On November 27, 1095, Pope Urban II (r. 1088-1099) gave a speech that would be interpreted by Christendom as a call for an armed pilgrimage to the Holy Lands. His speech instigated a religious and military movement—later labeled the Crusades—that would last for many generations. An enigmatic character named Peter the Hermit was the first organizer to pull together a major coalition of Crusaders, forming the so-called Peoples’ Crusade. This motley horde of zealots was greatly decentralized, and although Peter gave the mobilized masses general directions and objectives, true power and control actually rested in the hands of the individual leaders of the various peoples who meandered in Peter’s wake. Rogue splinter groups from the People’s Crusade often stirred up trouble. From petty theft and banditry, to provoking the wrath of Hungary and Bulgaria, and even multiple mass-murders of non-Christians in European cities, the start of the Crusades was a chaotic mess. Yet, it was not only gratuitous violence and self-serving lieutenants that Peter the Hermit had to worry about. Juxtaposed to the violent rogue warbands, there were also friendlier hippy-like pilgrims who were keen on taking a spiritual journey, and would simply wander off on a whim. The most peculiar examples of these latter sojourners involved groups of Crusaders who abandoned human leadership entirely and instead trusted animals to guide them on the right path.
The odd tale of the animal guides was preserved by a 12th-century chronicler named Albert of Aix (also known as Albert of Aachen). He was an open critic of the atrocities that early Crusaders committed in Europe before they marched toward the Middle East, and he similarly did not pull any punches concerning the Crusaders who followed animal guides. Albert of Aachen wrote:
“They asserted that a certain goose was inspired by the Holy Spirit, and that a she-goat was not less filled by the same Spirit. These they made their guides on this holy journey to Jerusalem; these they worshipped excessively; and most of the people following them, like beasts, believed with their whole minds that this was the true course” (Albert of Aix, Historia expeditionis Hierosolymitanae, 1.31).
Unfortunately, Albert of Aix did not know or did not care to disclose what happened to these people and their animal guides. As for Peter the Hermit’s loose coalition of followers, the disorganized and inexperienced People’s Crusade was utterly annihilated by the Turkish military. Hopefully, the goose and the she-goat led their lucky followers in the opposite direction.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (The Departure, painted by Thomas Cole (1801 – 1848), [Open Access] via Creative Commons and the National Gallery of Art).
- Albert of Aachen’s Historia expeditionis Hierosolymitanae in The First Crusade edited by Edward Peters. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971, 1988.
- The Alexiad by Anna Komnene, translated by E. R. A. Sewter. New York: Penguin Classics, 2009.