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People's Crusade

The People's Crusade is part of the First Crusade and lasted roughly six months from April 1096 to October. It is also known as the Peasants' Crusade or the Paupers' Crusade. Led by Walter the Penniless and Peter the Hermit, the army was destroyed by the Seljuk forces of Kilij Arslan.


Pope Urban II planned departure of the crusade for August 15, 1096, but months before this, a number of unexpected armies of peasants and lowly knights organized and set off for Jerusalem on their own. The peasant population had been afflicted by drought, famine, and plague for many years before 1096, and some of them seem to have envisioned the crusade as an escape from these hardships. Spurring them on had been a number of coincidental meteorological occurrences beginning in 1095 that seemed to be a divine blessing for the movement: a meteor shower, aurorae, a lunar eclipse, and a comet, among other events. An outbreak of ergotism, which usually led to mass pilgrimages anyway, had also occurred just before the Council of Clermont. Millenarianism, the belief that the end of the world was imminent, popular in the early 11th century, experienced a resurgence in popularity. The response was beyond expectations: While Urban might have expected a few thousand knights, he ended up with a migration numbering up to 40,000 Crusaders of mostly unskilled fighters, including women and children.

A charismatic monk and powerful orator named Peter the Hermit of Amiens was the spiritual leader of the movement. He was known for riding a donkey and dressing in simple clothing. He had vigorously preached the crusade throughout northern France and Flanders. He claimed to have been appointed to preach by Christ himself (and supposedly had a divine letter to prove it), and it is likely that some of his followers thought he, not Urban, was the true originator of the crusading idea. It is often believed that Peter's army was a band of illiterate, incompetent peasants who had no idea where they were going, and who believed that every city of any size they encountered on their way was Jerusalem itself; this may have been true for some, but the long tradition for pilgrimages to Jerusalem ensured that the location and distance of the city were well-known. While the majority were unskilled in fighting, there were some well-trained minor knights leading them, such as the future chronicler Fulcher of Chartres, and Walter Sans-Avoir (also known as Walter the Penniless), who, as his name suggests, was an impoverished knight with no lord and no vassals, but was nonetheless experienced in warfare.

Persecution of the Jews

The preaching of the First Crusade inspired an outbreak of anti-Semitism. In parts of France and Germany, Jews were perceived as just as much an enemy as Muslims: they were thought to be responsible for the crucifixion, and they were more immediately visible than the distant Muslims. Many people wondered why they should travel thousands of miles to fight non-believers when there were already non-believers closer to home.

It is also likely that the crusaders were motivated by their need for money. The Rhineland communities were relatively wealthy, both due to their isolation, and because they were not restricted as Christians were against moneylending. Many crusaders had to go into debt in order to purchase weaponry and equipment for the expedition; as Western Christianity strictly forbade usury (unlike Orthodox Christianity, which merely regulated it), many crusaders inevitably found themselves indebted to Jewish moneylenders. Having armed themselves by assuming the debt, the crusaders conveniently rationalized the killing of Jews as an extension of their Christian mission.

Walter and the French

Peter gathered his army at Cologne on April 12, 1096, planning to stop there and preach to the Germans and gather more crusaders. The French, however, were not willing to wait for Peter and the Germans and under the leadership of Walter Sans-Avoir a few thousand French crusaders left before Peter reached Hungary on May 8, passing through Hungary without incident and arriving at the river Save at the border of Byzantine territory at Belgrade. The Belgrade commander was taken by surprise having no orders on what to do with them and refused entry, forcing the crusaders to pillage the countryside for food. This resulted in skirmishes with the Belgrade garrison and, to make matters worse, sixteen of Walter's men had tried to rob a market in Semlin across the river in Hungary and were stripped of their armor and clothing which was hung from the castle walls. Eventually the crusaders were allowed to carry on to Nish, where they were provided with food and waited to hear from Constantinople on their allowed passage. By the end of July the army arrived in Constantinople under Byzantine escort.

Cologne to Constantinople

Peter and the remaining crusaders left Cologne on about April 20. About 40,000 Crusaders left immediately, while another group would follow soon after (see the German Crusade). When they reached the Danube, part of the army decided to continue on by boat down the Danube, while the main body continued overland and entered Hungary at Ödenburg (now Sopron). There it continued through Hungary without incident and rejoined the Danube contingent at Semlin on the Byzantine frontier.

