Crusaders - Alfred J. Church

More Concerning Peter the Hermit

I have more to say of this same Peter which may conveniently be set down in this place. It was some four years after our parting that I chanced to fall in with him again. A certain physician of my own nation, being now advanced in years, and not a little feeble in body, would have me for his helper. And this I was well pleased to be; for he was a man skilful in his art, and one from whom much might be learnt, and of a kindly temper, and with an open hand. When I had been with him six months or thereabouts, there came an urgent message from John, surnamed Comnenus, who was Emperor of New Rome, or, as many call it, Constantinople. My master's reputation for skill in the healing art was spread far and wide, and he was much sought after by those who had sufficient wealth to pay for his service, which, of a truth, he did not render cheaply. At the first he was minded not to go, "for," said he, "I have rather need of a physician's help for myself, than to render it to others." Nevertheless he was persuaded. For first the rewards of healing were considerable, being not less than five hundred gold pieces, with a most honourable conveyance and escort; for the Emperor had sent a war galley to Tyre that should take us thence to New Rome. In the second place, he was eager for knowledge, which he gathered with no less zeal than if he had been at the beginning not the end of life. And in the third place, he could never have enough of travel. So we set forth a little after the time of the spring equinox, and having a most prosperous voyage, the wind blowing from the east, as it is wont to do at this season, came from Tyre to New Rome in twelve days.

There had come many rumours of war eastward during these four years; how that great hosts, such as had not been gathered together within the memory of man, were on the way with the intent of taking Jerusalem by force of arms. Many of the things that were said were wholly beyond belief; but two things were certainly known, from which much might be concluded. First, there came no more pilgrims. Now this was a new thing. Sometimes there had been many pilgrims, and sometimes there had been few, but some always, save, maybe, when the plague had very greatly prevailed. From this it might be concluded that an expedition was on foot, because a man going on pilgrimage would travel more safely and easily with an army than before it. Secondly, the rulers of the land were manifestly making great preparation both in arms and men, as if for defence against some future danger. Nor had we been many hours in the city before we learnt the truth of the matter. There was a great stir and tumult in the streets, these same streets being full of a mixed multitude of men of all nations. So much could be learnt from the confusion of tongues that was to be heard, and the strange aspect of many that passed to and fro. Nor did I wonder at these things when I had fallen in with Peter, which I did on the very next day after my coming. There is a very noble church, that is called the Church of the Holy Wisdom, before which is a great square in which all the chief citizens are wont to gather. And here, on the morning of my coming, did I see Peter. At the first sight I scarce knew him, for he had something of the garb and manners of a soldier. Nor, indeed, did I wonder when I came to hear from his lips the story of what had befallen him since we had last companied together. And this story I shall now set forth without further preface, putting in a few words what he said in many:

"I talked much with the Patriarch, and learned many things from him. He told me what he himself had suffered, and how great was the peril in which he stood from day to day. 'The sword of the infidel,' said he, 'is ever at my throat. I may live so long as I can purchase forbearance; yet even so it is but a chance of safety that I buy; for these Turks care but little for the keeping of faith with the infidel—for so in their insolence they speak of us! Then he spoke of the pilgrims. 'They also buy their lives, nor do they always receive that for which they pay the price. Verily a man may more safely adventure himself in a lion's den, aye, or thrust his head into a lion's mouth, than come into this city.' 'But,' said I, 'there is a Christian Emperor in New Rome; why do you not go to him for help?' 'It were idle,' answered he, 'to seek help from him who cannot help himself. I have lived seventy years upon the earth; and verily during this time the Lord has cut the borders of New Rome so short, that in seventy more it is like to have little beyond its walls.' Then I asked him for what help he looked and whence. And he said, 'I look to the Bishop of Rome, and to the nations of the West. If they will but stir themselves, they can drive out these unbelievers from the Holy City.' When the Patriarch so spake, I thought to myself that now not only would the Holy Places be taken out of the hands of the Infidel, but that the Church of Christ would again be made one as she was in the old time. For how should these schismatics of the East persist in their disobedience when so great deliverance should have been wrought for them by the men of the West?

