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The “People’s Crusade” actually preceded the First Crusade, so you could argue that it was sort of a test case for the concept. In hindsight, certainly, European leaders should have treated it as such and scrapped the Crusading enterprise before it really got started.
This doomed (spoiler alert, though you’ve probably already figured out where this is heading) expedition was the brainchild of one either very holy or very opportunistic man (although I guess “both” is certainly possible) named Peter of Amiens, better known to posterity as Peter the Hermit. He burst on to the historical stage in 1095, after Pope Urban II issued his Crusading summons at the Council of Clermont. Peter, who was a priest in the northern French town of Amiens at the time, was way into this idea, so much so that he started traipsing around Europe on a donkey, which is the customary transportation of choice for any self-respecting hermit. He galloped [NOTE TO SELF: find out whether donkeys gallop before posting this] from town to town, delivering what must have been some extremely compelling, fire and brimstone-type sermons about the need for all good Christians to take up the cross and go on a pilgrimage (which is what the Crusades were, a very well-armed pilgrimage) to the Holy Land.
Seriously, Peter must have been doing tent revivals centuries before tent revivals actually became a thing: he’s supposed to have healed the sick, driven out demons, and put sinners on the righteous path of the Lord, can I get an A-MEN? Most importantly, he convinced the people who heard him that a Christian army that marched off to liberate Christ’s city from the Muslims couldn’t possibly fail, because it (and everyone who served in it) would be under divine protection for the duration of the journey. Surely if you didn’t already, at this point you see where we’re heading.
Statue of Peter the Hermit that you can see in Amiens today (Florestan via Wikimedia Commons)
Peter’s sermons were so powerful that we’re told he won nearly everyone who heard them over to the Crusades. They were so powerful that he, and not Urban, is often credited as the real driving force behind the First Crusade. But he deviated a bit from what would become accepted Crusading practice. The Church tried to limit its Crusading appeals to nobles, those who could put together and pay for an army that they would then lead to the east. Peter, on the other hand, preached to everyone, and won followers at every level of society. But the nobles he recruited naturally needed time to call in their vassals, recruit additional soldiers, get their estates in order for the long and quite possibly fatal trip to the Holy Land, and so forth, whereas the peasants and townsfolk who flocked to Peter’s message quite literally flocked to Peter’s message, as in they started following him all over France.
Peter came to have a few knights and minor nobles in his entourage, but mostly he was followed by regular folks, who could just pick up and go with him on the spot. This was nice, they were all eager to follow him and go on Crusade and all that stuff, but very few of them could actually afford even the most basic military equipment, and almost none of them knew anything about how to fight in an army. Nevertheless, Peter, now with designs of leading his own Crusade composed of this group of followers (who needs real soldiers when God is protecting you, after all), took his growing “army” out of France and into Germany, heading east toward Constantinople and from there on into Turkish territory.
In addition to the group following him, Peter inspired the formation of several other groups, who responded to his message but were unable to join up on the spot (maybe they heard about him second-hand or something). The largest of these groups coalesced around a minor French lord named Walter Sans Avoir. Literally this name means “Walter without property,” but Walter was actually the lord of Boissy-sans-Avoir and his family motto was “Sans Avoir Peur” or “without being afraid,” and it’s from those that he gets his surname. Walter managed to keep his flock together long enough to march it toward Constantinople, where he arranged to meet the group that was following Peter.
Most of the smaller groups, however, unable to catch up to Peter mid-march and without the supplies to get all the way to Constantinople, eventually gave up their dreams of Crusading in the Holy Land and decided to go kill some Jews instead. What killing Jews had to do with Crusading is beyond me—and there’s no evidence that Peter himself encouraged people to do so—although I’m sure Jesus’s crucifixion was invoked at some point, and anyway it’s not like most medieval Christians really needed an excuse to do terrible things to Jews. These mobs of mostly poor people may have had it in mind to kill some wealthy Jews, take their money, and use it to pay for their passage to Constantinople for the Crusade, but when local nobles took action to stop the pogroms and punish those responsible, these gangs of would-be Crusaders generally seem to have scattered and gone home.
Walter’s “army” arrived in Constantinople first, in late July 1096, and Peter arrived with his followers around August 1. The Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos welcomed the “Crusaders,” especially Peter (whose reputation had preceded him), but there were a couple of problems here. First, as previously noted, this wasn’t an “army” so much as it was a throng of untrained and unequipped religious zealots. Second, Alexios wasn’t prepared for their arrival. The idea was that Constantinople’s merchants would amass a sizable amount of provisions for the Crusader army, which it would then purchase from them before heading off to fight the Turks. Those provisions hadn’t been collected yet, and at any rate these people were so poor that they couldn’t have purchased anything anyway. Alexios actually talked Peter and Walter into waiting until the arrival of the real Crusader army, which was just beginning to get moving, so they might cross into Turkish territory alongside some actual soldiers. However, when the mob began to pillage the Constantinople suburbs for food, Alexios changed his mind and decided to get them on the move ASAP. He shipped them across the Bosphorus on August 6.
At this point, Peter decided to…well, it’s unclear. I’m not sure what he and Walter thought would happen once they entered Anatolia, but it seems clear that they didn’t really have a plan beyond meeting up at Constantinople. The mob kind of meandered about for a few weeks, sacking a town here and there, but meanwhile the lack of firm leadership from Peter caused his flock to break down along national lines (French vs. German vs. Italian, mostly). Things really went south when the Crusaders reached the city of Nicomedia. The French contingent successfully raided the outskirts of Nicea, which prompted the German contingent to capture, not simply raid, the city of Xerigordon. These two operations were enough to attract the attention of the Seljuk ruler of Anatolia, Kilij Arslan I, who sent an army to take Xerigordon back. They accomplished this without much trouble, and then did something very clever to sucker the rest of the Crusaders into a trap.
This is a map of the First Crusade, not the People’s Crusade, but you can at least see Nicomedia and Nicea (MapMaster via Wikimedia Commons)
The Seljuks sent a letter, purportedly from the German Crusaders, back to the main body of the “army,” reporting that they’d had taken both Xerigordon and Nicea, and bragging about how much loot they’d gotten. This 11th century version of a phony “having a wonderful time!” postcard had the expected effect of drawing the rest of the Crusader mob toward Nicea to join in the looting. Kilij Arslan was waiting for them, and at the Battle (though we’re really stretching the definition of that word) of Civetot, on October 21, the Seljuk army butchered the totally outclassed Crusaders and routed them back toward their camp, which was full of women, children, and men who had been too infirm to go on the march to Nicea. A couple of thousand of the Crusaders managed to take refuge in a nearby fortress and eventually were rescued by a Byzantine army, but most of the rest were either killed or sold into slavery.
It so happens that while this was happening Peter the Hermit was back in Constantinople trying to gather some supplies, so he got to miss the battle and its total repudiation of his “divine protection” theory. He and the small group of “People’s Crusade” survivors waited for the arrival of the official, Church-approved Crusaders, and then tagged along on their march toward Jerusalem. Peter is supposed to have delivered a stirring speech to the starving Crusaders at Antioch that was credited (in part) with rallying them to ride out and defeat the Seljuk army that was besieging them, though that was after he’d been caught trying to sneak out of the city and head back to Europe, so make of that what you will. He also reportedly delivered another whopper of a sermon outside the walls of Jerusalem before the Crusaders finally took the city and accomplished the object of their campaign. Some time after Jerusalem was captured he returned to France, and the details surrounding the rest of his life become too murky to say anything for certain.