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The Dark Ages are aptly named. As the Western Roman Empire slowly declined, wave after wave of nomadic warriors left their lands beyond the Rhine and Danube rivers to loot and plunder. By the second half of the 6th century, daily life in Europe had become so loathsome that Pope Gregory I actually welcomed an epidemic as a merciful deliverance from the general suffering.

The Eastern Roman Empire survived the barbarian invasions mainly because of its superb strategic situation and the formidable fortifications of its capital, Constantinople. In the 7th century, Abu Bakr, successor to Mohammed, carried his jihad (holy war) of Islamic conquest into Christian territory, but the Arabs were unable to conquer Constantinople and had to fall back.

Meanwhile, life in Europe slowly improved, but one thing that remained little changed was the almost constant hunger among the poor. In bad years, there were few reserves to stave off famine, and thousands died. Such years were frighteningly common.

War was endemic. A warrior class, directly descended from the barbarians who had conquered the Western Roman empire, now ruled over its shattered remnants. The Church–despite its all-too-open greed, ambition, treachery and politics–was the one major force for preserving some remnant of literacy, culture and moral order. It wielded an immense spiritual authority and on the whole used its power wisely, trying to promote a world more humane than that of the warrior-knights. The Church strongly backed ‘Leagues of Peace,’ bands of armed pacifists who attacked the castles of lords who refused to join them. Such was the environment that spawned the Crusades.

While holy wars had been waged for centuries, ‘the Crusades’ has come to mean the eight campaigns that were waged in the Holy Land between 1096 and 1270. There was, however, a predecessor to what is formally recorded in the history books as the First Crusade. It has more than one name but is generally referred to as the ‘Crusade of the Poor People.’

Ode de Lagéry rose swiftly within Catholic ranks, attained the throne of Saint Peter and, as Pope Urban II, restored the Church to full glory within a few short years. In March 1095, Urban hosted the first great council of his reign, held at Piacenza. There, decrees were passed against simony, clerical marriage and schism. The marital indiscretions of King Philip I of France and of German Emperor Henry IV were discussed, since Piacenza was far enough away from both monarchs to make such discussions safe. Two ambassadors from Emperor Alexius I Comnenus of the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire spoke at the council. They told of the horrors experienced by the Christians of the East at the hands of the Turks, who had been raiding and conquering their lands.

Alexius I was intelligent, crafty and treacherous enough to be successful as an Eastern ruler. As a former general, he was proficient in warfare, but Byzantium’s army had been decimated and its treasury emptied by his predecessors. Therefore, he had sent his two ambassadors west to ask for recruits to re-establish his army. He could not possibly have dreamed of the response.

Urban carefully considered the request and decided on a plan so far-reaching that it would change the course of history. On August 11, 1095, he sent out letters requesting his bishops to join him at Clermont, France. On Tuesday, November 27, the crowds that had assembled were too large to be housed in the cathedral, where the council was meeting, so the papal throne was set up on a platform outside the east gate of the city.

There are five major versions of Urban’s speech–two of which were recorded by people who were actually there–but there is little similarity between them. Urban basically told of the horrors of life under the ‘base and bastard Turks.’ He described how God’s kingdom had been ‘ground down into the dust.’ Urban declared that Europe was ‘too narrow for your large population’ and urged his audience to take up swords against the Saracens who defiled ‘that land that floweth with milk and honey.’ His audience greeted his proclamation with cries of ‘Dieu le volt‘–‘God wills it.’ Urban turned his eyes heavenward in thanks.

Peter the Hermit–also known as Peter of Amiens because he was born in that French town–had never been within miles of any pope, but that did not prevent him from telling his followers that it was he who had persuaded Urban to preach the crusade. Peter was certainly among the first to preach it, but it is now known that there were many others who were advocating the same thing. It was, nonetheless, Peter who became the de facto leader for many of the Crusaders.

A former soldier, Peter was a short, elderly man whose face was almost as long and sad as that of the donkey he always rode. His garments were filthy. His bare feet had not been washed in years. He ate no meat or fruit, living almost entirely on wine and fish. In 1093, Peter had made a pilgrimage to Palestine, but he was unable to reach the Holy City. One contemporary who knew him, Abbott Guibert of Nogent, stated that he’seemed somehow semi-divine both in his actions and his words.’ Within a short time he had 15,000 followers. His higher-ranking followers, most notably the capable French knight Walter Sansavoir (or Sans-Avoir), or Walter the Penniless, brought thousands of men-at-arms with them. German leaders such as Gottschalk and Orel formed similar armies, but probably on a smaller scale.

