Learning with Sky: The People's Crusade (1096) Watch
So this is a little something I'm hoping to continue past History Week, where essentially I do research on events and areas less commonly touched on in the hope that discussion can be brought about as well as learning
Everyone remembers the First Crusade - inspiring a selection of memes, even - but today we're going to be looking at the people-fuelled Crusade taking place before even the First, and how it might have impacted it!
THE PEOPLE'S CRUSADE
1096, Europe and the Middle East
What were the Crusades in general?
“The Crusades” generally refers to a set of eleven religious military conquests between the 11th and 13th centuries set with the intent of regaining control of Jerusalem, and by extension the Holy Land, and more broadly aiming to recapture lost Christian territory. There was a chivalric element to the Crusades as well, as one other aim was the defence of Christian pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. The exact definition of “the Crusades” is disputed; although some restrict it to simply the main eleven campaigns in the Eastern Mediterranean, others broaden the term to include combat against paganism and heresy, as well as any organised religious military campaign in the Late Middle Ages.
What would become the First Crusade didn’t initially start with the intention of recapturing Jerusalem; on the 27th November 1095, Pope Urban II launched the First Crusade to aid Byzantine Emperor Alexius I, who wished for aid against invading Turks from Anatolia. Around this time, the additional, long-term goal of freeing Eastern Christians from Muslim rule became apparent, with Jerusalem becoming the primary target.
With the importance of Jerusalem biblically and certainly religiously, the appeal of fighting for the cause became widespread; knights, serfs and peasants alike from across Western Europe banded together to join the cause, starting in Constantinople and moving forward to Jerusalem through the Mediterranean and Middle East.
The true origin of the Crusades is hard to pinpoint since multiple armies were fighting for relatively the same cause without any real sense of unity or effective leadership, and because the Crusades very likely had a political edge to them. While Christianity had spread through Europe, the Middle East and Africa in Antiquity, by the 8th Century the rise of Islam had largely displaced its growth and centralised it to just Europe.
Origins of the People's Crusade
Before the beginning of the official crusades, planned for August 15th 1096, there were plenty of peasants and low ranking knights making their own way to Jerusalem for a plethora of reasons; some peasants likely sought escape from drought and famine, but prevalent to the time was a belief in the mystical. A number of meteorological events in 1095 had been understood as divine blessings, such as a meteor shower, a lunar eclipse and the presence of aurorae, among other occurrences. When partnered with rampant Millenarianism – belief the end of the world was nigh – the response was beyond likely even Urban II’s expectations. Rather than maybe a couple of thousand knights, a mass migration of around 15,000 unskilled fighters occurred, including women and children. There were a few better-trained ones among them, for example the minor-knight Walter Sans-Avoir.
Peter the Hermit of Amiens was by and large considered the leader of those who had gone early. Claiming to have been appointed by Christ himself, he amassed a relatively large following with a divine letter “proving it”, near-foolproof due to the extreme illiteracy of the general populace. Combined with the relative military experience of Walter Sans-Avoir, both can largely be considered the leaders of the campaign and in time acted as such respectively.
Early Campaign and Condemnation
Due to some early actions by the People’s Crusade it became disassociated with the Papacy; while crossing the Rhineland from France to Germany, a number of massacres (known as ‘pogroms’) took place against the Jewish populations. The exact number killed varies, but ranges from 2,000 to around 12,000. Reasons for the outbreak vary, but the most commonly cited one is that Jews were as much an enemy as Muslims were, and that one shouldn’t have to travel so far from home to kill non-believers when there were plenty right in front of them. Arguably there was some leftover sentiment from the Bible that the Jews had killed Jesus, and to an equal extent the fact that money was needed and the Rhineland was rich from its geographical isolation and more liberal stance on moneylending compared to Catholicism. The extent to this anti-Semitic motivation was scarcely uncommon, as recorded by Siegbert of Gembloux: “a war in behalf of the Lord" could be fought it was essential that the Jews convert; those who resisted were deprived of their goods, massacred, and expelled from the cities." This practise would continue for the remainder of the People’s Crusade, met with objection and active confrontation by the Catholic Church and the local churches alike.