"Having, then, these thoughts in my mind, I made all haste to go back that I might lay the matter before the Holy Father at Rome. Of the time between the departing from Jerusalem and the coming to Rome there is no need to speak particularly; let it suffice to say that never have days seemed to pass so slowly. All the hindrances of travel, lack of horses on land, contrary winds by sea, were multiplied, or so it seemed to me, tenfold more than is the wont of these things. And when I was arrived at Rome, what delays, what miserable wastings of time! Surely His Holiness the Pope is but ill served by those who are about him! I, who had a matter of the greatest moment to lay before him, could not by any means get speech of him. There was but one voice from all of whom I sought help and counsel; the Pope's audience-chamber opens not, said they, save by a key of gold. And where should I get this same key of gold?

"At the last, when after six months of waiting, by which, indeed, my heart was well-nigh broken in twain, I did win my way to the presence of His Holiness, how was it? Not because I had that to say which was worth hearing, but because I chanced to fall in with a lackey who came from the town of Amiens. This man spake of me to a door-keeper, and the door-keeper to a chamberlain, and the chamberlain to a secretary—I know not how the thing went round—and so at the last I came to have speech with the Pope. And when I had accomplished this, I had in truth accomplished all. The Pope needed no persuading. It was enough for him that the Christian folk of Jerusalem looked, not to New Rome, but to Old Rome, for help. 'There has no better news been brought hither,' said he, 'these five hundred years and more. Verily God has blessed His servant beyond all measure, that I should be the instrument in His hands of winning back the Holy Places from the unbeliever, and of bringing into one fold the divided flock of Christ.' Such was the Pope's speech, and his action had not lagged behind could he but have set himself free from the chains of use and customs with which he is bound. But there were letters to be sent to the kings and princes, and letters to be received from them, and treaties and bargainings, and provision to be made of money and stores—necessary things I doubt not, but making sore trial of faith and patience. So, as I could not endure to sit still while these things were a-doing, or not doing, I travelled through the length and breadth both of France and of Italy, preaching wheresoever I went the cause of this Holy War. And verily, if I may speak of one so unworthy after the manner of the Holy Apostle St. Paul, the people everywhere received me as an angel of God. Often indeed my speech was not understood of them that listened to my preaching. Even in my own land of France there are many regions and provinces where my tongue is as the tongue of a foreigner. Of the language of Italy I know nought. In Latin speech I am not inexpert; but of the common people, aye, and of the knights and nobles, but very few can follow it, save for the matter of the Paternoster and the Ave Marra. Nevertheless all heard me most gladly. I would not boast of honours done to me; yet 'tis true that the people strove to possess themselves of such things as might serve for memorials of me. For lack of other relics they would take the very hairs of the mule on which I rode.

"Then I said to myself that it would be ill if all this zeal should be lost and come to nothing. The kings and princes and knights are long about their preparations of war; shall not I be beforehand with them? The Lord giveth victory to him whom He shall choose, even as He made David to triumph over Goliath the giant. The battle is not to the strong nor the race to the swift. So I caused it to be proclaimed in every place where I preached that such as were willing to serve in the army of the Lord should not want for a leader. I said that every man should provide himself with such arms as he could—is not the sling of the Israelite better than the sword of the Philistine?—and some provision of food for the way, and I appointed a place where they should assemble, and a time of assembling; and I said that if I came not within so many days of the time, then they should begin their journey, ever moving eastward, for that so they would come to the place where they would be; also, because I would not have them wholly regardless of prudence in the affairs of this world, I counselled them to sow the fields before they departed, 'and when you return,' said I, 'by the blessing of God, you shall reap the harvest.'

"The winter I myself spent in the city of Venice, setting forth with the beginning of spring. Now in Venice I had consorted with a certain Walter, surnamed the Penniless. To him I opened my mind, having learnt that he was a skilful man-at-arms, for I would not deny that the arm of flesh also can do service for the Lord. So, when the due time was come, we two journeyed together to the place which had been appointed beforehand, to wit, to a certain town on the river Rhine. Being arrived we found a multitude of men gathered together, but many yet wanting whom I had looked to see. This being so, we agreed between us that the Knight Walter should straightway set forward with such as were prepared to march, of whom there were some twenty thousand, and that I should follow in due course, for many were flocking in every day, or, I should rather say, every hour. And so we did."

Here, for brevity's sake, I shall pretermit what Peter told to me concerning the doings of Walter; it will suffice to relate what he said concerning himself.

