“Let those who have been accustomed unjustly to wage private warfare against the faithful now go against the infidels and end with victory this war which should have been begun long ago.”
In late spring and early summer of 1096, thousands of Jews were massacred, driven to suicide, or forced to convert to Christianity along the Rhine in France and Germany by Count Emicho and his army. In response to loss of 25% of the Jewish population, some 40,000 Crusaders of mostly unskilled fighters (including women and children) gathered for what we refer to as the People’s Crusade. The monk Peter the Hermit of Amiens became the spiritual leader of this movement.
Peter the Hermit, armed with a divine letter, boasted that Christ had personally appointed him to lead this Crusade.
Count Emicho was a count in the Rhineland. Emicho believed Christ had promised to crown him emperor, and would guide him in the conversion of Jews as he led what he called the Pogroms of 1096.
Peter the Hermit gathered his army at Cologne on April 12, 1096, with the plan of gathering more crusaders. The French, however, were not willing to wait for more Germans. Under the leadership of Walter Sans-Avoir, several thousand French Jews left before Peter, passing through Hungary without incident arriving at Belgrade on the river Sava. The Belgrade commander refused entry, forcing Sans-Avoir and his crusaders to pillage the countryside seeking food. This resulted in sixteen of the French crusaders stealing from a market in Zemun across the Sava river. The French men were thwarted and stripped of their armor and clothing, which the Hungarians hung from the village walls. Sans-Avoir, in an effort to avoid more skirmishes, moved his crusaders to Nis, where they were welcomed and provided food and water.
Peter the Hermit left Cologne with his men on April 20. When his German crusaders reached the Danube, part of his army decided to travel by boat down the Danube, while Peter and the main body of crusaders continued overland and entered Hungary at Sopron. Peter led his army through Hungary without incident and rejoined his Daube contigent at Zemun on the Bysantine frontier.
Peter became suspicious when he discovered sixteen suits of armor hanging from the walls at Zemun. Disputes soon arose between the crusaders and local merchants, which led to a riot. The assault that followed ended with 4,000 Hungarians dead. Peter fled with his army across the river to Belgrade. Fighting broke out between the crusaders and Belgrade troops. Peter lost control of his men as the locals fled and his army pillaged and burned Belgrade. The next morning Peter gathered his men and proceeded to march them for seven straight day, until they arrived at Nis on July 3rd. The commander at Nis negotiated to escort Peter and his crusaders to Constantinople for food and supplies if they would leave right away. Peter agreed and set out the next morning. Tired and hungry from the week long march, his men got into another dispute with some locals along the road and set fire to a mill. This escalated out of Peter’s contol and they now faced the entire garrison from Nis. By the time Peter finally regrouped at Bela Palanka, he had lost 10,000 men. Peter moved his remaining force to Sofia, arriving July 12th. Here they met up with their Bysantine escort, which brought them safely the rest of the way to Constantinople by August 1st.
Peter and the German crusaders rejoined the French under Walter Sans-Avoir as well as a few bands of Italian crusaders. They all soon departed for Asia Minor, pillaging towns along the way. It has been reported that the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Comnenus warned Peter not to engage the Turks, whom he believed to be superior to Peter’s motley crew. By the time the army reached Nicomedia, the Germans and Italians were fighting with the French. Peter and Walter Sans-Avoir had effectively lost control of the crusade. The Germans and Italians now were following an Italian named Rainald, and the French were following Geoffrey Burel.
The French marched on to Nicaea, a Turkish stronghold where they pillaged the suburbs. The German and Italians marched to Xerigordon and captured the city to use as a base. In response, the Turks, led by Kilij Arslan, rescued Xerigordon, forcing the German and Italians to flee. Some of the crusaders had been captured and converted to Islam or sent to Khorasan as slaves. The remaining German and Italian army, starved and without water were forced to drink the blood of their donkeys and their own urine to survive.
Rumors began to spread among the German and Italian survivors that Nicaea had been taken by the French which caused excitement to share in the looting, food and water. Peter the Hermit had gone back to Constantinople to arrange for supplies and was due back soon. Geoffrey Burel convinced the men that it was cowardly to wait, that they should go to Nicaea leaving the women and children, the sick and the old behind. His will prevailed over the unstable leadership and on the morning of October 21, 1096, Burel led 20,000 men toward Nicaea. Of course the Turks were waiting on the road and three miles from camp, where the road narrowed into a wooded valley near the village of Dracon. The Turkish army, led by Kilij Arslan attacked beginning what history refers to as the Battle of Civetot. Most of the German and Italian crusaders were slaughtered.
Somehow Geoffrey Burel along with 3,000 men were able to flee and took refuge in an abandoned castle, the only survivors of the People’s Crusade.