Historical Tales: 6— French - Charles Morris

Peter the Hermit

In the last decade of the eleventh century there might have been seen, wandering through every part of France and Germany, a man of singular appearance. Small of stature, almost dwarfish in size, emaciated by rigid austerities, angular and ungainly in form, clad in a woollen tunic over which he wore a serge cloak that came down to his heels, his head and feet bare, and mounted on an ass that seemed to have practised the same austerities as its master, this singular person rode up and down the land, rousing everywhere as he went the wildest enthusiasm. Miserable as he seemed in body, he was a man of active and earnest mind, of quick intellect, keen and penetrating eye, and an ease, fluency, and force of speech that gave him the power to sway multitudes and stir up the soul of Europe as no man before him had ever done.

This man was Peter the Hermit, the father of the Crusades. He had been a soldier in his youth; afterwards a married man and father of a family; later a monk and recluse; then a pilgrim to Jerusalem, now he was an envoy from Simeon, patriarch of Jerusalem, to arouse the nations of Europe with the story of the cruelties to which Christian pilgrims were subjected by the barbarous Turks.

The pope, Urban II., had blessed his enterprise; and then, dressed and mounted as described, and bearing in his arms a huge cross, the inspired envoy rode throughout the Teutonic lands, everywhere recounting with vehement speech and with the force of fiery indignation the sufferings of the Christians and the barbarities of the Turks, and calling on all pious souls to take arms in defence of the Holy Sepulchre and for the emancipation of the Holy Land from infidel control.

"We saw him at that time," says Guibert de Nogent; his contemporary, "scouring city and town, and preaching everywhere. The people crowded around him, heaped presents upon him, and celebrated his sanctity by such great praises that I remember not that like honor was ever rendered to any other person. In all that he did or said he seemed to have in him something divine, insomuch that people went so far as to pluck hairs from his mule to keep as relics."

Never had mankind been more excited. All Europe was aroused, indignant, fiery. The Holy Sepulchre must be rescued, Palestine must be in the hands of the Christians, the infidel Turks must be driven from that sacred soil and punished for the indignities they had heaped upon pilgrims, Europe must march to Asia, and win salvation by driving the unbelieving barbarian from the land sanctified by the feet of Christ.

Everywhere men rose, seized their arms and prepared for the march, of whose length and dangers few of them dreamed. "The most distant islands and savage countries," says William of Malmesbury, "were inspired by this ardent passion. The Welshman left his hunting, the Scotchman his fellowship with vermin, the Dane his drinking-party, the Norwegian his raw fish." So far extended the story of the mission of Peter the Hermit; while in France, Germany, and the other lands in which he made his indignant and fiery appeals, the whole population seemed ready to rise and march en masse to the Holy Land.

In 1095, taking advantage of this enthusiasm, Urban II., the pope, called a council at Clermont, in Auvergne, where numbers of clergymen and multitudes of people assembled. Here, after the council, the pope mounted a platform which rose in the midst of a great open space, and around which extended a vast throng of knights, nobles, and common people. Peter the Hermit stood by the pope's side, and told the story of the miseries and humiliations of the Christians in Jerusalem in that fiery and fluent oratory which had stirred the soul of all Europe. Pope Urban followed in an impassioned address, recounting the sufferings of the Christian pilgrims, and calling upon the people of France to rise for their deliverance.

"Men of France," he said, "men from beyond the mountains, nations chosen and beloved of God, right valiant knights, recall the virtues of your ancestors, the virtue and greatness of King Charlemagne and your other kings; it is from you above all that Jerusalem awaits the help she invokes, for to you, above all nations, God has vouchsafed signal glory in arms. Christians, put an end to your own misdeeds and let concord reign among you while in those distant lands. If necessary, your bodies will redeem your souls. . . . These things I publish and command, and for their execution I appoint the end of the coming spring."

His eloquent words roused the mass to madness. From the throng rose one general cry, "God wills it! God wills it!" Again and again it was repeated as if it would never end, while swords waving in the air, banners floating on high, and every indication of applause and approval, attested the excitement and enthusiasm of the crowd.

"If the Lord God were not in your soul, you would not all have uttered the same words," cried the pope, when he could make himself heard. "In the battle, then, be those your war-cry, those words that came from God. In the army of our Lord let nought be heard but that one shout, 'God wills it! God wills it!' Whosoever hath a wish to enter upon this pilgrimage, let him wear upon his breast or his brow the cross of the Lord, and let him who, in accomplishment of his desire, shall be willing to march away, place the cross behind him, between his shoulders; for thus he will fulfil the precept of the Lord, who said, 'He that doth not take up his cross and follow me, is not worthy of me.'"

