacred Jews in Bavaria at Regensburg. All contended that because the Jews had a hand in crucifying Christ, they were as pernicious as the Seljuk Turks who now held Jerusalem. They also complained that Jews were charging unfair interest on loans to crusaders.

None of these three armies made it to Constantinople because none could pay for food and the Hungarians would not tolerate their pillaging. Volkmar’s notoriously unruly force was the first to enter Hungary but was massacred at Nitra (now in Slovakia), the first city it reached. Gottschalk’s group arrived next, similarly ill behaved and violently abusive in pillaging. The Hungarians slaughtered them at Stuhlweissenburg. Finally, Emich’s army with its five counts found Wieselburg’s gates locked against them at the Hungarian border. They set up a siege, but when the Hungarians counterattacked, the entire contingent ingloriously fled.

Meanwhile, the mobs led by Peter and Walter accomplished little more. Although Byzantine Emperor Alexius I greeted them with courtesy and gave them food, he kept the horde safely outside Constantinople, then hurriedly ferried them across the Bosporus to Helenopolis, just thirty miles from the Turkish capital of Nicea. There they were to await the professional armies of the First Crusade.

But as food supplies dwindled, quarreling began. The Germans and Italians broke away under an Italian named Rainald, the French under Geoffrey Burel. The two factions vied in raiding the countryside, killing, among others, local Christians. Finally, while Peter was back in Constantinople seeking further material assistance, the Rainald and Burel sides taunted each other into a disastrous decision: together they would attack the Turks.

Vastly outnumbered and with only five hundred mounted warriors, the whole throng was ambushed. Many thousands were slaughtered or taken into slavery. Some three thousand took refuge in an abandoned castle until rescued by Byzantine soldiers. Thus ended the Peasants’ Crusade, victim of inexperience, ill discipline, and hopelessly inadequate provisioning.

Some few survivors joined the armies of the First Crusade coming up behind them. Fewer still eventually made it to Jerusalem. One of the latter was Peter himself. While he played an insignificant role in the fighting, his fiery speech is credited with rousing the starving crusaders to take Antioch, and he is said to have led the penitential procession around Jerusalem prior to its capture. Albert of Aix records that he died in 1131 as prior of a Church of the Holy Sepulchre that he had founded in France.

This is the end of the Peter the Hermit category article drawn from Chapter One, beginning on page 16, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster. To continue reading more about Peter the Hermit from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at