August 25, 1212 A People’s Crusade

The first to respond was not the elite force of avenging knights envisioned by the pope but a “peasant’s crusade” led by the charismatic monk Peter the Hermit, and an impoverished knight known as Walter sans Avoir. Walter the penniless.

In the 100 years following the death of the Prophet Muhamad, Islamic conquests established the largest pre-modern empire up to that time stretching from China in the east to the Iberian Peninsula, in the west.

The Sasanid Empire in what is now Iran ceased to exist under the Muslim conquest as did much of Byzantium, seat of the Roman Empire in the east. Europe itself narrowly escaped subjugation when Charles “The Hammer” Martel defeated the army of Abdul Rahman al Qafiqi at Poitiers (Tours) in October, 732.

islam-territoryEstimates suggest the Umayyad Caliphate based in Damascus was over 5 million square miles, larger than any modern state with the solitary exception of the Russian Federation.

The Council of Clermont was a mixed synod comprised of laymen and clergy, of the Catholic Church. The meeting convened for ten days beginning November 18, 1095, to discuss the threat. No contemporary transcription survives from the speech delivered, by Pope Urban II. Those in attendance took the pontiff’s remarks, as a call to arms.

Urban was responding to an urgent request for assistance by Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenus, against the Seljuk Turk. Now the pope urged all Christendom to lay down doctrinal difference between east and west and come to the aid of their fellow Christians, in Byzantium.

The first to respond was not the elite force of avenging knights envisioned by the pope but a “peasant’s crusade” led by the charismatic monk Peter the Hermit, and an impoverished knight known as Walter sans Avoir. Walter the penniless.

It was the first of five such ‘popular crusades’ over the following centuries and not to be confused with the major ‘Prince’s Crusades’ we’ve all heard about. The latter were well trained and well armed forces of knights and warrior monks who fought with the sanction of the Church and left us with names like the Knights Templar, Hospitaller and others.

Untrained, unsanctioned and poorly armed the ‘popular crusades’ were nothing of the sort. More like a pickup basketball game, compared with an NBA season.

Millenarianism was a powerful force at that time, a belief in the imminent End of Days spurred on by years of drought-caused crop failures and signs of divine blessing including meteor showers, aurorae and a lunar eclipse.

As 100,000 peasants including women and children took up farm implements and set out to reconquer the Holy Lands in this first and best documented, of the popular crusades.

A map of the peasant’s crusade, of 1096

The abuse of European Jewry was nothing new in 1096, but now began a new phase to set the tone for the next thousand years and culminate, in the Nazi holocaust. One non-believer was as good as another it would seem, and the Saracen was so far away.

Massacre of the Jews of Metz during the First Crusade, by Auguste Migette

Anti-Jewish violence committed by this crowd throughout parts of modern France and Germany ranged from pillage, to the massacre of thousands. The population was so terrorized by the mere appearance of Peter the Hermit on his donkey they readily agreed to give him and his followers, most anything they asked for. In Regensburg, virtually the entire Jewish population was herded into the Danube and forced to undergo “baptism”.

Once in the Serbian city of Zemun, a dispute broke out over the price of a pair of shoes resulting in a riot and the murder, of 4,000 Hungarians. Seven days later at the city of Niš, the military commander promised food, and military escort. Peter agreed but a group of Germans got into an argument with some locals and set fire, to a mill. The entire garrison at Niš responded and routed the mob. 10,000 were killed by the time it was over, nearly a quarter of their entire number.

Once in Constantinople, Alexios had not the slightest idea what to do with this ragtag bunch and quickly ferried them across the Bosporus with instruction to wait for the main Crusader force, then on the way.

These people were having none of that.

An argument broke out between French and Italians on one side and the Germans, on the other. Each elected their own leader and the former set to pillaging the suburbs, all the way to the Turkish stronghold of Nicomedia.

Not to be outdone, 6,000 Germans marched on the fortress at Xerigordos where they quickly subdued the garrison and prepared to use the fort as a base, for further raids. Within days Xerigordos was itself surrounded by a Turkish force loyal to Kilij Arslan, the Seljuk Sultan of Rûm. With no provisions and no water the besieged crusaders took to drinking their own urine and the blood, of their animals. The siege was over in eight days. Some Crusaders converted to Islam, on the spot. The rest were put to the sword.

Back at the main camp, two Turkish spies spread rumors the Germans had taken Xerigordos and defeated, Nicaea. Eager to join in the plunder some 20,ooo set out leaving women and children, back at camp. The rowdy procession entered the narrow road three miles outside of camp, when the trap was sprung. The waiting Seljuk force unleashed a torrent of arrows at a disorganized and undisciplined rabble, quickly put to flight. Most were slaughtered. A few thousand took refuge in an abandoned castle itself, then taken under siege.

Sometime later, a Byzantine force under Constantine Katakalon sailed across the narrow channel and lifted the siege, returning the survivors to Constantinople. This small remnant was all that remained, of the Peasant’s Crusade.

Church sanctioned Crusades took and then lost the ancient city of Jerusalem over the next 100 years. A “Lion-hearted” King would fight to a draw and return home to protect his kingdom from an ambitious little brother leaving Al-Nasir Salah al-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub in possession of the city. A man we know today, as Saladin.

A fourth crusade set out in 1202 to retake the holy city and inexplicably ended up sacking…Constantinople. Ten years later it was time for civilians to try, once again.

In the Spring of 1212 a French youth called Stephen of Cloyes began to attract, a following. At the same time a German boy, Nicholas of Cologne, was preaching the same message. It’s hard to know if the two ever heard of each other but the message, was the same. Talk would succeed where weapons had failed. They would discuss it all with the Muslims who would then convert, peaceably.

Together, Stephen and Nicholas attracted some 20,000 children with a few adolescents and some adults and set out across Germany, and France.

Many starved to death with no money and yet they came, a Children’s Crusade destined to succeed where professional Crusader armies, had failed.

That’s not the way things worked out.

On August 25, 1212, the rabble appeared outside of Genoa. Whether they expected some kindly Genoese ship’s captains to take them on board or the Red Seat to part as for Moses, remains unclear.

A hoard of young beggars with no training and no weapons were of no use, save to be sold, for slaves. So it went, according to most accounts. In some versions of this story the children made it to Rome where the Pope told them all, to go home. Some simply turned and trudged, back where they came from.

There would be three more popular crusades each following the same path, as the first. Violence against the Jews and squabble with the locals. None ever made it, outside European shores.