It is uncertain whether he was present at Urban's great sermon at Clermont in 1095; but it is certain that he was one of the preachers of the crusade in France after that sermon, and his own experience may have helped to give fire to his eloquence. He soon leapt into fame as an emotional revivalist preacher; and thousands of peasants eagerly took the cross at his bidding. The crusade of the pauperes, which forms the first act in the First Crusade, was his work; and he himself led one of the five sections of the pauperes to Constantinople, starting from Cologne in April, and arriving at Constantinople at the end of July 1096.
Here he joined the only other section which had succeeded in reaching Constantinople--that of Walter the Penniless; and with the joint forces, which had made themselves a nuisance by pilfering, he crossed to the Asiatic shore in the beginning of August. In spite of his warnings, the pauperes began hostilities against the Turks; and Peter returned to Constantinople, either in despair at their recklessness, or in the hope of procuring supplies.
In his absence the army was cut to pieces by the Turks; and he was left in Constantinople without any followers, during the winter of 1096-1097, to wait for the coming of the princes. He joined himself to their ranks in May 1097, with a little following which he seems to have collected, and marched with them through Asia Minor to Jerusalem. But he played a very subordinate part in the history of the First Crusade.
He appears, in the beginning of 1098, as attempting to escape from the privations of the siege of Antioch--showing himself, as Guibert of Nogent says, a "fallen star." In the middle of the year he was sent by the princes to invite Kerbogha to settle all differences by a duel; and in 1099 he appears as treasurer of the alms at the siege of Arca (March), and as leader of the supplicatory processions in Jerusalem which preceded the battle of Ascalon (August). At the end of the year he went to Latakia, and sailed thence for the West. From this time he disappears; but Albert of Aix records that he died in 1131, as prior of a church of the Holy Sepulchre which he had founded in France.
Legend has made Peter the Hermit the author and originator of the First Crusade. It has told how, in an early visit to Jerusalem, before 1096, Christ appeared to him in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and bade him preach the crusade. The legend is without any basis in fact, though it appears in the pages of William of Tyre. Its origin is, however, a matter of some interest. Von Sybel, in his Geschichte des ersten Kreuzzuges, suggests that in the camp of the pauperes (which existed side by side with that of the knights, and grew increasingly large as the crusade told more and more heavily in its progress on the purses of the crusaders) some idolization of Peter the Hermit had already begun, during the first crusade, parallel to the similar glorification of Godfrey by the Lorrainers.
In this idolization Peter naturally became the instigator of the crusade, just as Godfrey became the founder of the kingdom of Jerusalem and the legislator of the assizes. This version of Peter's career seems as old as the Chanson des chétifs, a poem which Raymond of Antioch caused to be composed in honour of the Hermit and his followers soon after 1130. It also appears in the pages of Albert of Aix who wrote somewhere about 1130; and from Albert it was borrowed by William of Tyre. The whole legend of Peter is an excellent instance of the legendary amplification of the First Crusade--an amplification which, beginning during the crusade itself, in the "idolizations" of the different camps (idola castrorum, if one may pervert Bacon), soon developed into a regular saga. This saga found its most piquant beginning in the Hermit's vision at Jerusalem, and there it accordingly began--alike in Albert, followed by William of Tyre and in the Chanson des chétifs, followed by the later Chanson d'Antioche.
The original authorities for the story of Peter the Hermit are, for the authentic Peter, Anna Comnena and the Gesta Francorum; for the legendary Peter, Albert of Aix. The whole career of the Hermit has been thoroughly and excellently discussed by H Hagenmeyer, Peter der Heremite (Leipzig, 1879).
This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.