Crusaders - Alfred J. Church

Peter the Hermit

One of the many occupations which I have followed, to wit, the gathering of simples, I have never wholly intermitted. But seeing that this cannot be profitably followed save in the season of spring, when the various herbs spring forth and bear leaf and flower, I have added others to it, and at the time of which I first write I was wont to carry water from the well of Bethlehem to certain Jews of the wealthier sort that dwelt in the city of Jerusalem. It was my custom to draw the water from the well while it was yet night, and to bear it—for which purpose an ass served me sufficiently well—to the city gate by sunrise, so that it might not be touched by the heat. This done, I was wont to go back to Bethlehem, where, of necessity, I had my lodging. I say of necessity, but indeed it was of choice also. The manners of the Jerusalem folk pleased me not, the Turks therein being mightily hard and overbearing, while the Bethlehem folk were mild-mannered and gentle. On a certain morning about the time of the spring equinox, if my memory serves me well, I, having finished my carrying of the water, and being about to turn my steps homeward, was aware of a man that sat, wrapped up in his cloak, in a corner of the wall. He seemed like to one that slept, and had he been a dweller in the city or in one of the villages round about, I had left him to his rest; but there was something strange and outlandish about his garb; his skin also was somewhat fairer of hue than is commonly seen in these parts. Thinking therefore to myself, "Maybe he wants counsel or help, being a stranger in this land, and not knowing where to dispose himself"—and sundry such were wont to come to Jerusalem for various causes, as will be set forth hereafter—I drew near, waiting nevertheless till he should first accost me. Nor did I wait long, for he rose straightway from his place and saluted me. And here I may conveniently say what manner of man he was to look upon. He was small of stature, and halted somewhat on one foot. One who regarded him casually and without thought might well take him for a mean and trivial person. Yet that he was not such soon became manifest; for his eyes were of a keenness such as I never saw surpassed, and his speech, even about common matters, had a certain weight and force; his voice, than which there is to my mind no more certain proof of gentle condition, was of a singular sweetness. So much I soon discerned; what more I came to know of his life, thoughts, and purposes, I learned by degrees. This I will now set forth, having first said that he tarried with me at my lodging in Bethlehem for the half of a moon or thereabouts. His story I will relate, for shortness' sake, as it were in his own words, and told at one time; but in truth I learnt it, little by little, some things, it may be, coming to my knowledge at a later time.

"My name is Peter, given to me in baptism, and kept by me when I entered religion, for, indeed, what name could be better, more apt to stir up to good works and to move repentance? I was born within the domain of a certain city, Amiens by name, in the land of France; my father was a tiller of the soil, having so much as could be worked by ten ploughs. For this he had to render to the lord of the domain so much in money, and so much in grain and other increase of the earth, and the service of three able-bodied men-at-arms. He was always a stout fighter, and, I take it, better pleased to follow his lord to battle than to stay at home and mind such matters as sowing and reaping and the care of sheep and cattle. From this cause, and also because I was, as you may perceive, of a somewhat feeble frame—though I, too, was not without skill in sword-play in my youth—it fell out that I tarried at home till I was three-and-twenty years of age. 'Here is Peter,' my father was wont to say to my mother, 'who will serve all the needs of house and land far better than I;' and he would ride away well content to be quit for a while of such cares.

"Nor, indeed, was I ill content to abide at home, at least till there came to pass such a thing as set on fire the hearts of all the younger sort in our parts, aye, and of their elders also; and this was the great adventure of William of Normandy in preparing for the conquest of England. Normandy, you must know, is the next province to that in which is the city of Amiens, lying to the westward. The Norman folk are scarce to be called Frenchmen, having come, some three or four generations ago, from northern parts, but they are stout fighters, and it was commonly believed that any enterprise which their duke, who was an incomparable man of war, and they should set their hands to, would scarce go wrong. When, therefore, it was noised abroad that Duke William was gathering together a great army, and that all that desired good wages and profitable service would do well to follow his banner—for of his own people he could not make a sufficient muster—then, as I have said, many hearts were moved, and mine among them. My father would have greatly loved to go, but he was growing old, and had received also a shrewd blow on the sword-arm. Hence he was content to listen to my mother's entreaties and to abide at home. But why do I dwell on these vanities? Let it suffice to say that I took service with Duke William, bringing with me a company of some twenty soldiers from our part, who, I will venture to affirm, were as well equipped and as skilful in arms as any that came to him outside his own dominions.

