The People's Crusade

Peter the Hermit points the way
Peter the Hermit points the way to Jerusalem. From a 13th-century illuminated manuscript of Roman du Chevalier du Cygne. Public Domain; courtesy of Wikimedia

A popular movement of crusaders, mostly commoners but also including individuals from all levels of society, who did not wait for the official leaders of the expedition but took off for the Holy Land early, unprepared and inexperienced.

The People's Crusade was also known as:

The Peasants' Crusade, The Popular Crusade, or The Crusade of the Poor People. The People's Crusade has also been termed "the first wave" of crusaders by noted Crusades scholar Jonathan Riley-Smith, who has pointed out the difficulty of distinguishing separate crusade expeditions among the almost ceaseless stream of pilgrims from Europe to Jerusalem.

How the People's Crusade got started:

In November 1095, Pope Urban II made a speech at the Council of Clermont calling for Christian warriors to go to Jerusalem and free it from the rule of Muslim Turks. Urban no doubt envisioned an organized military campaign led by those whose entire social class had been built around military prowess: the nobility. He set the official date of departure for mid-August of the following year, knowing the time it would take for funds to be raised, supplies to be procured and armies to be organized.

Shortly after the speech, a monk known as Peter the Hermit also began to preach Crusade. Charismatic and passionate, Peter (and probably several others like him, whose names are lost to us) appealed not just to a select portion of travel-ready combatants but to all Christians -- men, women, children, the elderly, nobles, commoners -- even serfs. His enthralling sermons fired the religious zeal in his listeners, and many people not only resolved to go on Crusade but to go right then and there, some even following Peter himself.

The fact that they had little food, less money, and no military experience did not deter them in the least; they believed they were on a holy mission, and that God would provide.

Armies of the People's Crusade:

For some time, the participants in the People's Crusade were regarded as nothing more than peasants.

While it is true many of them were commoners of one variety or another, there were also noblemen among their ranks, and the individual bands that formed were usually led by trained, experienced knights. For the most part, to call these bands "armies" would be a gross overstatement; in many cases, the groups were simply a collection of pilgrims traveling together. Most were on foot and armed with crude weapons, and discipline was almost nonexistent. However, some of the leaders were able to exercise more control over their followers, and a crude weapon can still inflict serious damage; so scholars continue to refer to some of these groups as "armies."

The People's Crusade moves through Europe:

In March 1096, bands of pilgrims began to journey eastward through France and Germany on their way to the Holy Land. Most of them followed an ancient road of pilgrimage that ran along the Danube and into Hungary, then south into the Byzantine Empire and its capital, Constantinople. There they expected to cross the Bosphorus to territory controlled by the Turks in Asia Minor.

The first to leave France was Walter Sans Avoir, who commanded a retinue of eight knights and a large company of infantry.

They proceeded with surprisingly little incident along the old pilgrim route, only encountering any real trouble in Belgrade when their foraging got out of hand. Their early arrival at Constantinople in July took the Byzantine leaders by surprise; they had not had time to prepare proper lodging and supplies for their western visitors.

More bands of crusaders coalesced around Peter the Hermit, who followed not far behind Walter and his men. Greater in number and less disciplined, Peter's followers encountered more trouble in the Balkans. At Zemun, the last town in Hungary before reaching the Byzantine border, a riot broke out and many Hungarians were killed. The crusaders wanted to escape punishment by crossing the Sava River into Byzantium, and when Byzantine forces tried to stop them, violence ensued.

When Peter's followers got to Belgrade they found it deserted, and they probably sacked it in their ongoing quest for food. At nearby Nish, the governor allowed them to exchange hostages for supplies, and the town almost escaped without damage until some Germans set fire to mills as the company was leaving. The governor sent troops to attack the retreating crusaders, and although Peter ordered them not to, many of his followers turned to face the attackers and were cut down.

Eventually, they reached Constantinople without further incident, but the People's Crusade had lost many participants and funds, and they had inflicted serious damage on the lands between their homes and Byzantium.

