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

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.