With the Cross towards Constantinople…

Peter the Hermit shows the crusaders the way to Jerusalem. French illumination (about 1270)

Peter the Hermit showing the way…

The final army to leave for the Holy Land was the first one that Urban II had recruited—the southern French. Though no one knows the exact numbers, it was the largest of the princely armies, a fact explained in part by the amount of time Urban II had spent recruiting in this area. Equally important was Raymond of Saint-Gilles’s extraordinary wealth, which enabled him to finance a much larger army than any of the other princes could. Theoretically attached to the French crown, Raymond’s Occitan—or as they are more often known, “Provençal”—followers would have formed a distinct cultural and linguistic group within the main army. One feature in particular would have immediately distinguished these Provençals from their fellow crusaders: the unusually large number of poor men and women who chose to follow in their wake. The care of these indigent pilgrims, Count Raymond took very seriously.

Before leaving Occitania, Count Raymond attended to his spiritual obligations, trying to resolve conflicts throughout his principality, including one of his own property disputes with the abbey of Saint-Gilles. As a final step toward putting his spiritual house in order, he arranged to have a candle left on the altar in the cathedral of le Puy, with a flame burning there before an image of the Blessed Virgin (likely the black statue of the Madonna, a replica of which sits in the cathedral today) as long as he should live. Perhaps because of the great care with which he approached these financial and spiritual obligations, his armies did not manage to leave until near the end of September, if not early October, well after Urban II’s mid-August goal.

In addition to a number of Provençal princes and castellans, Raymond’s army included several distinguished churchmen—most notably, papal legate Bishop Adhémar of le Puy and Bishop William of Orange. In the long run, however, the most important and influential among them was an obscure cleric named Raymond of Aguilers, ordained a priest during the course of the march. This Raymond was a chaplain within the household of Count Raymond, and he had served some minor role in drawing up plans for the departure. By the time the armies had arrived in Anatolia, as Constantinople neared, he certainly had a clear sense of what the crusade ought to be about, and he worried constantly that the army was losing its direction or else that deserters who had returned to the West were spreading lies about what was going on in the East. He wanted to make sure not only that the crusade succeeded, but also that his vision of the crusade prevailed. As often happened in the Middle Ages, he sought to control history by writing it. Probably realizing that his word alone would carry little weight, he recruited a knight named Pons of Balazun to help him with the project. And at some point during the march, certainly by the fall of 1098, like Fulcher of Chartres, they began writing a book, which is today simply called The Book of Raymond of Aguilers.

It begins in the middle of things. Passing over the early stages of the march, where the Provençals skirted across northern Italy, Raymond opened his story with the army already in Dalmatia, or “Sclavonia,” as he preferred to call it, a semiautonomous kingdom under the protection of the Byzantine Empire. Its land was, in Raymond’s description, mountainous and devoid of all sustenance, and its natives were a barbarous and ignorant people. When the Slavs’ harassment of the Provençals grew unbearable, Count Raymond ordered six of them captured and then had their eyes gouged out and their hands and feet cut off. Upon his command, they were left alive in public view, a warning of the consequences to be faced by those who would bedevil Christians. It was also a perfect example of the kind of rough justice characteristic of Christian lords in eleventh-century Europe—composed of small-scale acts of brutality intended to intimidate and subdue a potentially rebellious population. For Raymond the writer, the mutilations in Dalmatia were among Count Raymond’s outstanding deeds, a shrewd tactic that made the final forty days in that wilderness pass in relative peace.

By February 1, 1096, the Provençals entered into Byzantine territory at last, walking to the port city of Durazzo, where previously the northern Franks and southern Italians had arrived by sea. As soon as Raymond’s men reached the city, Alexius began applying to them the same treatment he had given to the earlier armies. His envoys presented Raymond with letters of safe conduct but at the same time established armies to shadow them and—perhaps deliberately, perhaps owing to misunderstanding—engage them in small skirmishes. These encounters could be deadly. Early on Greek soldiers killed a knight named Pons Rainaud. Later in February Bishop Adhémar of le Puy himself was attacked. As the army entered “the valley of Pelagonia,” Adhémar rode off alone on a mule, apparently looking for a congenial place to set camp. A group of Pecheneg soldiers or brigands (in the frontier regions of Macedonia, the distinction would have been a fine one) suddenly fell upon him, hit him sharply on the head, and knocked him off his mule. As much as the dazed Adhémar could later reconstruct things, most of the Pechenegs were ready to kill him, but one of them sensed that the bishop had access to more money than he was carrying. This brigand tried to stop his companions from killing Adhémar so that he might interrogate him, and in the process they all made enough noise to alert the rest of the army that the bishop was in danger. A group of Provençal soldiers quickly rode to his rescue.

This turn of events caused Count Raymond to take a more aggressive strategy against the emperor. Near a castle called Bucinat, he set an ambush for Pecheneg soldiers and routed them all. About a month later, around April 12, 1097, when the town of Roussa refused him supplies, he ordered an attack. His soldiers quickly broke down the walls, accepted the citizens’ surrender, and then stole much of their wealth. As the crusaders marched away, they shouted Count Raymond’s war cry: “Toulouse! Toulouse!” To all appearances, the Provençals were at war with the Greeks. Again, the crusade was turning into a war of Christians against Christians.

