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The First Crusade: A New History by Thomas Asbridge
The First Crusade: A New History by Thomas Asbridge

Peter the Hermit: A Key Figure of the People's Crusade

The Origins of Peter the Hermit’s Enigmatic Name

Peter the Hermit, also known as Little Peter, Peter of Amiens, or Peter of Achères, played a vital role in the People’s Crusade. His legacy is often linked with the title “Blessed,” although he remains unbeautified in the Catholic Church.

Birth and Lineage

While some believe he was born around 1050 to Renauld L’Ermite of Auvergne and Alide Montaigu of Picardie, others claim he hailed from the L’Hermite family of Auvergne in the Netherlands. Nevertheless, the debate over whether “the Hermit” was a true surname persists, as surnames had not yet fully developed during his time.

Peter’s Pilgrimage Frustration

Prior to the year 1096, Peter the Hermit embarked on a pilgrimage to the holy city of Jerusalem, an aspiration shared by countless devout Christians. However, his journey took a distressing turn when Seljuk Turks blocked his path and subjected him to mistreatment. This grim experience left a profound impact on Peter, driving him to deliver impassioned speeches condemning the actions of the Turks and arousing anger among fellow Christians. Yet, the historical record remains uncertain about whether Peter indeed undertook this pilgrimage or if it was a product of legend and lore.

Disturbing Scenes in Jerusalem

During his earlier pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Peter encountered scenes that deeply troubled him at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. He witnessed sacrilegious acts and the unholy desecration of sacred spaces. These troubling events compelled him to seek an audience with the patriarch of the holy church of Jerusalem. With great frustration, he questioned how gentiles and malevolent individuals could profane these hallowed places, defile offerings from the faithful, use the church as if it were a stable, and subject Christians to unjust fees and numerous sufferings. The patriarch, overwhelmed by the challenges he faced, explained that they had no power to prevent such acts and were forced to make regular tribute payments (jizya) to avoid dire consequences.

Council of Clermont and the Call to Arms

Historical sources provide mixed accounts regarding Peter the Hermit’s presence at Pope Urban II’s Council of Clermont in 1095, where the Pope unveiled his grand military strategy for the First Crusade. Nonetheless, it is undeniable that Peter played a significant role in mobilizing the masses for the crusade. His first-hand experiences and fervent speeches served to ignite the Roman Catholic cause, making him a pivotal figure in the events that unfolded. Tradition in Huy asserts that Peter was indeed present when the call for war was announced, and he immediately began preaching. His impassioned sermons swiftly gained him widespread recognition as an emotional revivalist, and the consensus among historians is that thousands of serfs and peasants eagerly accepted the cross at his behest, partly in response to the promises he made.

The Crusade of the Paupers

Peter the Hermit organized and led the People’s Crusade, a movement that also came to be known as the Crusade of the Paupers. He positioned this group as spiritually purified and holy pilgrims who believed they would be protected by the divine guidance of the Holy Ghost. Unlike traditional military leaders, Peter did not engage in training his army, nor did he provide weapons or provisions. While some historians speculate that the People’s Crusade might have included well-armed soldiers and nobles, the core of the movement was composed of fervent commoners. This powerful initiative, driven by religious zeal, set the stage for the First Crusade’s dramatic and historic events. A comprehensive list of known participants in Peter’s army can be found at The Digital Humanities Institute, showcasing the diversity of individuals who embarked on this remarkable journey.

Peter the Hermit's Crusade to the Holy Land

Miniature of Peter the Hermit leading the People's Crusade (Egerton 1500, Avignon, 14th-century)

Miniature of Peter the Hermit leading the People’s Crusade (Egerton 1500, Avignon, 14th-century)

Pope Urban II’s Commission and Jerusalem Permission

Peter the Hermit’s journey was initiated by the commission from the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Urban II. His mission was to command an armed pilgrimage to Jerusalem, a place of great religious significance. Before setting out on his military expedition, Peter secured the essential permission from Patriarch Simeon II of Jerusalem, emphasizing the religious and spiritual aspects of his crusade.

Recruitment Efforts Spanning Europe

To embark on his monumental mission, Peter needed followers and supporters. He embarked on a recruitment effort that extended across England, Lorraine, France, and Flanders. This widespread recruitment was a testament to the fervour with which his mission was received and the magnetic charisma he possessed.

Peter’s Arrival in Cologne, Germany

The beginning of Peter the Hermit’s crusade saw him land in Cologne, Germany, on Holy Saturday, April 12, 1096. This marked the starting point of his ambitious expedition to the Holy Land, capturing the imagination and devotion of his followers.

Involvement in the Massacre of Jewish Civilians

In the spring of 1096, Peter played a prominent and unfortunate role in the Rhineland massacres, in which Jewish civilians were targeted and subjected to violence. This dark chapter in his mission led to significant loss of life and left a lasting mark on the historical record.

