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Peter the Hermit and His Army of Pilgrims

Posted by on December 4, 2012

The first army that left for the Holy Land was that of Peter the Hermit’s. It wasn’t an actual army because the vast majority of his followers were peasants and laymen; many men had taken their entire families with them. Only a small minority of Peter’s following were knights, commanded by the pious knight, Walter Sans Avoir (The Penniless).

Nevertheless, Peter had amassed a great following–historians estimate that his following was anywhere between 20,000 and 30,000 people–large enough to be considered, at that time, an army. Today, Peter the Hermit’s expedition is widely known as the People’s Crusade.


13 April 1096

Adele was glad that Peter had decided to let his army of pilgrims rest in the district of Cologne. She had walked–surrounded by many people she didn’t know–for several days and some nights. Adele was starving and so exhausted, she feared if she took one more step forward, she would faint. So, she plopped herself down on the soft grass. It must have rained the night before, Adele thought, because the grass was quite damp. It seeped through her clothes, but it was warm and the sun shone brightly, so she didn’t feel cold.

Adele was with many of the pilgrims outside the city walls, yet she felt all alone. Her sisters traveled at the head of the crowd with Peter and Father Marc, while she walked far behind, near the rearguard. She scanned the crowded field but couldn’t find them anywhere. The bishop of Cologne had already let them into the city and invited them to spend Easter with him at his palace. They were probably, at this very moment, seated at the bishop’s large table, filling their empty bellies with delicious food of all kinds.

The bishop and townspeople here had received Peter well. Everyone loved and admired Peter. He was the embodiment of genuine Christianity: He gave everything he owned to his followers. Everywhere they travelled, people followed Peter; they dedicated their lives to him and to his call for Holy War against these so-called evil Muslims in the Holy Land. Men knelt before Peter, women kissed his hands; few of the villagers even plucked pieces of course fur from Peter’s tunic. Yet, Adele didn’t understand why he couldn’t persuade Father Marc to be more kind to her.

Adele fell back, arms outstretched, her long blond hair splayed in every possible direction, forming a halo around her head. Tears flowed freely down her face. Peter, Father Marc, Elle and Josie were so satisfied, they didn’t think about her or talk about her, other than to say how horrible of a person she is. That was why no one looked for her.

She traced her fingers over the wooden beads of her mother’s rosary. “I wish you had never left us, Mother. Nothing is going well. Neither Father Marc or Peter had fulfilled their promise to you. I have no one to talk to and no money to buy food and clothes. And it’s all because of them.”

“What are you talking about, and why are you crying?”

Adele sat up straight and twisted her torso until she was staring at the person who had interrupted her thoughts. He looked to be no older than she; he was scrawny and his thick, brown curls were matted. He wasn’t handsome, but there was something about his demeanor that calmed Adele. She couldn’t find a word to describe it, yet she was glad that she had someone to talk to. At last.

She wiped her eyes dry with the sleeve of her cloak. “I am terribly hungry and tired and….I don’t know if I want to continue on this pilgrimage.”

The boy reached into his sack and pulled out a loaf of bread.

Adele’s eyes bulged open. “Where did you get that?”

A mischievous grin spread across his face. “I stole it from the monastery’s kitchen, when the baker wasn’t there of course.”

Adele gasped. They had stopped at two monasteries on their journey and had relied on the monks’ good will. Unfortunately the monks had not enough food to feed all of the pilgrims, so many pilgrims went more than one day’s travel hungry, including Adele. As much as she wanted to at time, she didn’t bring herself to stealing food from the monks, or from the villagers whose towns they passed through. She was still hurting from the quarrel she had with Father Marc before they left home, so the last thing Adele wanted was to bear the additional burden of guilt.


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