Both Alexius and Urban wanted armies, not rabble. The mob that rallied to the pope’s appeal caused Alexius grave concern because their leaders could not control them. Alexius heard, according to the writings of his chronicler daughter Anna Comnena, that ‘all the west, even the barbarians who dwell beyond the Adriatic, out as far as the Pillars of Hercules [Gibraltar], are on the move, bringing their whole families with them.’

In the spring of 1096, Peter halted at Cologne. Although he had always given his every coin to the poor, he now realized that he could not lead his followers on such a journey without a war chest. Walter, impatient with the many delays, had already set out from France. He sent messengers ahead to request permission from King Kolomon I of Hungary (also known as Kalman Könyves, or Kolomon the Book Lover) to pass through his lands. Permission was granted, and the passage was completed with little incident. Alexius had established stores along the route of the approaching Westerners, but they could not begin to feed the hordes approaching his borders. He now learned that a second, much larger throng, was also on its way.

With a small military escort of lesser German nobility leading his rabble, Peter finally began his eastward trek, following in Walter’s footsteps. Things went well until they reached Semlin (now Zemun), a small Hungarian frontier town, where 16 of Walter’s men had run afoul of the law, been stripped of their arms and sent on their way. Their weapons were still hanging on the town walls for all to see, and the sight sent wild rumors flying through the Crusaders’ ranks. Hostility toward the Hungarians grew until an argument over the sale of a pair of shoes sparked a riot, and the Crusaders attacked the townsfolk. Shops and markets were looted, and hundreds of Hungarians were killed. Then, frightened of King Kolomon’s reaction, the Crusaders tried to cross the Sava River into Byzantine territory.

When Walter’s mob had crossed the river earlier, the military commander of Belgrade had been taken by surprise. He had received no instructions on how to handle such an invasion, so he sent messengers racing to the provincial governor in Nish (also spelled Ni´s), asking for advice. Governor Nicetas, a conscientious but lackluster leader, requested guidance from Constantinople.

At Belgrade, Walter demanded food for his followers, but the available supply was far too small to feed such a multitude. Walter and his troops began to pillage the countryside, forcing the local commander to call out his troops. Several Crusaders were killed. Walter finally made it to Nish, where Nicetas sent the crusading horde on to Constantinople under escort.

By the time Peter reached the Hungarian border, his ranks had swelled to close to 20,000. Stealing lumber from houses, his men built rafts to cross the river. The local troops, mostly Pecheneg mercenaries, were sent in barges to keep the crossing orderly, while local inhabitants retired to the mountains. Peter’s mob resisted every attempt to keep it under control and had forced its way across the Sava by June 26. When the escorting Pechenegs tried to keep the Crusaders along one specified route, Peter’s men attacked again. Many of the Pecheneg soldiers were captured and put to death, while Belgrade was looted and torched. After a seven-day march, Peter arrived at Nish on July 3. His very first act was to demand food. When Peter was asked to supply hostages as a guarantee of good conduct, Geoffrey Burel and Walter of Breteuil were handed over. This was Christian territory, and several local people joined the Crusaders.

The next morning, the Crusaders set out for Sofia, but as they were leaving Nish, a group of Germans who had quarreled with some of the townspeople the night before set fire to a cluster of mills. When Nicetas heard of the incident, he sent troops to attack the rear guard and take hostages. A man named Lambert ran to Peter with the news, and Peter turned back to talk with Nicetas and to ransom the captives.

During the conference, wild rumors once again spread among the Crusaders. A large company of them attacked the town but was driven off. When a still larger group resumed the assault, Nicetas unleashed his army. The Crusaders were completely routed. Many were killed, while others were captured and spent their remaining years as slaves. Peter lost his chest of money. He, Rainald of Breis, Walter of Breteuil and some 500 others spent the night huddled in the mountains, believing that they were the only survivors. In reality, about one-fourth of their company had been lost. On July 12, the remaining Crusaders reached Sofia, and from there they proceeded, under Imperial escort, to Constantinople, arriving on August 1.

Meanwhile, another wave of Crusaders was on the march, venting much of their religiously inspired wrath against the Muslims on another group of ‘infidels’ who were less able to defend themselves–European Jewry. Earlier, Peter and his rabble had extorted money from the Jews, whom they declared ‘murderers of Christ,’ to finance their journey, but his later followers unleashed the pogrom in earnest. Urban raised no hand to stop the persecution, even though he was in the area where the worst excesses took place.