"Some twenty days after the departure of the Knight Walter, I also set forth, having with me some forty thousand men. And for many days we marched in peace, neither harming others nor taking harm ourselves. The greater part of the army had some store of money, nor did they who had more than sufficed for themselves fail to help them that lacked. So when the provision of food that we brought was spent, we bought of the people of the land; much indeed was freely given to us, and they that were constrained by their poverty to ask a price, demanded not more but rather less than their due. So we journeyed in much prosperity till we came to the land of Hungary. There, on the walls of a certain town, the name of which I know not, but we called it Evil Town by reason of the evils that we suffered by reason of it, we saw hanging arms and other spoils.

"And it was noised abroad in the host that these arms and spoils had been taken from Walter's host. Whether this was true or no I know not, but the report stirred the pilgrims to a most furious rage, so that they fell upon the town, and the gates being open, for the townsfolk were dwelling in security, fearing no harm, they took it. After this there was a great slaughter, so that there perished not less than four thousand of the inhabitants of the place, and among them not a few women and children. Of our folk there died but a hundred or so. For five days we abode in Malleville resting from our toils. But when I heard that the king of the land was marching thither with his army, I judged it expedient to depart. And this we did on the sixth day, taking with us a great store of goods and much provision for the army. So we came to the city of Nyze. And here, our provision of victual being well-nigh spent, I sent a messenger to the Governor of Nyze saying that we were pilgrims, who were journeying eastward on the service of God, and desired his friendship, and that he would suffer his people to supply to us at a price such things us we needed. And I said further that we would give hostages for our good behaviour.

"To this he willingly gave consent. So we gave them hostages, and they, on their part, sold us at a reasonable price such things as we needed. So we rested that night in a meadow that there was without the town, and were well content with our entertainment, and on the morrow we received again our hostages and so departed. But a company of Germans, ill-conditioned men, for such there must be when a multitude is gathered together, lagged behind; and these, whether for the sake of revenge or of plunder I know not, set fire to a hamlet that was on the outskirts of the town. When the Governor of Nyze heard of these doings, and this he did within an hour of their happening, he gathered together the soldiers that he had in the town and hurried after the malefactors. These he overtook, for they had journeyed slowly, being laden with spoil that they had taken from the hamlet aforesaid, and he slew every man of them. Nor was he content with this, but he pursued the host, and having overtaken the rearward, slew some and took some prisoners.

"When I heard of these things I sent messengers to the Governor to make complaint. To these the Governor set forth the whole matter, which when I had heard I perceived that the blame was not with him, but rather with us. So I sent again a message of peace, making such excuse for my own people and their misdoings as I could. Also I called together some of the notables out of the host, and said to them that we must amend our ways, not only for right's sake, but for very safety, 'for,' said I, 'if we provoke the people of the land to anger, we shall most certainly perish.' But the notables, though I so speak of them, were but of small account, and the people had no reverence for them. Then a great part of the host—for some were content to be obedient to my command—turned back to the town of Nyze. And when they came near to the bridge by which they should cross the river, the townspeople fell upon them, they being so crowded together on the bridge that they could not so much as move their arms to strike a blow. Many were slain, and many were drowned in the river, for they leapt into the water if so be that they might escape from the sword. Some few indeed got safe to land, but the greater part perished. When they of the host that were behind saw this thing they sought to succour their comrades. Then there ensued a great battle, and the pilgrims fled before their enemies. On that day there were slain ten thousand at the least. Much goods also were lost, and with them great treasure of my own which I had stored out of the gifts given to me during my preaching. This I kept, not for my own uses, but for the host, because I knew that they who have money for their needs are welcome, whether it be among heathen men or among Christians.

"After a while many that were dispersed in the woods came together; but of the forty thousand that followed me at the first there were left but a half or less. And while I meditated on what I had best do, there came to me a messenger from the Emperor at Constantinople, who said that I should do well to go to that city, bringing with me such followers as still remained. And this I judged it best to do. Here, therefore, I am."

So much then I heard from Peter, truly a most sad tale, yet was he not one whit cast down or discouraged by the telling of it. And in this I was constrained to admire him, so great courage had he and faith. Many did he lead to their death. Verily I do believe that of all the host which he led, and of all Walter's host also, there was not so much as one that came to the Holy City. As for the man himself it shall suffice to say that, having tarried awhile in Constantinople, he joined himself to the host of whose doings I shall now speak, and accompanied them in all their journeyings, being held in no small honour by the chiefs, and that he had his desire in the matter of the Holy City, as shall hereafter be told. I have heard that after awhile he went back to the west, and living to old age, departed this life in a religious house, of which he had been made the chief. That he might do well in the governing of monks I do not deny; but that he had no skill in the leading of men and the art of war is manifest.