THE STORY OF PETER THE HERMIT
Great troops of people travelled thitherward
Both day and night, of each degree and place
But few returned, having 'scaped hard
With hateful beggary or foul disgrace.
SPENSER: Faery Queene.
OME twenty years after the death of Hakim, the
countries round about the Holy Land began to be
harassed by a new and terrible foe. From far-off
Turkestan had migrated a fierce fighting tribe, the
descendants of one Seljuk, and known to history as the
Seljukian Turks. Wherever they went they conquered,
until half-way through the eleventh century, their
leader drove out the Saracen rulers of Bagdad and made
His successor was converted to Islam, and with added
power, swept over Asia Minor and settled in the city
of Nicaea, in threatening proximity to Constantinople.
This invasion was the more terrible in that it brought
in its train a relapse to barbarism, for these Turks were
barbarians, hordes of robbers and brigands, who cared
for nothing but plunder and violence.
Alexios, the weak Emperor of the Eastern Empire,
quailed at their approach, and looked on in terror at the
spectacle of Christian churches destroyed and Christian
 children sold into slavery. But he appealed in vain for
aid to the kingdom of the West. To unite Western
Christendom against a far-off foe was a task beyond the
powers of the tottering Empire of the East.
That inspiration, however, was at hand. In 1076, the
Seljukian Turks conquered Jerusalem, and at once began
a reign of terror for Christian inhabitants and pilgrims.
The Patriarch, or Bishop of Jerusalem, was dragged
through the street by his white hair, and flung into a
dungeon, until his people could gather a sum sufficient to
pay his ransom. The holiest sacrament of the Church was
profaned by the barbarians, who invaded the buildings
and insisted upon sharing in the rite. Pilgrims were
stripped and beaten on the roads and passes that led to
the Holy City; many suffered martyrdom as they knelt
before the Holy Tomb. Out of seven thousand who set
out from Germany in one year, only two thousand
returned to tell a tale of cruel murder and outrage. The
marvel is that such a terrible state of things was allowed
to exist so long, without anything being done to remedy
it. Pope Gregory VII. (Hildebrand) did indeed gather an
army in the latter part of the eleventh century, but his
energy was dissipated in the hopeless task of asserting
the power of the Pope over the Emperor, and his army
was eventually dispersed.
Robert Guiscard, the Norman, actually crossed the sea
with his troops in 1081, when death overtook him; and
for a time the unhappy pilgrims seemed to be left to their
fate. Then suddenly was heard a "voice calling in the
wilderness," the voice of one who was to be the herald of
the First Crusade.
The story goes that a certain poor hermit named
Peter, a native of the French city of Amiens, set out to
 go to Jerusalem in the year 1098. He had, like every one
else, heard of the horrors he might be called upon to
endure, but pushed on, undeterred, until, possibly
because of his poverty, he arrived safely within the Holy
City. He found the condition of things even worse
than he expected. The very stones of the great church
were stained with the blood of the martyrs; the cries of
tortured women rang in his ears; the patriarch Simeon
confessed that he had lost heart and was little better than
a slave in the Moslem's hands. It was clear that the
Emperor of the East, their proper protector, would never
act up to his responsibilities. To whom, then, could they
look for aid?
"The nations of the West shall take up arms in your
cause," cried the dauntless Peter, and he forthwith
promised to visit the Pope and obtain his help and
sympathy on his return journey, if the Patriarch would
give him letters to the Church of Rome.
That night, says the legend, Peter meant to spend in
watching at the tomb of the Saviour, and there he fell
asleep. And as he slept, the figure of the Redeemer stood
before him, and with hand outstretched, bade him
hasten to fulfil his great task, saying, "So shalt thou
make known the woes of My people, and rouse the
faithful to cleanse the Holy Places from the infidel; for
through danger and trial of every kind shall the elect
now enter the gates of Paradise."
