Massacre in Semlin

Peter the Hermit departed Cologne with his following on around 20 April. He had a much larger following than Walter and it grew bigger as he passed through villages along the Danube River. By the time Peter arrived in Oedenburg, the gateway into Hungary, his force numbered more than 20,000 pilgrims. King Coloman must have forgiven the first wave of crusaders for the trouble they caused in Semlin, or else news of their attempted theft did not reach him. He granted Peter and his followers’ food, other supplies and safe passage through his kingdom on condition they would not pillage and commit murder.

All went well until they entered Semlin. Steven Runciman credited Peter the Hermit as being a genuinely pious and humble man; he sought to build friendly relations with the kings and bishops of Europe because he wanted safe passage for himself and for his followers. He did not, according to Runciman, want his followers to pillage and murder their way through the various villages. Unfortunately, in Semlin dispute over the sale of a pair of shoes escalated into a pitched battle in which Geoffrey Burel, a knight led an attack on the town, killing four thousand Hungarians.

Albert, a chronicler of the First Crusade, painted a much different picture of the events that transpired in Semlin. Word of what the Hungarians had done to several of Walter’s men, reached Peter at Oedenburg, but Peter refused to believe that fellow Christians would do such a thing to their own men until he “saw hanging from the walls the arms and spoils of the sixteen companions of Walter who had stayed behind a short time before, and whom the Hungarians had treacherously presumed to rob.” At the site of their clothes and arms, Peter “urged his companions to avenge their wrongs.”

They raised their banners high and attacked the Hungarians, letting loose a hail of arrows from their bows. The Hungarians, completely caught off guard and unprepared for battle, gathered their strongest knights — who numbered about seven thousand — but they were quickly overwhelmed by Peter’s far more numerical force. Four thousand Hungarians were massacred in that pitched battle, while Albert wrote, only one hundred pilgrims perished.

After their quick victory, Peter and his followers remained in the city for a few days where they gathered enough grain, sheep, cattle, horses and wine to feed and supply the entire army. Then Peter learnt that King Soloman was marching on Semlin with an army to avenge his slain people. Taking all their newly acquired supplies, Peter hastened with his followers to the Save River, but they found very few boats to carry them safely across the river. On the other side, Nicetas ordered his Pecheneg mercenaries to restrict the crusaders’ crossing to one area. Desperate to get away from the Hungarian king’s army, the crusaders repelled the Pecheneg mercenaries; they sank the boats that carried Pechenegs and slay those who had not drowned. Very few of Nicetas’ mercenaries escaped the wrath of Peter and his pilgrims.  Furious and unstoppable, the crusaders descended upon Belgrade, a prosperous city in Bulgaria. There, they found the city abandoned. The townspeople, after undoubtedly hearing about the brutal massacre in Semlin, fled the city. They were wise to do that, for many–if not most–of them would have been slaughtered. Peter and his followers pillaged the city and then razed

The People’s Crusade

The first army that left for the Holy Land was that of Peter the Hermit’s. It wasn’t an actual army because the vast majority of his followers were peasants and laymen; many men had taken their entire families with them. Only a small minority of Peter’s following were knights, commanded by the pious knight, Walter Sans Avoir (The Penniless).

Nevertheless, Peter had amassed a great following.  Historians estimate that his following was anywhere between 20,000 and 30,000 people, large enough to be considered an army. Today, Peter the Hermit’s expedition is widely known as the People’s Crusade.

The biggest challenge Peter faced with leading such a large army was how he was going to keep them all well fed throughout the entire journey.  There were very few districts in Europe that had enough food to feed such a large group of pilgrims, so the only way he was going to keep them fed was to keep them moving.  Though, the district of Cologne lay strategically near the Rhine River so the land in that area was more fertile.  Peter assumed that the townspeople of Cologne would have enough food to feed him and his following. That was probably why he decided to stay there for a number of days. He also wanted to preach to the Germans with the intent to recruit more nobles to his crusade.

Peter was successful: the German nobles, Count Hugh of Tubingen, Count Henry of Schwarzenberg, Walter of Tech, Count Emich of Lusingen, Gottchalk and the three sons of the count of Zimmern, all inspired by Peter’s preaching, made their crusader vows.

