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.

Peter the Hermit: Charismatic Preacher

Everyone who filled the field in Clermont on that crisp day in late November made the vow to save Byzantium and restore Jerusalem to Christian rule. But how, in a time when there was no such thing as TV, computers, internet or printing press, and no advocacy for mass literacy, did Urban’s cry for Holy War travel so far so fast?

The people went home and told their families’ what their beloved Pope had just commanded them to do.  Hence, Urban’s message was spread via word of mouth. However, there was one man who would help Urban spread the message far and wide: Peter the Hermit.

There is very little known about Peter’s background, so there is some historical debate as to whether he was born into nobility or poverty. According to Barbara Hutton, a scholar of the past, Peter once served as a soldier under Eustace de Bouillon, father of Godfrey de Bouillon. Peter married a lady of rank, but did not love her, so he chose to live his life in solidarity confinement as a means to end the marriage. Daniel Goodsell, on the other hand, suggested that Peter came from a poor family.

Regardless of Peter’s background, he possessed enough passion, imagination, reverence and charisma to move mountains. “He was small in stature and his external appearance contemptible,” William of Tyre wrote: Peter the Hermit wore a woolen tunic that had no sleeves and a coarse brown tunic overtop. He lived only on fish and wine, and traveled from village to village on top of a mule. However, “greater valor ruled in his slight frame. For he was sharp witted, his glance was bright and captivating, and he spoke with ease and eloquence.”

Historians of an earlier age believed that it was Peter the Hermit who prompted and inspired Pope Urban to initiate the First Crusade. Historians of today, though, have disregarded this belief, choosing instead to believe that it was Pope Urban who was the sole initiator of the First Crusade. Even though Urban was the perpetrator of this momentous historical event, Peter the Hermit’s involvement in the preaching of the Holy War should not be undermined.

It is quite possible that he travelled throughout France and preached Holy War prior to Urban’s speech at Clermont. Regardless, two things are for certain: whether Peter preached the crusade before Clermont or not, Pope Urban did sanction him to spread the message and Peter appealed to the commoners. He travelled on his mule from village to village, preaching Holy War, mimicking Urban in style and charisma. The reason he appealed so strongly to the commoners was because he addressed their needs. If they should take up the cross, God would forgive all their sins and bless them. Those who should die on the road to Jerusalem would look forward to spending the rest of eternity with Christ in Heaven. Those who should survive would reap the rewards, for the land in the east ran with milk and honey. That was what Peter probably told them anyway.

The people believed Peter because they wanted some kind of relief. Life in eleventh-century Europe wasn’t kind to peasants and laymen. The famine of 1094-5 left them starving and, possibly in some cases, on the brink of death. To make matters worse, the commoners were constantly caught in the cross-fire of warring lords; their lords were unable (or unwilling) to protect them. Thus, the Holy War provided them with a one-way ticket out of Europe.

To the commoners, Peter was the embodiment of true Christianity: he gave liberally, kept nothing for himself and took great pleasure in abstinence. He even mended broken marriages, restoring husbands to their wives. Given everything Peter did, it’s no wonder why people rallied to his side and took the cross. They even inspired family, relatives, friends and acquaintances to join them just as their wealthier counterparts had done. The message spread fast until every corner of Europe heard the call to Holy War and responded to it.

Pope Urban Preaches Holy War: November 1095

When Pope Urban II got a hold of the Byzantine Emperor’s letter — Alexius Comnenus had intended for the letter to be passed on to him — he took matters into his own hands. Not only did he hate the Muslims, Urban shared the same deep rooted fear as did Emperor Alexius: Should military help not arrive in Constantinople soon enough, Byzantium, the gateway to the Holy Land, would fall to the Muslims. Pope Urban cared for the Eastern Christians and he wanted to help preserve their empire, but he was also a man of high ambition. So, it was very likely that his fear stemmed from the fact that the Muslims posed to threaten his papal expansion, the ultimate goal he held onto for several years.

Pope Urban inherited a mess when he assumed the papal throne in 1088. The papacy was embroiled in a power struggle with the German Emperor. This conflict was so bitter that it took Urban six years to reassert papal authority over Rome’s Lateran palace. In that time, Urban created a series of policies that were non-confrontational, designed to persuade the German Emperor, Henry IV to submit to Rome without force. Even those reforms did not succeed over night. Even when they did, Urban’s divine right to act as head of the Latin Church and spiritual overlord of every Christian in western Europe was still far from his reach.

