This image by the Scottish artist, James Archer (c. 1823-1904), features an enigmatic and mysterious character from history. Shown preaching on the steps, with his hands thrust into the air, is a man known as Peter the Hermit. He was one of the most enthusiastic leadership figures in the 11th century to embrace Pope Urban II’s call for Christians to go on crusade, which was suggested by the pontiff at the Council of Clermont on November 27, 1095. Peter the Hermit was an eager fellow, and instead of waiting for the nobles to raise their own formidable crusader armies, the hermit opted to rally together a rag-tag band of undisciplined pilgrims and zealots. With this motley army, Peter set off toward the domain of Emperor Alexios I of Constantinople (r. 1081-1118), whose lands were a gateway for the crusaders into the Holy Lands. Emperor Alexios’ daughter, Anna Komnene (c. 1083-1153), wrote about Peter the Hermit and his so-called People’s Crusade in her history of her father’s reign, a text called the Alexiad. Nicknaming him, “Koukoupetros,” or Peter the Cuckoo, Anna described the hermit’s rise to prominence and his arrival in Constantinople:
“He decided to preach in all the Latin countries. ‘A divine voice,’ he said, ‘has commanded me to proclaim to all the counts in France that all should depart from their homes, set out to worship at the Holy Sepulchre, and with all their soul and might, strive to liberate Jerusalem from the hands of the Agarenes.’ He proved very successful. It was as if he had inspired every heart with some divine command. Kelts assembled from all parts, one after another, with arms and horses and all the other equipment of war. Full of enthusiasm and ardour they thronged every highway, and with these warriors came a host of civilians, outnumbering the sands of the seashore or the stars of heaven, carrying palms and bearing crosses on their shoulders” (Anna Komnene, Alexiad, Book X, section 5).
Unfortunately for Peter the Hermit, the lack of discipline in his People’s Crusade proved fatal. After they crossed into Anatolia, the hermit’s army reportedly fragmented into different independent warbands. Although presumably strong together, the zealot militias were incredibly weak in their individual units, allowing for the different sections of the fragmented People’s Crusade to be destroyed piecemeal. Peter the Hermit was forced to retreat back to Constantinople after his army was annihilated. For a more in-depth article on the curious hermit and his failed crusade, read our article, HERE.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- 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.