But at about this time more messengers from Constantinople arrived, along with envoys that Raymond himself had dispatched, carrying with them further promises of peace from Alexius. This time they carried news, too. The emperor was hosting at his palace Bohemond, Godfrey of Bouillon, and Robert of Flanders, among other princes. He was no longer keeping them prisoner; he was discussing with them whether to join the Latin army on the road to Jerusalem.

Important decisions were thus being made about the organization and financing of the crusade army. Raymond’s presence was required if he did not wish losing, despite his wealth and his great number of followers, control of the crusade. Setting aside his grievances, he departed with a small escort, leaving the rest of his army to complete the journey to Constantinople without him. Up until this point, chaplain and writer Raymond observed, his tale had been pleasant to tell. But from the moment that Raymond left for Constantinople, the story became suffused with grief and anguish. The thought of Alexius made the chaplain regret ever having taken up his pen.

In this way the Crusaders, little by little, reached Constantinople or else turned back, unable to maintain discipline and order while crossing Hungarian and Greek lands. The early armies—which historians have previously called “the popular crusade,” “the people’s crusade,” or even “the peasants’ crusade”—clearly had a less aristocratic character than did the later, “princely” armies, but as recent scholarship has demonstrated, a significant number of nobles did join their movement. What ultimately seems to have distinguished these early groups from the later ones is the character of their leaders. Among the commanders of the early armies were two priests, one lapsed monk, and a fanatical layman. They believed themselves divinely appointed, and one of them even had a letter from heaven to prove it. Many of their followers were also visionaries, men and women who claimed that God had branded them with the sign of the cross or else that He had inspired an animal to lead the way to the Holy Land. If we presume that these characteristics were more widely shared among their followers (and it seems a safe presumption), then we can observe that these armies were also more overtly apocalyptic than were the princes’. Their first acts were to massacre Jews because the pilgrims wanted to avenge Christ’s death and to bring about the prophetic conditions necessary to enable the advent of the Last Days. Little surprise, then, that the leaders of these impatient armies had difficulty maintaining control over such large, disparate, and visionary gatherings during the one-thousand-mile march to Constantinople.

The princely armies were more successful because of better planning and finance and superior military discipline. Were these armies also less apocalyptic in outlook? Perhaps, but the leaders of the second wave of crusaders also struck a better balance between the ideals of holy war and the simple realities of war. In open battle it would be useful for soldiers to believe that they were carrying out God’s will, bringing to fruition His designs for world history, but in the negotiating of truces and supply lines in unfriendly territories, such an overweening sense of divine mission could prove ruinous. Emicho of Flonheim’s warriors discovered just that when they decided that Hungarians were false Christians and, like the Jews, deserved to be destroyed.

The more explicitly apocalyptic vision of the crusade did not stay confined to the first wave of pilgrims. Peter the Hermit and a relatively small number of his followers, as we shall see, stuck with the expedition, and Peter continued to preach—not just to his original followers, but also to the rest of the crusading host. Emicho’s chief lieutenants joined Hugh’s armies and were waiting to greet Godfrey at Constantinople. Did Emicho’s failures in Hungary dampen their own apocalyptic expectations? Probably not. They had seen the Danube run red with blood, and they had walked through fields littered with their friends’ dismembered bodies. And all of the armies, as they closed in on the glittering city of Constantinople, had spent months trudging through unfamiliar landscapes, facing exotic and unfamiliar enemies, and living through what must have been previously unimaginable levels of privation and physical exertion. Now, with their homes far behind them and everything that had seemed familiar suddenly lost, the crusaders would have had every reason to believe that they were on a mission whose importance transcended the ways of men. All of them might justly believe that they were stepping into the Apocalypse.

Meanwhile, almost forgotten because so long delayed, the armies of Robert of Normandy and Stephen of Blois finally began boarding ships in Italy on Easter Day to cross the Adriatic for Durazzo, on April 5, 1097. Some of the foot soldiers, unable to afford the long winter camp and fearing future deprivation, had sold their bows and returned home—proving themselves vile before God and man, Fulcher of Chartres assured his readers. The others gathered in Brindisi, ready for the short trip into Byzantine waters, the winds and the seas at last, presumably, in their favor. “But,” Fulcher exclaimed, “deep and hidden are the judgments of God!” One of the first ships to leave port, for no apparent reason, broke apart and sank. All four hundred pilgrims on board drowned. It seemed that God had cursed the campaign, and indeed still more pilgrims grew fainthearted at the thought of crossing the sea and returned home in shame. But then “there was joyful cry of praise raised up to God.” For as the bloated and bluing bodies washed up on the shore or were picked out of the waves, many of them, like Walter of Poissy months before, were found to have crosses branded on their flesh, just above their shoulders, exactly like the ones that they had worn on their garments. The message was obvious, as Fulcher read it. It was a sign of victory given in return for the pilgrims’ faith. God had called them home. They had justly attained the rest of eternal life.

It is unlikely that any of the witnesses drew from this incident another lesson—that even within this most princely and patient of armies, lurking just below the surface, just below the fabric of their cloaks, the spirit of Peter the Hermit and the apocalyptic crusade was thriving.

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