Urban realized that his ‘Crusade’ — then termed as holy war or armed pilgrimage — would improve relations with the Greek church, which would enable him to expand papal authority into the eastern realm. He also believed that a crusade would unite all of Western Europe under one cause: to fight the Muslims in God’s Holy name. Only then could Urban’s goal become a reality.

In order to set his holy war in motion, Pope Urban needed to find a method to persuade all of Christendom to make the armed pilgrimage. He had to somehow reconcile murder, a deadly sin, with God’s divine will. However, Urban didn’t worry too much about that because he knew just the right thing to say and how to say it.

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Several versions of Pope Urban’s speech have been recorded and passed down through the generations. This version was written by Robert the Monk, Chronicler of the First Crusade.

‘Oh, race of Franks, race from across the mountains, race chosen and beloved by God as shines forth in very many of your works set apart from all nations by the situation of your country, as well as by your catholic faith and the honor of the holy church! To you our discourse is addressed and for you our exhortation is intended. We wish you to know what a grievous cause has led us to Your country, what peril threatening you and all the faithful has brought us.

From the confines of Jerusalem and the city of Constantinople a horrible tale has gone forth and very frequently has been brought to our ears, namely, that a race from the kingdom of the Persians, an accursed race, a race utterly alienated from God, a generation forsooth which has not directed its heart and has not entrusted its spirit to God, has invaded the lands of those Christians and has depopulated them by the sword, pillage and fire; it has led away a part of the captives into its own country, and a part it has destroyed by cruel tortures; it has either entirely destroyed the churches of God or appropriated them for the rites of its own religion. They destroy the altars, after having defiled them with their uncleanness. They circumcise the Christians, and the blood of the circumcision they either spread upon the altars or pour into the vases of the baptismal font.

When they wish to torture people by a base death, they perforate their navels, and dragging forth the extremity of the intestines, bind it to a stake; then with flogging they lead the victim around until the viscera having gushed forth the victim falls prostrate upon the ground. Others they bind to a post and pierce with arrows. Others they compel to extend their necks and then, attacking them with naked swords, attempt to cut through the neck with a single blow. What shall I say of the abominable rape of the women? To speak of it is worse than to be silent. The kingdom of the Greeks is now dismembered by them and deprived of territory so vast in extent that it cannot be traversed in a march of two months. On whom therefore is the labor of avenging these wrongs and of recovering this territory incumbent, if not upon you? You, upon whom above other nations God has conferred remarkable glory in arms, great courage, bodily activity, and strength to humble the hairy scalp of those who resist you.

Let the deeds of your ancestors move you and incite your minds to manly achievements; the glory and greatness of king Charles the Great, and of his son Louis, and of your other kings, who have destroyed the kingdoms of the pagans, and have extended in these lands the territory of the holy church. Let the holy sepulcher of the Lord our Savior, which is possessed by unclean nations, especially incite you, and the holy places which are now treated with ignominy and irreverently polluted with their filthiness. Oh, most valiant soldiers and descendants of invincible ancestors, be not degenerate, but recall the valor of your progenitors.

But if you are hindered by love of children, parents and wives, remember what the Lord says in the Gospel, “He that loveth father or mother more than me, is not worthy of me.” “Every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands for my name’s sake shall receive an hundredfold and shall inherit everlasting life.”

Let none of your possessions detain you, no solicitude for your family affairs, since this land which you inhabit, shut in on all sides by the seas and surrounded by the mountain peaks, is too narrow for your large population; nor does it abound in wealth; and it furnishes scarcely food enough for its cultivators. Hence it is that you murder one another, that you wage war, and that frequently you perish by mutual wounds. Let therefore hatred depart from among you, let your quarrels end, let wars cease, and let all dissensions and controversies slumber.

 Enter upon the road to the Holy Sepulcher; wrest that land from the wicked race, and subject it to yourselves. That land which as the Scripture says “floweth with milk and honey,” was given by God into the possession of the children of Israel Jerusalem is the navel of the world; the land is fruitful above others, like another paradise of delights. This the Redeemer of the human race has made illustrious by His advent, has beautified by residence, has consecrated by suffering, has redeemed by death, has glorified by burial.

This royal city, therefore, situated at the centre of the world, is now held captive by His enemies, and is in subjection to those who do not know God, to the worship of the heathens. She seeks therefore and desires to be liberated, and does not cease to implore you to come to her aid. From you especially she asks succor, because, as we have already said, God has conferred upon you above all nations great glory in arms. Accordingly undertake this journey for the remission of your sins, with the assurance of the imperishable glory of the kingdom of heaven.’