Cologne to Constantinople - The Split
The leadership split upon arriving in Cologne; Peter wanted to stay and preach to garner German support, while Walter and a few thousand French wanted to keep moving; the latter did so and reached Hungary with little issue, progressing to Niš where they received food and awaited news from Constantinople. Peter’s army left around two weeks later, with approximately 40,000 men leaving immediately with a smaller amount following soon after. They would eventually reach Zemun, where a skirmish would break out over a pair of shoes, escalating into a conflict resulting in the death of about 4,000 Hungarians. Fleeing as soon as possible, Peter’s retinue eventually reached Niš after some conflict with the Belgrade garrison. There, the commander of Niš promised food and an escort to Constantinople if they would leave immediately, no doubt due to the nature of their approach thus far. Although Peter agreed, some Germans got into a dispute with locals on the road, setting fire to a mill and leading to a fight spiralling out of Peter’s control. The Niš garrison reacted in full force, making the People’s Crusade lose roughly 10,000 men – about a quarter of their supply. Those that escaped eventually met the Byzantine escort and made it to Constantinople safely.
Beyond the Sea - Confusion and Breakdown
Byzantine Emperor Alexius I had little idea what to do with the unusual army of 30,000, and simply had them ferried across the Bosporus. To the day it is unclear whether Alexius sent them without Byzantine guides knowing they could be killed by the Turks or if the army simply insisted on going into Asia Minor against his warnings. Regardless, what is known is that Alexius warned Peter not to engage the Turks, who he believed vastly superior to Peter’s makeshift army.
Peter effectively lost control once in Asia Minor; after pillaging their way through to Nicomedia, an argument broke out with the French on one side and the Italians and Germans on the other. Splitting into two distinct groups, he could do nothing about Alexius’ warning to wait for the main army; the French went first to Nicaea, provoking the German army to not be outdone and storming forward to Xerigordon. The latter was captured in response by the Turks, where those who converted to Islam were sent to Khorisan, while those clinging to their faith were killed.
Back at the main crusaders' camp, two Turkish spies had spread rumor that the Germans who had taken Xerigordon had also taken Nicaea, which caused excitement to get there as soon as possible to share in the looting. Of course, the Turks were waiting on the road to Nicaea. Peter the Hermit had gone back to Constantinople to arrange for supplies and was due back soon, and most of the leaders argued to wait for him to return (which he never did). However, Geoffrey Burel, who had popular support among the masses, argued that it would be cowardly to wait, and they should move against the Turks right away. His will prevailed and, on the morning of 21 October, the entire army of 20,000 marched out toward Nicaea, leaving women, children, the old and the sick behind at the camp.
Three miles from the camp, where the road entered a narrow, wooded valley near the village of Dracon, the Turkish army was waiting. When approaching the valley, the crusaders marched noisily and were immediately subjected to a hail of arrows. Panic set in immediately and within minutes, the army was in full rout back to the camp. Most of the crusaders were slaughtered; however, women, children, and those who surrendered were spared. Three thousand, including Geoffrey Burel, were able to obtain refuge in an abandoned castle. Eventually the Byzantines under Constantine Katakalon sailed over and raised the siege; these few thousand returned to Constantinople, the only survivors of the People's Crusade.
Peter would later serve in the main army in the First Crusade.
QUESTIONS AND CONSIDERATIONS
Having read all of this, with or without knowledge of the First Crusade - discuss what those in the First Crusade might have learnt from the failed attempt by the People's Army?
Do you think if Walter and Peter's forces had stuck together the whole time, they might not have lost control in such a way? How would the Crusades have varied if the People's Army had been more, or totally, successful?
To what extent do you agree with the statement that the pogroms early in the People's Crusade were the "First Holocaust"?
Although this research took quite a while to put together and the formatting might need work - please let me know if this is something you would enjoy carrying on, and any improvements that could be made