The terms People’s Crusades or People’s Expeditions are generally applied to a series of expeditions that can be regarded as the initial wave of the First Crusade (1096-1099) proclaimed by Pope Urban II. The designation Peasants’ Crusade, often encountered in older or more popular publications, is misleading: participants included clerics, knights, and nobles (who often played leading roles) as well as townspeople and peasants and other country dwellers.
The main features that distinguished the People’s Crusades from subsequent waves (the so-called princes’ expeditions) were the facts that they set off before the official departure date proclaimed by the pope, the Feast of the Assumption (15 August 1096); that they probably contained a much lower proportion of arms bearers; and that they had considerably inferior organization, coherence, and discipline.
As news of the appeal of Urban II at the Council of Clermont (27 November 1095) spread throughout western Europe, his idea of a penitential pilgrimage to liberate the Christians of the East was rapidly taken up by popular preachers, who began to preach an expedition to Jerusalem on their own initiative. The first of these was the charismatic speaker Peter the Hermit, originally from Amiens in Picardy, who began to preach in central France at a point so soon after Urban’s appeal that much older scholarship regarded him as the initiator of the First Crusade. By the winter and spring of 1096, the preaching of Peter and others had set numerous groups in motion that attracted more followers as they travelled east. However, overall progress was slow, and often interrupted by further preaching, recruitment, and fundraising activities. Many participants left with minimal preparation or provisioning, trusting to divine providence, and funds were often obtained by charity or by force.
Peter and his followers extorted money from the Jews of Rouen and Trier as they marched toward the Rhineland, but the eschatological fervor generated by crusade preaching escalated to the point where many crusaders believed that it was desirable for them to punish the Jews of the West, as perceived enemies of Christendom, before going on to fight the Turkish enemy in the East. While Peter’s followers contented themselves with extortion and plunder, other groups carried out a series of anti-Judaic persecutions, resulting in the destruction of Judaic Jewish communities in several towns of Germany through massacre and forced conversion, even though persecution of the Jews had been forbidden by Henry IV of Germany and forced baptism was prohibited in canon law. Many Jews preferred to be killed, or even to kill themselves, rather than convert. Nevertheless, not all of the People’s Crusades indulged in anti-Judaic persecution; in some cases (possibly at Cologne and Trier, for example), massacres were initiated or carried out by local urban populations, often in defiance of their episcopal overlords.
The People’s Crusades are described in greatest detail by the chronicler Albert of Aachen and by Hebrew sources; useful information is also provided by Robert of Rheims, Baldric of Dol, Peter Tudebode, Guibert of Nogent, Orderic Vitalis, William of Tyre, Anna Komnene, the Gesta Francorum, and Frutolf of Michelsberg. The composition of these crusades and the numbers involved are difficult to establish with certainty, as, particularly in the Rhineland, several groups broke up and reformed or dispersed.
It is possible to identify at least eight originally distinct major groupings, in approximate order of their departure: (1) The first, and probably largest army was recruited by Peter the Hermit, who had already begun to preach by December 1095, attracting numerous followers as he moved through Berry, Champagne, the Ile-de-France, and Picardy, then through Lower Lotharingia to Trier and Cologne (12 April 1096). (2) Around the same time the knight Walter Sans-Avoir, with followers from the Ile-de-France, also marched into the Rhineland, and moved ahead of Peter’s army after reaching Cologne. (3) At the end of April 1096 a priest from the Rhineland named Gottschalk moved south and east, collecting an army from Lotharingia, Franconia, Bavaria, and Swabia; it had a high proportion of knights and its journey as far as Hungary was peaceful. (4) More Germans, and possibly French, followed a priest named Folkmar from the Rhineland and traveled through Saxony and Bohemia. (5) In late April or early May a nobleman from the Rhineland, Emicho, count of Flonheim, collected an army from the region of Mainz, and marched on the city. (6) There his forces were joined by large numbers of crusaders from
Crusaders of Peter the Hermit are massacred by Turks in a surprise attack. From Passages Faits Outremer, c.1490. (Snark/Art Resource)
the Ile-de-France and Picardy, including Thomas of La Fère, lord of Coucy, Clarembald of Vendeuil, and William the Carpenter, viscount of Melun, who had already attacked the Jews of Metz and Speyer. After the inhabitants of Mainz eventually opened the gates, the crusaders massacred the Jewish population on 27 May. This combined French and German army continued toward Hungary under Emicho’s leadership, but the notion that Emicho was accompanied by southern German bishops, dukes, and counts is an anachronistic construction of the sixteenth-century Chronicle of Zimmern. (7) The final major northern group originated from northern France, England, Flanders, and Lotharingia, arriving at Cologne in June, and carrying out attacks in villages in the surrounding countryside where the Jews of the city had fled for safety (24-27 June). (8) Lastly, crusaders from Lombardy, Liguria, and other parts of Italy were probably already on the move by the time the other groups reached the Hungarian frontiers. Attacks on Jews are also known to have occurred in Speyer, Worms, Regensburg, and Prague, but the precise responsibility for these cannot be determined with certainty.
The French and German groups moved up the Rhine and along the Danube, intending to march to Constantinople (mod. Istanbul, Turkey) through Hungary and the Balkans. The army of Walter Sans-Avoir, which seems to have been the best-disciplined force, proceeded largely without incident through Hungary and Byzantine territory, reaching Constantinople in mid-July 1096. The Byzantine authorities were evidently unprepared for crusaders so early in the year, and the passage of Peter’s army, which was the biggest contingent, led to problems of supply, plundering, and skirmishes with Byzantine troops. They arrived in Constantinople on 1 August and were joined there by the North Italians.
For reasons of security the Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos was keen to move the crusaders on from the environs of Constantinople, and on 6 August he had the combined forces of Peter, Walter, and the Italians ferried across the Bosporus, advising them to remain on Byzantine territory until the arrival of further contingents. They based themselves at Kibotos, a fortress on the Sea of Marmara, but by mid-September they were undertaking ever bolder raids into the territory of Qilij Arslān I, sultan of Rûm. On 29 September a Turkish army surrounded a force of Germans and Italians who had seized a castle called Xerigordon, massacring them after a siege of a week. The Turks then advanced on Kibotos. Peter the Hermit was absent in Constantinople, and Walter Sans-Avoir was unable to persuade the crusaders to wait for him to return. The army marched out, but was surprised and routed by the Turks, who then overran the crusader camp (21 October 1096). A few crusaders who had taken refuge in Kibotos were eventually evacuated by Byzantine forces. The forces of Folkmar, Gottschalk, and Emicho did not advance further than the Hungarian frontier, where they were dispersed by the troops of King Coloman.
The People’s Crusades had disastrous consequences for the Jews of the German Empire and severely tested relations with the crusaders’ Byzantine allies. Militarily they achieved almost nothing. Only Peter the Hermit and a relatively small number of crusaders survived the defeats of 1096 to join the princes’ expeditions.