Many other bands of pilgrims followed after Peter, but none made it to the Holy Land. Some of them faltered and turned back; others were sidetracked in some of the most horrific pogroms in medieval European history.

The People's Crusade and the First Holocaust:

The speeches of Pope Urban, Peter the Hermit, and others of his ilk had stirred up more than a pious yearning to see the Holy Land. Urban's appeal to the warrior elite had painted Muslims as enemies of Christ, subhuman, loathsome, and in need of vanquishing. Peter's speeches were even more incendiary.

From this malevolent viewpoint, it was a small step to see Jews in the same light. It was, sadly, an all-too-common belief that Jews had not only killed Jesus but that they continued to pose a threat to good Christians. Added to this was the fact that some Jews were notably prosperous, and they made the perfect target for greedy lords, who used their followers to massacre entire Jewish communities and plunder them for their wealth.

The violence that was perpetrated against European Jews in the spring of 1096 is a significant turning point in Christian and Jewish relations. The horrific events, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of Jews, have even been called "the First Holocaust."

From May to July, pogroms occurred at Speyer, Worms, Mainz and Cologne.

In some cases, the bishop of the town or local Christians, or both, sheltered their neighbors. This was successful at Speyer but proved futile in other Rhineland towns. The attackers sometimes demanded that the Jews convert to Christianity on the spot or lose their lives; not only did they refuse to convert, but some even killed their children and themselves rather than die at the hands of their tormentors.

The most notorious of the anti-Jewish crusaders was Count Emicho of Leiningen, who was definitely responsible for the attacks on Mainz and Cologne and may have had a hand in the earlier massacres. After the bloodshed along the Rhine was over, Emicho led his forces onward to Hungary. His reputation preceded him, and the Hungarians would not let him pass. After a three-week siege, Emicho's forces were crushed, and he went home in disgrace.

The pogroms were decried by many Christians of the day. Some even pointed to these crimes as the reason God forsook their fellow crusaders at Nicaea and Civetot.

The end of the People's Crusade:

By the time Peter the Hermit arrived in Constantinople, Walter Sans Avoir's army had been restlessly waiting there for weeks. Emperor Alexius convinced Peter and Walter that they should wait in Constantinople until the main body of Crusaders, who were massing in Europe under powerful noble commanders, arrived. But their followers were not happy with the decision. They'd undergone a long journey and many trials to get there, and they were eager for action and glory. Furthermore, there still wasn't enough food and supplies for everyone, and foraging and theft were rampant. So, less than a week after Peter's arrival, Alexius ferried the People's Crusade across the Bosporus and into Asia Minor.

Now the crusaders were in truly hostile territory where there was little food or water to be found anywhere, and they had no plan for how to proceed. They quickly began squabbling amongst themselves. Eventually, Peter returned to Constantinople to elicit help from Alexius, and the People's Crusade broke into two groups: one primarily made up of Germans with a few Italians, the other of Frenchmen.

Toward the end of September, the French crusaders managed to loot a suburb of Nicaea. The Germans decided to do the same. Unfortunately, Turkish forces expected another attack and surrounded the German crusaders, who managed to take refuge in the fortress at Xerigordon. After eight days, the crusaders surrendered. Those who did not convert to Islam were killed on the spot; those who did convert were enslaved and sent eastward, never to be heard from again.

The Turks then sent a forged message to the French crusaders, telling of great riches the Germans had acquired. In spite of warnings from wiser men, the Frenchmen took the bait. They rushed onward, only to be ambushed at Civetot, where every last crusader was slaughtered.

The People's Crusade was over. Peter considered returning home but instead remained in Constantinople until the main body of the more organized crusading forces arrived.

The text of this document is copyright ©2011-2015 Melissa Snell. You may download or print this document for personal or school use, as long as the URL below is included. Permission is  not granted to reproduce this document on another website.

The URL for this document is: www.thoughtco.com/the-peoples-crusade-1788840