With these words ringing in his ears, the Hermit at
once hurried to the coast and sailed for Italy. He came
before Pope Urban II. at the very time when the envoys
of the Emperor of Constantinople were knocking very
hard at the doors of Rome. Urban therefore did
not hesitate to bless the enterprise of Peter, and to
 bid him go forth and preach a Crusade in his own way.
To induce kings, princes, and nobles, to leave their
lands and go to fight in a cause from which they could
gain no apparent profit, needed considerable time, and
Urban himself undertook the difficult task. But he was
wise enough to see that the peculiar power of Peter the
Hermit could be used in stirring up the ordinary people,
the simple-minded and the poor, to take up arms for the
cause of Christ. So, as a writer of his own time puts it.
"The hermit set out, from whence I know not, but we
saw him passing through the towns and villages,
preaching everywhere, and the people surrounding him in
crowds, loading him with offerings and celebrating his
sanctity with such great praises that I never remember
such honour bestowed on any one."
Throughout Italy and France and along the banks
of the Rhine journeyed the strange inspired figure, with
head and feet bare, his thin frame wrapped in a coarse
cloak, holding before him a great crucifix as he rode upon
"He preached to innumerable crowds in the churches,
the streets and the highways; the Hermit entered with
equal confidence the palace and the cottage; and the
people were impetuously moved by his call to repentance
and to arms. When he painted the sufferings of the
natives and pilgrims of Palestine, every heart was
melted to compassion; every breast glowed with
indignation when he challenged the warriors of the age to
defend their brethren and rescue their Saviour."
THE PREACHING OF PETER THE HERMIT
While Southern Europe was thus being stirred to
enthusiasm by being brought into personal contact with
 one who had seen for himself the woes of the Holy Land,
Pope Urban had already called a council to consider the
matter in a practical form. At this Council of Placentia,
however, the chief part of the attention of those present
was drawn to the representations of the Greek Emperor,
on whose behalf ambassadors pleaded the cause of the
city of Constantinople. If that city fell before the
threatened onslaught of the Turks, they said, Christianity
must perish for ever in the East, and nothing but a
narrow stretch of sea kept the Moslems from the gates of
the capital city of the Eastern Empire.
At these words the deepest sympathy was expressed,
but it was suggested that the best way of succouring the
threatened city was to draw off the attention of the Turks
by an attack upon Palestine itself. This was just what
Urban desired. A definite march upon Jerusalem
would fire the imaginations of men of all ranks far more
than an attempt to defend Constantinople before it
was actually besieged. The old jealousy between the
Eastern and Western Empire had to be reckoned with;
and the Emperor Alexios was no heroic figure to stand for
the Cause of Christ. The whole question, was, therefore,
deferred until the autumn of 1095, when a Council was
summoned at Clermont in France.
That dull November day witnessed a most striking
scene. The vast open square in front of the Cathedral
was crammed with people of all classes drawn from all
quarters by the rumour that the subject of a Crusade
would be discussed. From the great western door,
immediately after High Mass, emerged the figure of the
Pope, and a number of bishops and cardinals, dressed
in vestments glowing with colour, followed him upon the
high scaffold covered with red cloth.
 With cross outstretched in his left hand, the Pope
held up his right to command attention, and then began
to speak. "Who can preserve the force of that
eloquence?" says one who stood by, and heard him point
out that the Turks, having pushed their way to the edge
of the Western World, and even then holding parts of
Spain and Sicily, must now be driven forth from that
holiest place, where Christianity alone had a right to
Turning to the knights who stood by, leaning upon
their swords, Urban addressed them in words of fire.
"Were they spending their days in empty quarrels,
shearing their brethren like sheep? Let them go forth
and fight boldly for the Cause of God. Christ himself
would be their leader as, more valiant than the Israelites
of old, they fought for their Jerusalem. A goodly thing
would it be for them to die in that city, where Christ for
them laid down His life. Let them, as valiant knights,
descendants of unconquered sires, remember the vigour
of their ancestors and go forth to conquer or to die."
This appeal stirred the multitude to its depths.
"DEUS VULT! DEUS VULT!" went up to heaven
in one great roar of voices, and the cry was at once
seized upon by Urban.
