Peter the Hermit

Peter The Hermit an ecclesiastical character of the 11th century, is of very little significance except as the monks of the Church of Rome have given him importance by crediting him with the movement of the Christian Church against the Saracens, known as the First Crusade, for which the credit is by most competent critics awarded to pope Urban II. Von Sybel, in his Geschichte des ersten Kreuzzuges (Dusseldorf, 1841), examines the history of the first crusaders, and in consequence of a most searching review of all the records pronounces Peter of Amiens an apocryphal character, and his reputed efforts for the first crusade the invention of Greek legendaries of the 12th century. Even William of Tyre, who is the principal source of the history of the Crusades of all the Middle-Age historians, knows (in his Belli sacri historiae about 1188) of Peter of Amiens only that he is a persona contemptibilis, whose fate was that of the other crusaders. The Jesuit OEltreman has made the life of Peter of Amiens the subject of a sacred romance, which is often mistaken for history. The whole scheme is intended to wrest the honor of the first Crusade from the papacy and to give it to the monks.

According to these questionable sources, Peter the Hermit was a native of Amiens, where he was born about the middle of the 11th century. He was educated first at Paris, and afterwards in Italy, and then became a soldier. After serving in Flanders without much distinction, he retired from the army, married, and had several children; but on the death of his wife he became religious, and exhausted, without satisfying the cravings of his religious zeal, all the ordinary excitements — the studies, the austerities and mortifications, the fasts and prayers — of a devout life. Still yearning for more powerful emotions, he retired into the solitude of the strictest and severest cloister. Not even content with this life of a recluse, he ultimately became a hermit. But even this failed to satisfy him, and he would not rest contented with himself until lie had projected a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. For this he set out about 1093. On his visit to the East he saw with a bleeding heart that the Holy Sepulchre was in the hands of the infidel, and beheld the oppressed condition of the Christian residents or pilgrims under the Moslem rule: "his blood turned to fire," and the hermit made his vow that with the help of God these things should cease. In an interview with the patriarch Simeon he declared that the natives of the West should take up arms in the Christian cause. On his return to the West he spoke so earnestly on the subject to pope Urban II that the pontiff warmly adopted his views, and, however selfish may have been the promptings of his zeal in the cause-he foreseeing probably that, whatever might be the result to the warriors of the cross, his own power would thenceforth rest on more solid foundationsUrban eagerly bestowed his blessing on the fervent enthusiast, and commissioned him to preach throughout the West an armed confederation of Christians for the deliverance of the Holy City. Mean in figure and diminutive in stature, and gifted only with an eloquence that was as rude as it was ready, his deficiencies were more than made up by the earnestness which gave even to the glance of his eye a force more powerful than speech. His enthusiasm lent him a power which no external advantages of form could have commanded. He was filled with a fire which would not stay, and the horrors which were burnt in upon his soul were those which would most surely stir the conscience and rouse the wrath of his hearers. His fiery appeals carried everything before them. "He traversed Italy," writes the historian of Latin Christianity, "crossed the Alps, from province to province, from city to city. He rode on a mule, with a crucifix in his hand, his head and feet bare: his dress was a long robe, girt with a cord, and a hermit's cloak of the coarsest stuff. He preached in the pulpits, on the roads, in the marketplaces. His eloquence was that which stirs the heart of the people, for it came from his own — brief, figurative, full of bold apostrophes; it was mingled with his own tears, with his own groans; he beat his breast: the contagion spread throughout his audience. His preaching appealed to every passion — to valor and shame, to indignation and pity, to the pride of the warrior, to the compassion of the man, the religion of the Christian, to the love of the brethren, to the hatred of the unbeliever aggravated by his insulting tyranny, to reverence for the Redeemer and the saints, to the desire of expiating sin, to the hope of eternal life." The results are well known as among those moral marvels of enthusiasm of which history presents occasional examples. All France especially was stirred from its very depths; and just at the time when the enthusiasm of that country had been enkindled to its full fervor, it received a sacredness and an authority from the decree of a council held at Clermont, in which Urban himself was present, and in which his celebrated harangue was but the signal for the outpouring, through all Western Christendom, of the same chivalrous emotions by which France had been borne away under the rude eloquence of the Hermit. To understand this success, we must take into account the poverty of the masses, and the alluring prospect of a residence in Eastern lands, the scenes of which were painted in glowing colors by the apostle of the holy war. Thousands of outcasts had always been ready to follow the princes in their marauding expeditions or political wars, and how much more in a war which enlisted the highest sympathies of their nature in its behalf, which received the sanction of the ministers of religion, and was regarded as the will of God! For the details of the expedition, We must refer to the article CRUSADES SEE CRUSADES, our sole present concern being with the personal history of Peter. Of the enormous but undisciplined army which assembled from all parts of Europe, one portion was committed to his conduct; the other being under the command of a far more skilful leader, Walter (q.v.) the Penniless. Peter, mounted upon an ass, with his coarse woollen mantle and his rude sandals, placed himself at the head of his followers. On the march through Hungary they became involved in hostilities with the Hungarians, and suffered a severe defeat at Semlin, whence they proceeded with much difficulty to Constantinople. There the emperor Alexius, filled with dismay at the want of discipline which they exhibited, was but too happy to give them supplies for their onward march; and near Nice they encountered the army of the sultan Soliman, from whom they suffered a terrible defeat. Peter accompanied the subsequent expedition under Godfrey; but worn out by the delays and difficulties of the siege of Antioch, he was about to withdraw from the expedition, and was only retained in it by the influence of the other leaders, who foresaw the worst results from his departure. Accordingly he had a share, although not marked by any signal distinction, in the siege and capture of the Holy City in 1099, and the closing incident of his history as a crusader was an address to the victorious army delivered on the Mount of Olives. He returned to Europe, and founded a monastery at Huy, in the diocese of Liege, where he died, July 7, 1115. The movement which had been inaugurated continued to agitate Europe for nearly two centuries, and its general effect upon the march of civilization may well be pronounced incalculable. See Milman, Hist. of Lat. Christianity, 4:25 sq.; Cox, The Crusades (N.Y. 1874, 18mo), page 26 sq.; Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, chapter 33.

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