1096 Siege of Nish (1337)

1096 Siege of Nish (1337)

Challenges on the Way to Constantinople

As Peter’s journey progressed, he and his followers encountered various challenges and hardships. Confrontations occurred in Zemun, Belgrade, and Sofia, resulting in heavy losses and testing the resolve of the crusaders.

Arrival in Constantinople

The arrival of Peter the Hermit and his forces in Constantinople on August 1, 1096, marked a crucial milestone in their journey towards the Holy Land. It set the stage for the next phase of their mission.

Capture of Xerigordon and Final Battle

During their journey, Peter’s forces achieved a significant victory by capturing the castle of Xerigordon. However, the tide turned when the Turks ambushed the crusaders near a village called Dracon. This event marked the final battle of the People’s Crusade and had far-reaching consequences.

The Fate of the Paupers

Many of the paupers who followed Peter’s lead endured immense suffering during their arduous journey. Some faced starvation, others were put into servitude, and a substantial number were captured and sold into slavery. This hardship and adversity coloured the perception of the Balkan Slavs as unredeemed robbers and villains, revealing the human toll of the crusade.

Peter Joins Other Crusaders and Negotiates Passage

Peter joined forces with other crusaders, merging his followers with Walter Sans Avoir’s section. Together, they sought negotiations for safe passage to the Holy Land, striking agreements with Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos.

Turkish Conflict and Battle of Civetot

Despite warnings, the paupers entered Turkish territory, resulting in a conflict with disciplined Turkish forces and the Battle of Civetot. The outcome was disastrous, with many casualties and enslavement.

Awaiting the Arrival of Armed Crusaders

Left with a small number of survivors in Constantinople, the People’s Crusade had to wait for the arrival of armed crusaders as their sole source of protection to continue their pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Their patience and hope were tested during this period.

The Journey Continues to Jerusalem

Peter, while facing numerous challenges, persevered and continued the journey to Jerusalem. His followers’ ranks were replenished with disarmed, injured, or bankrupted crusaders, underscoring their unwavering commitment to the pilgrimage.

Peter’s Role in the First Crusade

In the remaining history of the First Crusade, Peter played a subordinate role as the armed crusaders took the lead in securing the pilgrimage routes and holy sites in Palestine. His role shifted to a supporting one, emphasizing the military campaign’s significance.

The Siege of Antioch and Speech of Motivation

At the siege of Antioch, Peter played a pivotal role by motivating the Crusaders, leading to their victory over the overwhelmingly superior Muslim army besieging the city. This moment showcased Peter’s ability to inspire and rally his followers.

Negotiating via Duel and Jerusalem’s Fall

Peter attempted to settle differences with the emir via a duel, showcasing his commitment to diplomacy. Though the emir declined, this episode demonstrated Peter’s adaptability to different circumstances. He also participated in significant events such as the siege of Arqa and the Battle of Ascalon, contributing to the crusaders’ success.

The Tomb of Pierre l'ermite

The Tomb of Pierre l’ermite

Peter’s Later Life and Legacy

Peter’s historical record concludes with his founding of a church in France and his reported death in 1131 as the prior of this church. His legacy lives on through the impact of his mission and the indelible mark he left on the history of the Crusades.

There is very little concrete record for his life after returning to Europe and much of what is known is speculation or legend. However, Albert of Aix records that he died in 1131, as prior of a church of the Holy Sepulchre which he had founded in France or Flanders. It is thought that during the Siege of Antioch during the days of famine and cold weather, Peter attempted to flee only to be captured by the Norman Tancred and placed back on the battlefield in 1097. Peter also held services of intercession for Latin and native recruits. Peter advised Greeks and Latins to form processions as well.

It is generally quoted that he founded an Augustinian monastery in France named for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. However, it was actually in Flanders at Neufmoustier near Huy, or Huy itself which may have been his home town. His tomb is in Neufmoustier Abbey, so it is presumed that this was his abbey but in another tradition the nearby Solières Abbey claims that it was his foundation.

Peter’s obituary is in the chronicle of Neufmoustier Abbey. On its page entry of 8 July 1115 the chronicle says that this day saw “the death of Dom Pierre, of pious memory, venerable priest and hermit, who deserved to be appointed by the Lord to announce the first to the holy Cross” and the text continues with “after the conquest of the holy land, Pierre returned to his native country” and also that “he founded this church … and chooses them a decent burial”. This record further supports Neufmoustier’s claim as his foundation.

Sources

  • Bienheureux Pierre l’Ermite. (2023). Nominis. https://nominis.cef.fr/contenus/saint/1470/Bienheureux-Pierre-l-Ermite.html

  • to, C. (2007, March 7). Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Peter the Hermit. Wikisource.org; Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Catholic_Encyclopedia_(1913)/Peter_the_Hermit

  • to, C. (2007, January 4). 12th-century Byzantine history by Anna Komnene. Wikisource.org; Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Alexiad

  • Peter the Hermit | Crusader, Preacher, Monk | Britannica. (2023). In Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Peter-the-Hermit

  • Wikipedia Contributors. (2023, September 28). Peter the Hermit. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_the_Hermit

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