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/.

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.