"I was at the great battle of Senlac; it was my first battle, and had like to be my last, for these English folk are mighty warriors, and came near at one time to driving us all into the sea. But so it was that in the end we won the day; and having won it, we had the whole land before us for a prey. It so chanced that the duke had seen during the battle some deed of mine—I care not to call it back to mind, for all worldly fame is but a vanity, and he would willingly have given me a possession in the land which he had conquered. So much I heard from his own lips. Nor was I unwilling to take such a gift. It is a good land and a rich, this England. But ere the matter was far advanced there came to me tidings from my home that altogether changed my purpose. Both my father and my brother—for one brother I had, my elder by some two years—were dead of a fever, and my mother was left alone, with her two daughters, maidens of tender age. Now I would make no complaint of my native country, where men are not worse, if, maybe, they are not better than elsewhere; but indeed I know not the place where a woman can safely and properly manage corn-lands and pasture-lands and orchards and the like. I therefore thought no more of what Duke William, who indeed was now King William, was minded to bestow upon me, but went back to my house. And there I tarried for some years, till my mother departed this life, never having held up her head after my father's death, and my sisters, who were well-favoured maidens, were given in marriage.

"After this I also entered the state of wedlock, not wholly of my own free will. Of this matter it boots not to speak much. Let it suffice, therefore, to say that I married a lady of high degree, who had neither beauty nor riches. And if you ask me why I did so, I can answer only this, that in my own land the difference of degree is much accounted of, that a common man, for so they call all them who are not of noble birth, cannot but be lifted out of himself by any favour shown to him by a noble, except, indeed, he be of more than common wisdom, and that so it fell out with me. More, then, I will not say; only that I married a well-born wife and found little profit or pleasure therefore. For though the lady brought me no money of her own, yet was she not backward to spend what she found of mine. She must have all things to suit her high estate—silver dishes for her food, and velvet and embroideries for her clothing, and gold chains for her neck, and jewels for her fingers. To put the matter in a few words, she spent all that I could earn and more; and when she died, some ten years after our marriage, I had but enough left to pay my debts honestly. Yet one thing remained to me which could not, indeed, be sold, but was yet to be of no small profit. From my youth up I had given no little time to book learning. Some books I had which had come to my father from a certain uncle, who was Bishop of Amiens, and from my father, who had never so much as looked at them, to me. I, on the contrary, had applied myself to them with some diligence from my boyhood, and I counted them and what I could gain from them the more precious the more my worldly fortunes decayed.

"Being thus left alone, I went to the Bishop, and he, having a certain favour for me because one of my kinsmen had in time past sat in his chair, found a place for me in a certain religious house, and in due time admitted me to Holy Orders. In this house I abode some six years, being but ill pleased with my companions, who verily seemed to me not less worldly because they dwelt in a cloister. But why should I speak of the faults of others who have so many of my own? Let it suffice to say that, the six years being ended, I left the house, the Bishop consenting, and took up my abode in a cell which chanced to be empty, the holy man who had dwelt there for some forty years having departed this life in great odour of sanctity. Here also I abode for six years, better pleased, maybe, with solitude than I had been with ill-assorted company, yet not wholly content. For I would often think to myself—what profit is there in my present life? Haply I shall accomplish somewhat towards the saving of my soul though even this I sometimes doubt, the devil and the flesh being not less busy within the cell than without; and on occasion I give counsel to them that seek it; though I, standing outside all affairs, can be but of little help to them that are concerned with them. So I would often think to myself, and so grew daily less content with my life, and yet lacked the courage or the will to change it. And yet I did change it, and that suddenly, there coming to me a call which I could not choose but hear and obey.

