For a leader who possibly led over a hundred-thousand people to their deaths, historians know little solid information about the shadowy, itinerant preacher known as Peter the Hermit. Thankfully, plenty of medieval sources commented on Peter, including writers such as Anna Komnene, Albert of Aachen, William of Tyre, Robert of Rheims and Guibert of Nogent. These people, however, also viewed Peter the Hermit as a mysterious figure. Nevertheless, we have a basic sketch of his life. He was a popular religious public speaker who charismatically rallied the masses to embark on their own crusade before the nobility could raise its professionally-trained armies. Yet, details on his motives, his background, and other finer points about his life, remain in the realm of intelligent guesswork. Nonetheless, here is some of what has been pieced together about this peculiar priest.
Peter the Hermit is believed to have been born near Amiens, France, in the early 1050s. He was likely born into nobility, and had ties to the Normans, either through birth, marriage, or a mixture of both. Eventually, because of a divine calling or possibly just politics, Peter gave up his life of affluence to devote himself to religion.
Peter may have started his religious career as a member of a monastic order, as he was often described as looking like a monk. By the 1090s, however, Peter the Hermit had abandoned the cloistered life and became a wanderer. His travels allegedly included a pilgrimage to the Holy Lands around 1093, where he was not received well by the locals. When he returned to Europe, Peter the Hermit found himself amidst a tense Christendom that was on the brink of war.
In 1095, Pope Urban II gave a speech at the Council of Clermont that ultimately launched the Crusades. No one knows exactly what he said—there are at least five major “transcriptions” of the speech, but most were written years after it occurred, and the transcriptions are not in agreement on what was said by the pope. Whatever the case, Pope Urban’s speech planted in the minds of many medieval Christians the seductive idea that waging war to regain the Holy Lands was in no way a sin, but rather a righteous and spiritually-rewarding act. It was a message that Peter the Hermit immediately grasped.
Peter was never seen as an archetypal leadership figure—he was frequently described with words such as short, small and slight—yet, the hermit assuredly had an uncanny way with words. He may have already been a traveling speaker prior to 1095, but it was only after Pope Urban’s speech that Peter the Hermit was launched into celebrity. He traveled through Europe, drawing huge crowds to hear him speak. While the nobility were carefully organizing and arming their forces, Peter was traveling through the countries of Europe, frenzying the masses for an immediate crusade.
By 1096, Peter the Hermit had gathered an unruly militia of zealous Christians numbering anywhere from the tens-of-thousands, to well over a hundred thousand. Peter then marched his followers toward Constantinople, now known as Istanbul. There, this People’s Crusade was witnessed by Emperor Alexios’ teenage daughter, Anna Komnene, who later described Peter’s army as “outnumbering the sand of the seashore or the stars of heaven” (The Alexiad, Book X).
Despite the emperor of Constantinople allegedly advising Peter to wait for the rest of the Crusader armies, the masses of the People’s Crusade began to meander toward Anatolia. Once the confident militias had crossed the Bosporus, Peter’s already disorganized mob fell into complete disarray. There was no order, or discipline, or even hierarchy. People from different nationalities within Peter’s army formed into separate factions, and each division did their own thing.
At this point, accounts begin to vary. In both versions of the story, Turkish soldiers easily annihilated the scattered bands of the People’s Crusade. In one account, Peter the Hermit was present when his army was destroyed and managed to flee back to the Byzantine Empire. In the other, more popular, sequence of events, Peter had already returned to Constantinople for advice and aid on how to bring the unruly crusaders back to order when the Turks overwhelmed and destroyed his fractured followers. Ultimately, in both cases, Peter the Hermit had to wait in Constantinople until 1097, when the Christian nobility arrived with their professional troops.
Peter the Hermit accompanied this better prepared and trained army of Christian soldiers on their campaign to capture the Holy Lands. Interestingly, Peter reportedly tried to desert the crusader army in early 1098, during the worst of the Crusaders’ siege of Antioch, but was captured by friendly troops and was forced to return to the camp. He remained with the crusaders for the remainder of the First Crusade and was present at the siege and capture of Jerusalem in 1099. He only stayed for a short while after the First Crusade was successfully completed, for he returned to Europe in 1100.
After his days in the Crusade, not much more was recorded about the odd character of Peter the Hermit. He is believed to have founded multiple monasteries during his life, and died in Flanders around 1115.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Top picture attribution: (Peter the Hermit Preaching the First Crusade – Painting by James Archer – from Cassell’s History of England, Vol. I, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Alexiad by Anna Komnene, translated by E. R. A. Sewter. New York: Penguin Classics, 2009.
- The First Crusade: The Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres and Other Source Materials (Second Edition) by Edward Peters. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.