These words aroused a new enthusiasm. The desire to assume the cross spread like a contagion through the crowd. Adhemar, bishop of Puy, was the first to receive it from the pope's hands. This emblem was of red cloth, sewed on the right shoulder of the coat, or fastened on the front of the helmet. In haste the crowd sought materials to make it. The passion for wearing the cross spread like wild fire through Europe. Peter the Hermit, seconded by the pope, had given birth to the Crusades.

The first outburst of enthusiasm was, as always, the strongest. It has been said that in the spring of 1096 six million souls took the road to Palestine. This is, doubtless, a vast exaggeration, but great numbers set out, and an immense multitude of ignorant and enthusiastic people pushed tumultuously towards the Holy Land, in advance of the organized armies of the First Crusade.

As early as the 8th of March, 1096, great mobs—they cannot fairly be called armies—began their journey towards Palestine. They were not only composed of armed men; women and children made up part of them; whole families abandoned their villages; and without organization or provisions, or a knowledge of what lay before them, the ignorant and enthusiastic mass pushed onward with unquestioning faith.

The first body of these enthusiasts, led by a poor knight called Walter the Penniless, was cut to pieces by the natives of Bulgaria, a few only reaching Constantinople. A second multitude, forty thousand strong, was headed by Peter the Hermit. It was similar in character to the preceding. Whenever a town came in sight on their way, the children eagerly asked if that were Jerusalem. The elders were little better informed. Onward they went, through Hungary, through Bulgaria, through the provinces of the Greek empire, everywhere committing excesses, everywhere treated as enemies by the incensed people, until the line of march was strewn with their dead bodies. Peter the Hermit sought to check their excesses, but in vain; and when, at length, a miserable remnant of them reached Constantinople, the Emperor Alexius hastened to convey them across the Bosphorus, to save the suburbs of his city from their ravages.

In Asia Minor they were assailed by the Turks, and numbers of them slain; and when, in the spring of the next year, Godfrey de Bouillon and the other Crusader chiefs, with a real army of knights and men-at-arms, reached that locality, and marched to besiege Nicæa, the first important Turkish stronghold on their line of march, they saw coming to meet them a miserable band, with every indication of woeful destitution, at whose head appeared Peter the Hermit. It was the handful of destitute wanderers that remained from the hundreds of thousands who had set out with such high hopes a year before.

Thus began that great movement from Europe towards Asia, which was to continue for several centuries, and end at length in disaster and defeat. But we are concerned here only with Peter the Hermit, and the conclusion of his career. He had set the flood in motion; how far was he to be borne on its waves?

The chiefs of the army welcomed him with respect and consideration, and heard with interest and feeling his account of the misfortunes of those under his leadership, and how they were due to their own ignorance, violence, and insubordination. With the few who survived from the multitude he joined the crusading army, and regained the ardent hopes which had almost vanished from his heart.

The army that reached Nicæa is said to have been six hundred thousand strong, though they were probably not nearly so many. On they went with many adventures, meeting the Turks in battle, suffering from hunger and thirst, enduring calamities, losing many by death, until at length the great city of Antioch was reached and besieged.

Here at first food was plenty and life easy. But the Turks held out, winter came, provisions grew scarce, life ceased to be agreeable. Such was the discouragement that succeeded that several men of note deserted the army of the cross, among them Robert, duke of Normandy, William, viscount of Melun, called the Carpenter, from his mighty battle-axe, and Peter the Hermit himself. Their flight caused the greatest indignation. Tancred, one of the leaders, hurried after and overtook them, and brought them back to the camp, where they, overcome by shame, swore on the Gospel never again to abandon the cause of the cross.

In time Antioch was taken, and the Turks therein massacred. But, unknown to the Crusaders, an immense army of Turks was being organized in Syria for its relief; and four days after its capture the Crusaders found themselves in their turn besieged, the place being completely enclosed.

Day by day the blockade became more strict. Suffering from want of food began. Starvation threatened the citizens and the army alike. It seemed as if the crusade might end there and then, in the death or captivity of all concerned in it; when an incident, esteemed miraculous, roused the spirits of the soldiers and achieved their deliverance.

A priest of Marseilles, Peter Bartholomew by name, presented himself before the chief and said that he had had a marvellous dream. St. Andrew had thrice appeared to him, saying, "Go into the church of my brother Peter at Antioch, and hard by the high altar thou wilt find, on digging up the ground, the head of the spear which pierced our Redeemer's side. That, carried in front of the army, will bring about the deliverance of the Christians."