"On a certain winter night I found a stranger well-nigh buried in the snow. I had been on a spiritual errand, administering the last sacraments to a sick man, the cure of souls in the parish being then vacant. This man I carried to my cell and recovered, not without much labour, for he was well-nigh dead with cold and hunger. And having recovered him, I had perforce to keep him for many days, during which time I talked much with him.

"He was a pilgrim, he told me, and he was on his way homeward from the Holy City, Jerusalem. Now I had seen and talked with such pilgrims many times from my youth up, and I had noted that they told different tales one from the other. Some had suffered little, and some much; some had been mocked and beaten, robbed of all that they had, shut out from the very places which they had travelled so far to see, and barely suffered to escape with their lives; some, on the other hand, had been courteously entreated, protected from all insolence and robbery, so that they could walk about the city not less safely and honourably than in their own towns in which they had been born and brought up. But it had been borne in upon me that year by year there had been more that brought back a bad report, and fewer that brought back a good. This had been so almost from the time when I went to dwell in the House of Religion. Many that went on pilgrimage were seen no more. Such, indeed, there had always been, for the pilgrim must needs encounter many dangers both by sea and land, perils of shipwreck and robbers, perils of hunger and disease. But of late years the number of those that were lost was greatly multiplied. And in them that came back might be seen manifest tokens of suffering and misuse. But never before had I heard such a tale as was told me that day by this man. He affirmed that he had seen with his own eyes the Patriarch dragged by the hair of his head from his dwelling to the common prison; that the holy man was kept in a most foul dungeon till the Christian folk of the city could gather together a ransom of two hundred gold pieces; that he himself, having paid a gold piece, as was customary, by way of tribute, had been stripped, robbed of all that was left to him, and cruelly beaten when his persecutors found that he in truth possessed nothing more."

Such was the tale that Peter told me, and then he added the very words which I now write down: "When I heard these things, I said within myself, what does it profit that I thus sit still? I will arise and go to Jerusalem, and will see these things with mine own eyes, so that I may know certainly whether they be true or no; for I know well that there are men who say that they are pilgrims and are not, and others who make false pretence of having suffered, and not a few who for gain or vanity magnify little troubles into great. Here, then, I am. Tell me now how I may best acquaint myself with the truth. Say first, if you will, whether you have seen with your own eyes aught of these things."

Baldwin III of Jerusalem


I made answer that I had many times seen pilgrims beaten, that I had also seen the Patriarch dragged to prison, and that a ransom had been paid for him. "But," I said, "these things were done more than a year ago, the governor of the city in those days being of a specially savage temper; but this man has been deposed from his office, and is now dead; for him whom they depose in this country they also slay, and I verily believe that he was deposed for this very cause. The "Turks love not the Christians; they love none save their own people; but they love the Christians' money, and will not of set purpose do aught that shall hinder its coming. Now, the conclusion of the whole matter is this. These Turks are barbarians; when they first took possession of this city they knew not how to use their power, and they robbed and slew as it has ever been their custom to rob and slay. Yet have they wit enough to know that it is not by such doings that men grow rich. What will it profit them to take two gold pieces in the place of one from one pilgrim, if by so doing they hinder nine other pilgrims from coming to the land? 'Tis the nature of barbarous people to be carried away by rage or sheer lust of cruelty; but for the most part they also as well as others look to their advantage. I doubt not but that from time to time the pilgrims will suffer damage, it may be even to death; but I doubt not also but that for the most part, so long as they pay the tribute, they will come and depart unharmed. But if you would know more of these things, go and talk to the Patriarch."

"'Tis a shame," said he, "that a Christian man must pay tribute for seeing that which it is his right to see. But you say well; I will go and talk with the Patriarch."

So the next day he went with me to Jerusalem, and I took him to the dwelling of the Patriarch, at the humbleness of which he marvelled much, the Patriarchs in his own country being for the most part grandly lodged. There I commended him to the care of the porter, with whom I had certain acquaintance, and having bidden him farewell, saw him no more for a while.