The fame of Peter the Hermit, the European medieval monk associated with the first crusade (1095) comes logically from the remarkable fact of a hermit turned war leader. But is it a fact?
Before looking briefly at the historical evidence, we might apply a psycho-historical test to the question of Peter's eremiticism. Clergy have often been militant personalities (such as popes and reformers) but to become a hermit involves such a specific renunciation of worldly affairs and ambitions that the likelihood of a hermit becoming a war leader seems improbable. We will speculate on alternative explanations in the conclusion below, but the controversial literature ever since reveals this improbability.
In ancient China, false recluses were not uncommon, playing at renunciation merely to prove their virtue to the court, posturing "hard to get." But in the West, the hostility of the medieval church toward monks professing eremiticism makes this false reclusion unheard of in Christianity. Add to this the fact that none of the original sources knows anything about Peter's life as a hermit.
The original sources are riddled with the biases of the times: French pro-papal versus Germanic pro-Empire, Western versus Byzantine, popular versus noble and institutional. However, the other dichotomous set of underlying conflicts often overlooked is the conflict of ascetic versus established clergy, whether Church or monastic. This latter divergence of views is especially relevant because it reflects the conflict of the new thirteenth-century mendicant orders (Dominican, Franciscan, Carmelite) against the older monastic orders (Benedictine, Cistercian) and the Church.
The accounts mentioning Peter the Hermit are numerous enough to verify his historical existence and his clear involvement in the First Crusade. The pro-Peter accounts are highlighted by William of Tyre (c. 1167) and Albert of Aix (mid twelfth century). William calls Peter "a hermit both in deed and name," but though he decidedly shows Peter in a favorable light he offers no details about his life as a hermit or any explanation of why he renounced it. However, this tradition portrays Peter as receiving the Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem's plea to go to Pope Urban II and convince him of the necessity of a crusade.
William's narrative has Peter reflecting prayerfully upon his mission.
How did this poor pilgrim, destitute of all resources and far from his native land, have so great confidence that he dared to undertake an enterprise so much beyond his strength and to hope to accomplish his vow, unless it was that he turned all this thoughts to You, his Protector, and filled with charity, pitying the misfortunes of his brethren, loving his neighbor as himself, he was content to fulfill the law?
Here are all the ingredients to criticize the pope and churchmen for their indifference, and for their lack of faith and fervor.
You did not permit Your servant to remain in doubt. You manifested Yourself to him. You fortified him, by Your revelation that he might not hesitate, and breathing into him Your hidden Spirit, You made him arise with greater strength to accomplish the work of charity.
Heady words to contrast a lowly hermit chosen by God against -- by implication -- a slothful pope unworthy of faith, revelation, or grace.
The version of Albert of Aix (or, Aachen) is no less flattering to Peter the Hermit. Note that the following action is presented -- following William of Tyre -- as happening before the pope's preaching of the crusade:
There was a priest, Peter by name, formerly a hermit. ... In every admonition and sermon, with all the persuasion of which he was capable, he urged setting out on the journey as soon as possible. In response to his constant admonition and call, bishops, abbots, clerics, and monks set out; next, most noble laymen, and princes of the different kingdoms; then all the common people, the chaste as well as the sinful, adulterers, homicides, thieves, perjurers and robbers; indeed, every class of the Christian profession, nay, also, women and those influenced by the spirit of penance -- all joyfully entered upon this expedition.
But other chronicles, such as Guibert of Nogent (1106-09), the Gesta Francorum (1098), and other French sources, temper their assessment of Peter the Hermit. They note that the crusade was preached by Pope Urban II at Clermont, after which the charismatic Peter appeared out of nowhere, an itinerant attracting crowds of peasants and paupers as he passed through towns and villages. Guibert of Nogent describes Peter as an authority among the poor, restoring their sense of order and ideals:
In whatever he did or said it seemed as if there was something divine, especially when the hairs were snatched from his mule for relics. We do not report this as true but for the common people who love novelties. He wore a wool shirt, and over it a mantle reaching to his ankles; his arms and feet were bare. He lived on wine and fish; he hardly ever, never, ate bread.
The account of Peter's later doings in the Byzantine source Anna Comnena (in her Alexiad, 1148) and even Albert of Aix is not so benign. Comnena says that Peter the Hermit had tried, unsuccessfully, to cross to Jerusalem long before the notion of a crusade, and that he preached the crusade for personal justification. Both sources show that the impetuous knights attached to Peter's army rampaged wildly throughout Orthodox lands, much as other early crusader knights in Europe instigated pogroms against Jews long before setting out for the Holy Land.
Peter's peasant army was defeated by the Turks. He went to Alexius I, the Byzantine emperor, seeking help, during which time the remnant of his army was annihilated. Later, he ignominiously deserted his forces at Antioch, was caught by his fellow crusaders, and forcibly returned to Antioch. He reappeared for a while in Jerusalem as a popular preacher, but quit the city after it fell. After this series of episodes, Peter returned to Europe with reputation undiminished. He probably ended his days as an Augustinian prior, though little more was heard of him.
Modern observers doubt that Peter upstaged Pope Urban in preaching the first crusade, but the story served to defend the marginalized clerical and socially humble classes against the Church. And this version of Peter the Hermit remained popular through the nineteenth century, when more critical scholarship deemphasized Peter's stature.
Did Peter early attempt to become a hermit but fail due to temperament or reprimand? Was the appellation of "hermit" genuine or fraudulent? Was he a tragic figure or a knave? We may never know.
Some current thinkers wonder if the pro-Peter chroniclers now in disfavor-- Albert of Aix and William of Tyre -- were working from a very early and contemporary eye-witness source now lost. This might not completely rehabilitate Peter as controversial war leader nor really shed new light on the chronology of events and the attitudes of this tumultuous time. And, unfortunately, we may never know whether Peter was in fact a hermit, or be able to fully understand what would have transformed him in a kind of medieval cult figure.
Original sources in translation are reproduced in Peter the Hermit and the Popular Crusade: Collected Accounts, part of The Medieval Sourcebook, at the URL http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/sources/peterhermit.html.