The search was made, a spear-head was found, hope, confidence, enthusiasm were restored, and with loud shouts the half-starved multitude demanded that they should be led against the enemy. But before doing so, the chiefs decided to apprise the leader of the Turks of their intention, and for this purpose chose Peter the Hermit as their boldest and ablest speaker.

Peter, therefore, under a flag of truce, sought the Turkish camp, presented himself without any mark of respect before Corboghâ, the leader of the Turks, and his captains, and boldly told them the decision of the crusading chiefs.

"They offer thee," he said, "the choice between divers determinations: either that thou appear alone in person to fight with one of our princes, in order that, if victorious, thou mayst obtain all thou canst demand, or, if vanquished, thou mayst remain quiet; or again, pick out divers of thine who shall fight, on the same terms, with the same number of ours; or, lastly, agree that the two armies shall prove, one against the other, the fortune of battle."

Corboghâ received this challenge as an amusing jest, saying that the chiefs must be in a desperate state to send him such a proposition. "Go, and tell these fools," he said, "that all whom I shall find in full possession of all the powers of the manly age shall have their lives, and shall be reserved by me for my master's service, and that all others shall fall beneath my sword, as useless trees, so that there shall remain of them not even a faint remembrance. Had I not deemed it more convenient to destroy them by famine than to smite them with the sword, I should already have gotten forcible mastery of the city, and they would have reaped the fruits of their voyage hither by undergoing the law of vengeance."

Corboghâ spoke much too hastily. Before night of the next day he was a helpless fugitive, his army destroyed or dispersed. Peter the Hermit returned with his message, but, by the advice of Godfrey de Bouillon, he simply announced that the Turks desired battle, and that instant preparation for it must be made. On the next day the whole Christian army, armed and enthusiastic, issued from the city, a part of the clergy marching at their head, the miraculous spear-head borne before them, and attacked the Turks in their camp. The battle was long, fierce, and stubborn, but in the end the Turks gave way before the fury of Christian enthusiasm, and fled for their lives, vast multitudes of them being slain on the field, while the vain-glorious Corboghâ rode in all haste, with a weak escort, towards far-off Bagdad.

The camp of the Turks was taken and pillaged. It yielded fifteen thousand camels and an unnamed multitude of horses. The tent of Corboghâ proved a rich prize. It was laid out in streets, flanked by towers, in imitation of a fortified town, was everywhere enriched with gold and precious stones, and was so spacious that it would have contained more than two thousand persons. It was sent to Italy, where it was long preserved. So great was the spoil that, says Albert of Aix, "every Crusader found himself richer than he had been at starting from Europe."

In June, 1099, the Crusaders arrived before Jerusalem, and saw with eyes of wonder and delight the vision of the Holy City which they had come so far to gaze upon. After a month of siege the chiefs fixed a day for the grand assault, and on the day preceding that chosen the whole army marched, fasting, and preceded by their priests, in slow procession round the walls, halting at every hallowed spot, listening to the hymns and exhortations of their priests, and looking upward with wrathful eyes at the insults heaped by the Islamites upon the cross and other symbols of the Christian faith.

"Ye see," cried Peter the Hermit, "the blasphemies of God's enemies. Now, this I swear to you by your faith; this I swear to you by the arms you carry; to-day these infidels are still full of pride and insolence, but to-morrow they shall be frozen with fear; those mosques, which tower over Christian ruins, shall serve for temples to the true God, and Jerusalem shall hear no longer aught but the praises of the Lord."

His words were received with shouts of applause by the whole army. His had been the first voice to call Europe to the deliverance of the Holy City; now, with a strong army to back him, he gazed on the walls of Jerusalem, still in the hands of the infidels, likely soon to be in the hands of the Christians. Well might he feel joy and self-gratification, in thinking that all this was his work, and that he had been the apostle of the greatest event in modern history.

On the next day, July 14, 1099, the assault began at daybreak. On Friday, the 15th, Jerusalem fell into the hands of the Crusaders, and the mission of Peter the Hermit was accomplished, the Holy City was won.

With that great day ended the active part played by Peter the Hermit in history. He was received with the greatest respect by the Christian dwellers in Jerusalem, who exerted themselves to render him the highest honors, and attributed to him alone, after God, their deliverance from the sufferings which they had so long endured. On his return to Europe he founded a monastery near Hue, in the diocese of Liége, where he spent the remainder of his life in retirement, respected and honored by all, and died there on the 11th of July, 1115.