The German contingents who followed Peter, especially the one led by the Swabian Count Emich von Leiningen, became notorious for their cruelty. Emich first attacked the Jews of Spier, 12 of whom were saved through the intervention of the local bishop. The Bishop of Worms tried to protect that town’s Jewry when Emich arrived in May 1096, but the Crusaders stormed into his palace and slaughtered 500 people who had taken shelter there and killed another 300 over the next two days.

At Mainz, Emich laid siege to the city and demanded ransom from the Jews to spare their lives. The ransom was paid, but Emich stormed the city anyway. The Jews sought refuge in the palace of the archbishop, a relative of Emich, but he was driven from the city. With their situation hopeless, the Jews chose quick death to the more agonizing doom they could expect at the hands of the Christians. Since suicide was prohibited under Jewish law, they first killed their elderly brethren and then each other.

About 1,000 Jews died in Mainz, but its chief rabbi and some 50 survivors sought asylum in Rudesheim, where the archbishop had retreated to his country villa. The archbishop agreed under condition that the Jews convert to Christianity–at which point the rabbi, crazed with rage, seized a knife and attacked him. In consequence, the last of Mainz’s Jews were also slain.

Finally the Jews in the Rhineland were all murdered or bled dry, and large groups of Germans started out on the road previously traveled by Walter and Peter. While the Crusaders had previously limited their thefts to Jewish property, they now stole from fellow Christians along the way. Another German band, led by a nobleman named Volkmar, reached Prague at the end of May and fell upon its Jewish community. When Volkmar’s Crusaders tried to do the same thing in the Hungarian town of Nitra, however, they were themselves killed or taken prisoner by the Hungarian army.

Kolomon, the only king in Europe who afforded his Jewish subjects any protection, had already experienced the unruly behavior of the earlier waves of Crusaders and was less willing to tolerate this new contingent. That summer, Emich’s army laid siege to the Hungarian fortress town of Wieselburg for six weeks, until rumors that Kolomon was coming with a relief force disheartened the Germans, at which point the garrison sallied forth and scattered the Crusaders. Gottschalk, after massacring Jews throughout Bavaria, ran afoul of Kolomon’s troops and was killed. In sum, as many as 10,000 Crusaders were killed by the Hungarians. The few survivors turned back or established new homes along the path of the march, none having reached Constantinople.

Constantinople must have been an incredible sight to the Europeans who did reach it. Like all the major cities of the Middle East, it had lavish buildings and public art. Central water supplies served the rich at least, and street lights were common.

Emperor Alexius was anxious to assess Peter and received him at court. Lean, ugly, burned brown by the sun, still dressed only in his ragged and filthy cloak, Peter must have seemed an odd figure indeed amid the silks and splendor of the Byzantine courtiers. As for Peter, one can but wonder what he might have thought of the city about which Fulcher of Chartres wrote: ‘Oh, what an excellent and beautiful city! How many monasteries, and how many places there are in it, of wonderful work skillfully fashioned! How many marvelous works are to be seen in the streets and districts of the town! It is a great nuisance to recite what an opulence of all kinds of goods are found there; of gold, of silver, of many kinds of mantles, and of holy relics. In every season, merchants, in frequent sailings, bring to that place everything that a man might need.’

Peter’s people stole everything they could from homes and palaces–even the lead from the roofs of churches. Within days, Alexius had his navy ferry the Crusaders across the Bosphoros Strait to Civetot. There they were ushered into an old army encampment where the women, children and sick individuals could live during the campaign to come. The Crusaders, too, were instructed to stand fast until more seasoned knights and men-at-arms arrived and an effective campaign could be launched. But they did not wait.

At first the Crusaders’ raids into Turkish territory were short-lived and timid. They robbed and pillaged nearby villages, not caring that the villagers were fellow Christians, who–contrary to the exaggerated reports heard in Europe–were tolerated within the Islamic world as fellow ‘People of the Book,’ although they had an inferior social status and were more heavily taxed in accordance with the Islamic tenet of ‘Koran, tribute or the sword.’