In Semlin the crusaders became suspicious, seeing Walter's sixteen suits of armor hanging from the walls, and eventually a dispute over the price of a pair of shoes in the market led to a riot, which then turned into an all-out assault on the city by the crusaders (probably against the desires of Peter), in which 4,000 Hungarians were killed. The crusaders then fled across the river Save to Belgrade, but only after skirmishing with Belgrade troops. The residents of Belgrade fled, and the crusaders pillaged and burned the city. Then they marched for seven days, arriving at Nish on July 3. There, the commander of Nish promised to provide escort for Peter's army to Constantinople as well as food, if he would leave right away. Peter obliged, and the next morning he set out. However, a few Germans got into a dispute with some locals along the road and set fire to a mill, which escalated out of Peter's control until Nish sent out its entire garrison against the crusaders. The crusaders were completely routed, losing about 10,000 Crusaders (a quarter of their number), the remainder regrouping further on at Bela Palanka. When they reached Sofia on July 12, they met their Byzantine escort, which brought them safely the rest of the way to Constantinople by August 1.

Leadership breakdown

Byzantine emperor Alexius I Comnenus, not knowing what else to do with such an unusual and unexpected "army", quickly ferried all 30,000 Crusaders across the Bosporus by August 6. It has since been debated whether he sent them away without Byzantine guides knowing full well that they could be slaughtered by the Turks, or whether they insisted on continuing into Asia despite his warnings. In any case, it is known that Alexius warned Peter not to engage the Turks, whom he believed to be superior to Peter's motley army, and to wait for the main body of crusaders who were still on the way.

Peter was re-joined by the French under Walter Sans-Avoir and a number of bands of Italian crusaders who arrived at the same time. Once in Asia they began to pillage towns and reached Nicomedia where an argument broke out between the Germans and Italians on one side and the French on the other. The Germans and Italians split off and elected a new leader, an Italian named Rainald, while for the French, Geoffrey Burel took command. Peter had effectively lost control of the crusade.

Even though Alexius had urged Peter to wait for the Princes and main army, Peter had lost much of his authority and the crusaders spurred each other on, moving more boldly against nearby towns until finally the French reached the edge of Nicaea, a capital Turkish stronghold, where they pillaged the suburbs. The Germans, not to be outdone, marched with 6,000 Crusaders on Xerigordon and captured the city to use it as a base to raid the countryside. In response the Turks, led by Kilij Arslan sent a sizeable army recovered Xerigordon from the crusaders who were forced to drink the blood of donkeys and their own urine since their water supply was cut. Some of the Crusaders who were captured, converted to Islam and were sent to Khorasan, while others who refused to abandon their faith were killed.

Battle and Outcome

Back at the main crusaders' camp, two Turkish spies had spread rumor that the Germans who had taken Xerigordon had also taken Nicaea, which caused excitement to get there as soon as possible to share in the looting. Of course, the Turks had ambushed the road to Nicaea. When the real truth of what had happened at Xerigordon reached the crusaders, excitement turned to panic. Peter the Hermit had gone back to Constantinople to arrange for supplies and was due back soon, and most of the leaders argued to wait for him to return (which he never did). However Geoffrey Burel, who had popular support among the masses of the army, argued that it would be cowardly to wait, and they should move against the Turks right away. His will prevailed: On the morning of October 21 the entire army of 20,000 Crusaders marched out toward Nicaea, leaving women, children, the old and the sick behind at the camp.

Three miles from the camp, where the road entered a narrow, wooded valley near the village of Dracon, the Turkish army was waiting. When approaching the valley, the crusaders marched noisily and were immediately subjected to a hail of arrows. Panic set in immediately and within minutes the mass of the army was in full rout back to the camp. Most of the crusaders were defeated; children and those who surrendered were spared, however. Thousands of soldiers that attempted to fight back were all outbattled. Three thousand, including Geoffrey Burel, were lucky enough to hole up in an old abandoned castle. Eventually the Byzantines sailed over and raised the siege; these few thousand returned to Constantinople, the only survivors of the People's Crusade.


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