"Let these words be your war-cry," he exclaimed.
"When you attack the enemy, let the words resound
from every side, 'God wills it'" Go forth then;
many sufferings will be yours, but you may redeem your
souls at the expense of your bodies. Rid God's sanctuary
of the wicked; expel the robbers; bring in the holy
souls. These things I command, and for their carrying
out I fix the end of next spring. If you have rich
 possessions here, you are promised better ones in the Holy
Land. Those who die will enter the mansions of heaven,
while the living shall behold the sepulchre of their Lord.
Ye are soldiers of the Cross; wear then on your breasts,
or on your shoulders, the blood-red sign of Him who died
for the salvation of your souls. Wear it as a token that
His help will never fail you; wear it as a pledge of a vow
which can never be recalled."
Another mighty burst of applause followed these
Crowds of bishops and knights at once pressed forward
to take the red cross badges which had been prepared, and
Adhemar, Bishop of Puy, the first to do so, was at once
appointed as spiritual head of the expedition, with
Raymond, Count of Toulouse, as its military leader.
In the months that followed, all Southern Europe
rang with the sounds of riveting armour and of forging
steel. The actual departure of the Crusaders had been
finally appointed for the August of 1096, but this was not
early enough for the fervent spirits who had been
already stirred to the depths by Peter the Hermit.
In the month of March, without preparation or
provision for the journey, a vast concourse of some sixty
thousand men and women turned their faces to the East,
with Peter as their leader. As a writer of the time
says, "Lands were deserted of their labourers; houses
of their inhabitants; even whole cities migrated. You
might see the husband departing with his wife, yea, with
all his family, you would smile to see the whole household
laden on a waggon, about to proceed on their journey.
The road was too narrow for the passengers, the paths
too hedged-in for the travellers, so thickly were they
thronged by endless multitudes."
 About fifteen thousand pilgrims, mostly French,
assembled in this way at Cologne, about Easter 1096;
and finding Peter unwilling to start before the German
contingent had come up, they set off under a leader known
as Walter the Penniless, and made for Constantinople.
To do this they had to pass through Hungary, a wild and
barren tract, the people of which had only lately been
converted to Christianity; and here the rough discipline
which Walter, by mere force of character, had managed
to impose upon the horde that followed him, entirely
broke down. Food being denied them, the pilgrims
began to plunder. The Hungarians at once took up
arms, and soon scattered the so-called troops in all
directions. Hundreds took refuge in a church, which
was promptly fired, and most of those within were
burnt to death. Only a few thousand managed to hide
in the woods and so escape; and this poor remnant,
being collected with pain and difficulty by Walter the
Penniless, made their way to Constantinople and put
themselves under the protection of the Emperor until
Peter should arrive.
Meantime, the Hermit had started, with a German
following of about forty thousand people. Amongst these
were quite a large number of women and children, many
of whom doubtless did their part by cheering and helping
their men-folk on the long road. But the hardships of
the way told heavily on them, many fell out and lingered
behind, beseeching the men to wait for them. Long
forced marches were an impossibility, and a disorderly
progress was made, in spite of the fact that they had
more provisions and more money than their predecessors
on the road.
At length they came to the spot where so many of
 Walter's followers had lost their lives. The place was
but too well marked out by the weapons and crosses of the
pilgrims which now adorned the walls and houses of the
neighbouring town. In a wild outburst of fury, the mob
threw itself upon the inhabitants, all unsuspecting as they
were, and massacred them by the thousand. Enraged
at this treatment of his people, the Hungarian King
came down upon them with his forces, just as the
pilgrims were endeavouring to cross the river into
Bulgaria, and many perished before they could
Once again, in crossing through Bulgaria, the
undisciplined host came to blows with their
fellow-Christians living in those lands. In vain did Peter
represent that valuable lives, time and money was
being wasted. About ten thousand lost their lives.