In September, thousands of Frenchmen marched inland to the provincial capital of Nicaea (present-day Iznik). They passed through several Christian villages and commandeered the newly gathered harvests, mercilessly massacring any peasants who tried to resist. At that time, the sultan, or king, of the region, 16-year-old Kilij Arslan ibn Süleyman, was engaged in a war with rival Turks, a conflict that had already taken the life of his father. Despite his many spies, the young sultan was taken by surprise when the foreign raiders turned up at the walls of Nicaea. Kilij Arslan dispatched a cavalry patrol, but the Turks were hopelessly outnumbered, and the Franj (‘Franks,’ which soon evolved into a general Turkish and Arabic term for any foreigners) cut them to pieces. Only a few survivors managed to limp back into Nicaea. The Frenchmen had no chance of breaching the city’s 6,000-meter-long walls with their 240 turrets, but they did have some success in raiding the suburbs, again killing several Christians who fell into their hands.

Kilij Arslan believed that he had lost prestige and wanted immediate revenge, but his advisers convinced him to wait. He did not have to wait very long, for the newly arriving German and Italian Crusaders were not to be outdone. In September 1096, two weeks after the attack on Nicaea, some 6,000 of them set out in the same direction taken by the French. They looted as they marched, but, unlike the French, they spared the Christians. The Franj circled around the city and marched off toward the east, however, taking the ungarrisoned fortress of Xerigordon by surprise. They planned to use that castle as a base for raids in the countryside, but within days they were surrounded by Turks.

Xerigordon had no internal water supply. The stream that supplied the area flowed through a valley outside the castle walls. According to a chronicler of the day, the Crusaders ‘were so tormented by thirst that they drew blood from the veins of their horses and asses, and drank it. Some pissed into the hands of others, who drank it. Many dug into the moist ground and lay down, spreading the earth over them to allay their parching thirst. This lasted eight days.’

On September 29, the leader of the defenders, Rainald, sued for terms–and amazed his besiegers by offering to fight with them against the other Crusaders. The Turks promised only to spare the lives of those who renounced Christianity. Rainald and a few others did so and were sold into slavery. The rest were put to the sword.

According to Arab historians, the sultan sent two spies to Civetot to spread glowing tales of the French success at Xerigordon, to ensure that the Europeans remained calm. That worked until a man arrived who had somehow escaped from Xerigordon told of the slaughter of the European force. Peter was visiting Constantinople when he learned of it, and the other leaders held an emergency meeting. Wise counsel held them in place for a few days, but then word came that the Saracens were advancing on the camp.

Civetot would have been the best place for the Crusaders to meet the Saracens, but the leader of the many hotheads, Geoffrey Burel, opposed such defensive tactics. Cries of ‘Cowardice!’ outweighed reason, and the men marched out to meet the enemy on October 21. Three miles from Civetot the road passes through a narrow valley, and there the Turks waited, hidden inside a small woods.

With the knights at the head of their column, the Crusaders moved forward in a laughing, joking mob. According to Arab history, many of the knights were not even wearing their armor. Sudden volleys of arrows cut them down by the thousands. Horses stampeded back through the infantry. Then the showers of arrows were replaced by rank after charging rank of disciplined, deadly Turkish horsemen. The few remaining knights, the heavy cavalry from the West, fought with their accustomed bravery, but they were helpless against the masses of light cavalry from the East.

In the camp at Civetot, women cooked, and priests celebrated morning mass. A vast cloud of dust was seen rising in the distance, then the surviving Crusaders stumbled into camp in headlong flight. They could not outrun the Turkish horses.

Somehow in the midst of battle the Turks took a liking to a tiny handful of children and spared their lives. A few others were taken prisoner to be sold into slavery, while about 3,000 people took refuge in an old castle by the seaside. Miraculously, the survivors withstood the Turks until the siege was lifted by the Greek navy. Peter would continue on to the Holy City with the First Crusade. Geoffrey Burel, who had done the most to bring about the disaster, escaped.

The ill-conceived Crusade of the Poor People had come to an ignominious end. But in a curious way, it had laid the groundwork for greater success by the better organized armies that followed it. When Kilij Arslan saw how easily his army had annihilated the Franj invaders, at a cost of only minor casualties, he began to feel that there was nothing to fear from the Europeans.

Early in 1097, Kilij Arslan was informed that an even larger Frankish army had arrived, but he dismissed the threat. Of much more importance was the fact that his rival, King Danishmend the Wise, had laid siege to Malatya. When a second messenger brought updated news of the Europeans’ progress in April, Kilij sent a tiny detachment of cavalry to Nicaea simply to boost the citizens’ morale. In early May, another messenger brought details of the new army, but by then it was too late. After the false start of its undisciplined first wave, the First Crusade had begun in earnest, and this time its march would not be stopped until it had reached its goal–Jerusalem–in July 1099.


This article was written by J. Arthur McFall and originally published in the February 1998 issue of Military History magazine.