However, not everyone left Cologne when Peter left. Walter Sans Avoir grew impatient and so he left Cologne, taking a few thousand of Peter’s followers with him, all of them probably knights. They marched alongside the great Rhine and Neckar rivers, then down the Danube, arriving in Hungary in early May of 1096. “When his (Walter’s) intention and the reason for his taking this journey became known to Lord Coloman, most Christian king of Hungary, he was kindly received and was given peaceful transit across the entire realm, with permission to trade. And so without giving offence, and without being attacked, he set out even to Belgrade a Bulgarian city, passing over to MaleviUa, where the realm of the kingdom of Hungary ends. Thence he peacefully crossed the Morava (Save) river,” wrote Albert, a chronicler of the First Crusade.

The moment they set foot in Semlin, discipline in Walter’s small army of crusaders disintegrated. As sixteen men attempted to rob a bazaar, they were caught in the act by the Hungarians. They were consequently stripped of all their arms and clothes and sent across the Save river naked. The Hungarians hung their clothes on the town wall as a warning to all.

Conditions for the crusaders deteriorated even more once they entered Belgrade. Since it was mid spring, the harvest had not yet been gathered, so the townspeople could not feed Walter’s army. They were probably just as suspicious of these foreigners as was their king and his military commanders. In any case, they forbade the sale of anything to Walter and the crusaders. Furious, Walter and his troops pillaged the countryside, stealing herds of cattle and sheep. In the process, the crusaders got separated from each other, so when the Bulgarians counter-attacked, they were quickly scattered and many of Walter’s men were massacred.

Walter fled with what remained of his army to Nish. “There he found the duke and prince of the land and reported to him the injury and damage which had been done him. From the duke he obtained justice for all; nay, more, in reconciliation the duke bestowed upon him arms and money, and the same lord of the land gave him peaceful conduct through the cities of Bulgaria, Sofia, Philippopolis, and Adrianople, and also license to trade.” They arrived at the gates of Constantinople in the middle of July and were received well by the Emperor Alexius. There, they waited for the arrival of Peter the Hermit and his much larger force.

Bernard of Clairvaux: Preacher of the Second Crusade

This is a guest article by Kathryn Helstrom.

Bernard was born into a prominent noble family of Dijon in the year 1090. In school, the boy showed great promise in literature and poetry. He received the call from God to enter the Benedictine order in his early 20s. His testimony was so powerful that 30 of his relatives and friends followed him into the monastic life. Less than three years later, he established the abbey at Clairvaux. From there, Bernard founded the Cistercian order, which soon eclipsed the Cluniacs, causing much jealousy and strife among the clergy.

His piety and intellect were immensely respected throughout Christendom, he wrote profusely, and he was called to many councils and synods. Bernardhad written treatises explaining how physical violence was not necessarily a violation of Christian doctrine. Hewas therefore asked to createthe rules for the new military order of monks, The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, commonly known as the Templars.

On Christmas Eve 1144, a Turkish lord,Imad al-Din Zengi, captured Edessa, one of the oldest Christian cities. Shock waves reverberated throughout Christendom.In the spring of 1145, Pope Eugene III received emissaries from Jerusalem, Antioch, and Armeniapleading for aid to recover the Christian lands. Eugene and Bernard had long been friends and allies, so the pope personally asked his fellow Cistercian to recruit an army from the kings of France and Germany.

Eugene officially launched the Second Crusade when he issuedthe bull Quantum praedecessoreson December 1, 1145 atVetrella, just north of Rome. The bull was specifically addressed to the King of France, Louis VII, wherein the pope reminded him of the valor of the first crusaders, deplored the loss of Christian lands, and promised remission of sins for anyone who went to recover them.

Louis quickly announced his intention to march to Holy War at his Christmas Court. However, the French nobility were not convinced.It wasn’t until Bernardpassionately preached from a hillside in Vezelay the following spring that they embraced the summons. Here is an excerpt from Bernard’s sermon:

Oh, ye who listen to me, hasten then to appease the anger of Heaven, but no longer implore His goodness by vain complaints; clothe not yourselves in sackcloth, but cover yourselves with your impenetrable bucklers; the din of arms, the dangers, the labors, the fatigues of war are the penances that God now imposes upon you. Hasten then to expiate your sins by victories over the infidels, and let the deliverance of holy places be the reward of your repentance.

Fly then to arms; let a holy rage animate you in the fight, and let the Christian world resound with these words of the prophet, “Cursed be he who does not stain his sword with blood!”