Peter himself barely escaped to a wood, where he
wandered about all night in misery, thinking that all his
host was slain. Next day, however, he managed to
collect about seven thousand, and as he marched on,
other refugees joined him, until at length he found
himself at the head of about half the force with which he had
set out. Famished and gaunt, having lost nearly all the
women and children, as well as food, clothes and money,
Peter hurried them on till at length quite exhausted, they
reached the walls of Constantinople.
Here they found the remnant of the army of Walter
the Penniless, who had, from the first, kept his men
under better control than had the Hermit. It was only
too clear, however, that neither army was in a fit state to
carry on a difficult warfare with the fighting Turks. The
Emperor Alexios, therefore, persuaded them to rest and
recruit until the organised Crusading Army should appear,
 meantime giving them all they could require, and
treating them with the greatest kindness.
But it seemed as though a curse, instead of a blessing,
rested upon these forerunners of the First Crusade.
The pilgrims became quite unruly, burnt the houses of
their hosts, stripped the lead from some of the churches
and actually tried to sell it to the inhabitants of the city.
The Greeks naturally turned against their ill-mannered
guests, and Alexios, dreading the consequences,
persuaded Peter to take them with him over the Bosphorus
into Asia Minor.
Thankful for his aid in transporting them, Peter
got his men across the strait, but, all too soon
after they had encamped on the other side, a fresh
quarrel broke out between the followers of Walter
and those of Peter. Utterly unable to control his
own men, Peter threw up his task and retired to
Freed from all pretence of control, and mad with the
knowledge that they were free, about ten thousand of
these pilgrims began to plunder the neighbouring country,
and finally made their way under the very walls of
Nicaea, where the Turks were encamped. Here, under
the daring leadership of one Reinaldo, they actually took
a fortress, and, when the Turkish Sultan advanced
against them from Nicaea, left a good part of their army
to defend it while the rest came face to face with the
troops of Islam.
Needless to say, the pilgrims were hopelessly defeated;
only their leaders and a handful of men escaped to the
fortress, but even here there was no safety for them.
Tic Sultan did not even trouble to besiege it. He
merely starved them out until they were forced to yield.
 The end of the story is a dismal one, seeing to what end
the pilgrims had pledged themselves. Offered the
alternative of death or Islam, by far the greater number
accepted the latter, and the few faithful were slain
before their eyes.
A cruel trap was laid for that section of the army
which had stayed behind with Walter the Penniless.
The Turks, whose troops were now harassing the
Christian camp, caused a rumour to be spread that
Reinaldo and his men had taken possession of Nieaea.
At once the camp rose like one man and demanded a
share in the plunder. In vain Walter warned, entreated,
threatened; heedless of his warning, the infatuated
pilgrims rushed towards the city, unhindered, until they
found themselves in the midst of a large plain before the
walls. Then, all at once the troops of the Sultan David
flung themselves upon them from every side. Helpless
they fell, with Walter in their midst. About three
thousand managed to escape, and fled back to
Constantinople, the rest of that vast host either perished
on the field or were brutally massacred afterwards by
Knowing nothing of the awful failure of their
predecessors, a third army, led by a German priest named
Gotschalk, advanced as far as Hungary. There the
story almost repeats itself. The people of Hungary
refused to let them pass through; and their king,
panic-stricken at their appearance, captured them by a cruel
trick. Calling them to his presence, he told them that his
people only opposed them because they came in hostile
fashion; but if they would lay down their arms, they
should be protected during their passage through his
country, and have their weapons restored on the
 frontier. This the unhappy pilgrims did, to be
immediately massacred by the Hungarians.
Twice again we hear of the setting out of lawless
troops, bent even more openly on plunder than their
predecessors, and twice again we hear of the Danube
running red with the blood of those slain by the hosts of
Carloman of Hungary.
Nothing, of course, could have been hoped from such
undisciplined hordes; but perhaps they served the
purpose, at the cost of a quarter of a million lives, of
warning the more thoughtful Crusaders of the dangers
of the way, and, of the need of absolute control and able
And thus, "the chaff being winnowed with the fan out
of God's store, the good grain began to appear."