When Pope Urban had said these and very many similar things in his urbane discourse, he so influenced to one purpose the desires of all who were present, that they cried out, “It is the will of God! It is the will of God!” When the venerable Roman pontiff heard that, with eyes uplifted to heaven he gave thanks to God and, with his hand commanding silence, said:

‘Most beloved brethren, today is manifest in you what the Lord says in the Gospel, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name there am I in the midst of them.” Unless the Lord God had been present in your spirits, all of you would not have uttered the same cry. For, although the cry issued from numerous mouths, yet the origin of the cry was one. Therefore I say to you that God, who implanted this in your breasts, has drawn it forth from you. Let this then be your war-cry in combats, because this word is given to you by God. When an armed attack is made upon the enemy, let this one cry be raised by all the soldiers of God: It is the will of God! It is the will of God!

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. Let the rich aid the needy; and according to their wealth, let them take with them experienced soldiers. The priests and clerks of any order are not to go without the consent of their bishop; for this journey would profit them nothing if they went without permission of these. Also, it is not fitting that laymen should enter upon the pilgrimage without the blessing of their priests.

Whoever, therefore, shall determine upon this holy pilgrimage and shall make his vow to God to that effect and shall offer himself to Him as a, living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, shall wear the sign of the cross of the Lord on his forehead or on his breast. When,’ truly’,’ having fulfilled his vow be wishes to return, let him place the cross on his back between his shoulders. Such, indeed, by the twofold action will fulfill the precept of the Lord, as He commands in the Gospel, “He that taketh not his cross and followeth after me, is not worthy of me.”‘

The Byzantine Empire on The Brink of Destruction

News of al-Hakim’s ruthless persecution of Christians wasn’t the sole event that triggered hatred in the west. The Byzantine Empire, in the eleventh century, was on the brink of destruction. In the 1040s, Turkish warriors migrated from the steppes of central Asia and conquered Persia, then invaded Armenia and Iraq, and conquered Baghdad in the year of 1055.

The Turkish invasions jeopardized the safety of pilgrims and threatened to sever Europe’s ties with Jerusalem. To make matters worse, Byzantium was severely weakened by the Bubonic Plague. Many people had died, leaving the emperor unable to protect the pilgrims and his people from Muslim raids.

In the summer of 1071 Emperor Romanus IV Diogenes decisively chose to fight back with two goals in mind: recapture all territory lost to the Turks and crush Sultan Alp-Arslan and his armies for good. However, it was not so. The Emperor’s army numbered approximately 40,000 troops, but Caliph Alp-Arslan’s army held the upper hand in strategy. At the battle of Manzikert, Emperor Romanus was captured and his armies, defeated.

Romanus was not held captive for long, but shortly after he returned to his people, he was “deposed, and then blinded and finally killed after great torture and torment.”

When Alexius I Comnenus took the imperial throne in 1081, only a few coastal towns in the north belonged to the Byzantine Empire. Not only were his coffers empty, Alexius was bombarded with perpetual threats from the Turks. At the same time, ferocious Pecheneg and Cuman nomads from the Russian steppes raided the Danube frontier. It was at this crucial moment that Emperor Alexius decided he needed help.

In 1093, Alexius wrote a letter to Robert, Count of Flanders, requesting military aid against the Seljuk Turks. In his letter, Alexius wrote of all the horrible deeds the Seljuk Turks had committed. Emperor Alexius feared — no, he knew — that all of Byzantium would fall to the Turks and Christianity in the East would be stamped out. These fears weren’t imagined; they were very real, and they were certainly spelled out to Count Robert. 

Alexius also took the extra measure to provide Count Robert with other reasons why Robert should send military aid to Constantinople:

“Remember that you will find all those treasures and also the most beautiful women of the Orient. The incomparable beauty of the Greek women would seem to be a sufficient reason to attract the armies of the Franks,” Alexius wrote.

Beautiful women! That would have provided any man with enough incentive to travel a long distance and fight in a foreign land. However, Emperor Alexius needed only a small army of barons and their strongest knights to fight the Turks. That’s what he wanted. He had not anticipated the enormous armed force that would arrive at the shores of Constantinople three years later.

Sources Used:

Alexius I Comnenus: Byzantine Emperor: http://www.rdsinc.com/pdf/samples/sp691771.pdf

The Battle of Manzikert (1071 A.D.): http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/imperialism/notes/manzikert.html