The crowd was so enraptured that many tore their clothes and rejected all material life until the victory was won. Priests pinned white linen crosses to anyone who vowed to go. Miracles, signs, and wonders followed Bernard’s preaching. “Cities and castles are emptied,” he wrote to the pope, “There is not left one man to seven women, and everywhere there are widows to still living husbands.”

Bernard carried the message extensively throughout France and Flanders for the next several months. In November of 1146, he met with Conrad III, King of the Germans, in Frankfurt. Conrad had many disputesamong his nobles to resolve before he could commit to gathering an army and taking it to the other side of the world. Bernard was instrumental in negotiating with the various dukes and counts to bring them to heel. As part of the agreements, some noblemen were authorized to conduct a Holy War against the pagan Wends in the northeast, and others against the Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula.

Conrad and Bernard arrived in Speyer for Christmas, and Bernard preached to the Germans from the steps of the cathedral on December 28. Bernard pinned the white cross on Conrad himself. Again, thousands took up the cross in religious fervor and ecstasy.

The following spring Bernard was burdened with more protracted travel and negotiating, and finally, between April and May of 1147, Conrad collected his army at Nuremburg and Ratisbon and set out for Constantinople. Louis followedbehind in July.

The conduct of the Second Crusade was a disaster, ruined by the kings of France, Germany, and Jerusalem being unable to agree on anything. After several crippling defeats they assembled what few men were left and laid siege to Damascus, but Conrad pulled out after only two weeks. The Holy War collapsed. By spring of 1149 Louis and Conrad were on their way home.

Afterward, Bernard, in his Apologetica, compared the crusade to Moses leading his people out of Egypt, and absolved the pope and himself of any fault.

The sad and unexpected outcome, however, cannot be laid to the rashness of the leader, for he did everything at the Lord’s command, with “the Lord aiding them and attesting his word by the miracles that went with them.” [Mark 16:20] But, you may say, they were a stiff-necked race forever contending against the Lord and Moses his servant. Very well, they were rebellious and unbelieving; but what about these other people? [i.e. The Crusaders] Ask them. Why should it be my task to speak of what they have done?

Kathryn is a fellow writer and historian who’s focus is on Medieval Germany. To learn more about the 12thcentury, check out her blog Medieval Germany at https://kathrynhelstrom.com/.

Pope Urban Sets The Crusading Era in Motion

Pope Urban II was the man who set the crusading era in motion. However, did he truly expect peasants and labourers to take up the cross and fight the Muslims alongside the most wealthy, powerful Lords of the land, and other highly skilled soldiers? Many historians maintain the belief that Pope Urban did in fact urge everyone, regardless of rank, to take part in the crusade. Urban’s very words as recorded by Robert the Monk: ‘And we do not command or advise that the old or feeble, or those unfit for bearing arms, undertake this journey; nor ought women to set out at all, without their husbands or brothers or legal guardians. For such are more of a hindrance than aid, more of a burden than advantage…’ implies that Pope Urban addressed only the aristocracy and knightly class to make the armed pilgrimage. Though, Robert’s account was written in around 1116, twenty-one years after Urban’s speech at Clermont.

Regardless of Pope Urban’s real intentions, he inspired tens of thousands of men, women and even children to take up the cross. Peace reigned and every human mind, how great or simple, was renewed with passion, hope and a sense of purpose. Everywhere, knights’ and princes’ swords were blessed by their priests with these words: “Take this sword and these arms in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost! May they and it serve you in this good cause, but never may they shed innocent blood!”

Entire families abandoned their professions so they could prepare for the long journey to the Holy Land. “The Welshman left his Hunting, the Dane his drinking party, and the Norwegian his raw fish–all eager to join the expedition to the Holy Land,” said William of Malmesburry.

One reason why Urban had managed to gain tremendous support from kings, nobles and peasants was because his speech addressed the mentality of the time. Eleventh century Christianity was extremely black and white. King, noble and peasant alike lived in perpetual fear of sin. They were surrounded by sin. Failure to repent would lead to an eternity of excruciating suffering. But repentance lead to the promise of eternal salvation and peace with Christ in heaven. People were continually seeking perfection, closeness to God and absolution from any and all sins they committed.

God and Church were one and Popes believed that they were descendents of St. Peter; they had been given the keys to heaven. They appointed other men (clergy) to do God’s will on earth. The Medieval Catholic Church upheld the firm belief that it was up to God’s disciples to feed the people with God’s word, while requiring the people, including kings, to submit entirely to the teachings of the Church. In order to seek forgiveness, one must seek out a priest or bishop to confess to. In the eleventh century, the idea of a ‘personal relationship with God’ did not exist. People took the pope’s word as the truth and based their faith on his teachings.

