Peter the Hermit: Charismatic Preacher

Everyone who filled the field in Clermont on that crisp day in late November made the vow to save Byzantium and restore Jerusalem to Christian rule. But how, in a time when there was no such thing as TV, computers, internet or printing press, and no advocacy for mass literacy, did Urban’s cry for Holy War travel so far so fast?

The people went home and told their families’ what their beloved Pope had just commanded them to do.  Hence, Urban’s message was spread via word of mouth. However, there was one man who would help Urban spread the message far and wide: Peter the Hermit.

There is very little known about Peter’s background, so there is some historical debate as to whether he was born into nobility or poverty. According to Barbara Hutton, a scholar of the past, Peter once served as a soldier under Eustace de Bouillon, father of Godfrey de Bouillon. Peter married a lady of rank, but did not love her, so he chose to live his life in solidarity confinement as a means to end the marriage. Daniel Goodsell, on the other hand, suggested that Peter came from a poor family.

Regardless of Peter’s background, he possessed enough passion, imagination, reverence and charisma to move mountains. “He was small in stature and his external appearance contemptible,” William of Tyre wrote: Peter the Hermit wore a woolen tunic that had no sleeves and a coarse brown tunic overtop. He lived only on fish and wine, and traveled from village to village on top of a mule. However, “greater valor ruled in his slight frame. For he was sharp witted, his glance was bright and captivating, and he spoke with ease and eloquence.”

Historians of an earlier age believed that it was Peter the Hermit who prompted and inspired Pope Urban to initiate the First Crusade. Historians of today, though, have disregarded this belief, choosing instead to believe that it was Pope Urban who was the sole initiator of the First Crusade. Even though Urban was the perpetrator of this momentous historical event, Peter the Hermit’s involvement in the preaching of the Holy War should not be undermined.

It is quite possible that he travelled throughout France and preached Holy War prior to Urban’s speech at Clermont. Regardless, two things are for certain: whether Peter preached the crusade before Clermont or not, Pope Urban did sanction him to spread the message and Peter appealed to the commoners. He travelled on his mule from village to village, preaching Holy War, mimicking Urban in style and charisma. The reason he appealed so strongly to the commoners was because he addressed their needs. If they should take up the cross, God would forgive all their sins and bless them. Those who should die on the road to Jerusalem would look forward to spending the rest of eternity with Christ in Heaven. Those who should survive would reap the rewards, for the land in the east ran with milk and honey. That was what Peter probably told them anyway.

The people believed Peter because they wanted some kind of relief. Life in eleventh-century Europe wasn’t kind to peasants and laymen. The famine of 1094-5 left them starving and, possibly in some cases, on the brink of death. To make matters worse, the commoners were constantly caught in the cross-fire of warring lords; their lords were unable (or unwilling) to protect them. Thus, the Holy War provided them with a one-way ticket out of Europe.

To the commoners, Peter was the embodiment of true Christianity: he gave liberally, kept nothing for himself and took great pleasure in abstinence. He even mended broken marriages, restoring husbands to their wives. Given everything Peter did, it’s no wonder why people rallied to his side and took the cross. They even inspired family, relatives, friends and acquaintances to join them just as their wealthier counterparts had done. The message spread fast until every corner of Europe heard the call to Holy War and responded to it.

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