The Rise of Islam

To fully understand the reasoning behind Pope Urban’s call to Holy War in 1095, one must understand the historical events that took place in the centuries leading up to the late eleventh century. Those historical events were essentially the rise of Islam.

Islam was born in around 610 AD when a man named Muhammad started receiving revelations from God through the Archangel Gabriel. Muhammad bears much resemblance to Jesus in that he was from a poor family and he was also illiterate.

After he started receiving these revelations, Muhammad had his family and a few others converted to Islam, but the people of Mecca clung to Zoroastrianism — the ancient, pagan religion Mecca adhered to. Like Jesus, Muhammad was forced to flee his hometown (which was Mecca) and seek refuge in a neighboring city. For Muhammad, that neighboring city was Medina. Unlike Jesus who traversed the Holy Land peacefully, preaching the word of God and performing miracles, Muhammad took up the sword and waged war against Mecca. The war was long and bloody, but it finally fell to Muhammad and his followers in 632, just a few years before Muhammad’s death.

Muhammad took what he learnt from the teachings of Christianity and Judaism, but made a new religion that was much more refined and profound: Islam.

‘Islam’ means total submission to God’s (Allah’s) will.

Islam took root in Medina during Muhammad’s life, but much more so after his death thanks to his ardent, loyal followers.

Caliph and common Arab alike believed that Islam was the one and only true religion; the only path to salvation. Every man — Islam regarded women as second class citizens and still does to this day — must submit themselves to the will of God (Allah). This ultimately resulted in an insatiable desire to unite the entire world under the banner of Islam.

From the mid seventh century until the early eighth century, the Muslim armies were unconquerable. Within the second half of the seventh century, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, most of Persia,  and the entire north coast of Africa fell to the Muslims. Then, in 711, Islamic forces invaded the Iberian Peninsula which is Spain and within two decades, they conquered most of Iberia.

The booty and slaves captured from conquered territory brought the Muslims immense wealth. They were also united under one Caliph and their armies, organized. That is what enabled them to keep on expanding. They would have taken over Europe—the whole world for that matter –had not Charles “The Hammer” Martel roundly defeated them at the Battle of Poitiers in 732 AD. Badly beaten and significantly mowed down in size, the Muslim army retreated back to Spain and never again set foot on French soil.

It should also be noted that, as early as the eighth century, Muslim unity had begun to splinter into several factions; another reason why Muslim expansion westward was halted. They began to direct their conflict inwards, against each other, rather than against the ‘infidel’.

What happened to Christians and Jews in conquered territories?                                             

Ironically, the Muslims did not force immediate conversion upon the Christians and Jews. In fact, the Muslims referred to them as “Peoples of the Book.” For this reason, Christians and Jews were allowed to practice their religion, but not without consequence. They were considered as second class citizens, so were required to pay a heavy poll tax. Having to choose between poverty, other forms of persecution, and their faith, many Christians and Jews chose to convert to Islam.

The Treatment of Christians Under Muslim Rule Deteriorated

Christians were never treated well under Muslim domination, but under the rule of Caliph al-Hakim in the early eleventh century, they faced severe persecution.

“The Christians were ordered to dress in black and to hang wooden crosses from their necks, half a metre long, half a metre wide, weighing five ratls. Several people were flogged for playing chess. Churches were destroyed and their contents pillaged as also were their tenement houses and the houses pertaining to them,” wrote Egyptian Scholar, Al-Maqrizi in the fifteenth century.

When pilgrims and other Christians living within the boundaries of the Byzantine Empire heard of al-Hakim’s persecution of Christians, they were horrified. Stories inevitably found their way back west and fuelled Christian hatred of the Muslims, especially among the clergy.

In the early eleventh century, Pope Sergius IV attempted to start a crusade against al-Hakim.

“Let all Christians know that news has come from the east to the seat of the apostles that the church of the Holy Sepulcher has been destroyed from roof to foundations at the impious hands of the pagans…With the Lord’s help we intend to kill all these enemies and to restore and Redeemer’s Holy Sepulcher,” wrote Pope Sergius IV.

However, it wouldn’t be until the end of the eleventh century that this call to arms, call for Holy War, would take on more vigor and intensity. Only one man would set Christendom on fire with crusading zeal: Pope Urban II.