Peter the Hermit and All the King's Persons

A medieval tale wherein one famous crusader tangles with one familiar bureacuracy


The Crusades had their problems; nobody denies it. What with bad weather and feisty paynim and the occasional plague and disease, not to mention assorted floods, wind storms, droughts, warlocks' curses, overturned boats, peevish knights, and recalcitrant squires' unions, it was rough skating for most of those who chose to pursue glory and salvation by freeing the Holy Land from the heathen grip of the Muslim. But whatever pains and frustrations and tragedies you might find in the annals of the Crusades, there's one thing that all those soldiers had that couldn't be taken from them: they got to go on the Crusade in the first place.

But alas, it wasn't to be so again. And that's, in the end, what really peeved Peter the Hermit. Sure, he had one pretty good Crusade under his belt, and he could be proud that it was he who had initiated the idea. But he found that one taste had whetted his appetite. He wanted to do it again, and this time he wanted to win. And there's where he ran into trouble.

Historians argue about the bureaucratic mistake he made just as they argue about the decisions that generals make in the field. Many defend Peter. Jurgen writes, "Peter recognized that a more broadly based effort might have a greater chance to succeed where his first, amateur, crusade had failed." Shandy notes that, "in truth, Peter could not have known how the events would run out, and so we cannot damn him for his fatal error." Other writers place the blame for the abortive outcome of the Second (or what should have been the second) Crusade squarely on Peter the Hermit's shaggy shoulders. As Grangerford puts it, "Even a hermit ought to have moxie enough to stay clear of the feds." The point can hardly be disputed.

Most historians agree that Peter never managed to raise a second crusade because he decided to seek governmental aid for the organizing and provisioning of his army. Despite the brief success of Godfrey of Bouillon, Peter recognized in 1112 that it was time for another shot at Jerusalem. Seeing that the French government was a weak and ineffectual reed on which to lean, he applied to the government of Henry I of England for assistance in setting afoot another Holy Crusade. Sad, misguided Peter.

His first hint that he perhaps ought to have stuck with his marching-and-preaching methods of starting crusades came when a royal messenger arrived bearing a double saddlebag full of vellum forms from YE DEPARTMENT ROYAL OF YE HELTHE, EDDICATION & WEAL-FARE. Said the messenger, "Holy Peter, maker of Syria, modern-day Scourge of God, hermit-person. His Royal Highness the Caliph-uno of the king's cabinet bids thee full-fill these forms in parchmental triplicate before ever he heareth thy plea for aid."

Peter looked thunderstruck, then called a brief anathema upon the messenger. "Tell thy imperial knothead of a liege that Peter the Hermit seeks military alms, not in his own wise, but rather as God's own voice. I petition not—instead, I extend to Henry, the first of that name, the opportunity to contribute his mite to the glorious and holy cause which I most humbly lead.

"Besides," he added thoughtfully, "I can't write."

"Cause nor not even holiness mattereth not," chanted the messenger. "The forms must be filled. But I support thy cause; therefore, I shall help thee."

And so the two sat under a beech tree, and the king's man transcribed the responses of the holy zealot.

"Your holy worship, for what express purpose dost thou seek H, E & W aid?" "For the purpose, as all the faithful know, of the wresting of the Holy Land and the Sepulchre of Our Lord from the defiled hands of the Infidels."

The scribe wrote diligently, then asked, "Forasmuch as thou seekest aid of the government, thou needs must list the names, numbers serial, and ethnical backgrounds of all whom thou'st hired for this enterprise."

"Why, man, this enterprise is the holiest cause in Christendom. Those knights who strive in God's cause come from all corners of all lands. I know not all their names—only that they be holy men."

"And, Sir Hermit, what percentage of these knights be minority knights?"

"Minority? Sir Messenger, only the pages and squires be minors. No knight but hath attained his growth and majority. Would King Henry have me preach a Children's Crusade?"

"Revered holy man, the king's bureau careth not about children. We want to know how many of thy knights be black."

"Moors?! Sweet suffering Mother of God, man, it's Moors whom we mass to slay. What manner of idiocy is this, to ask how many of the enemy we count among our ranks? Wouldst have us fallen upon from within and slain before ever we came into sight of the walls of the Holy City?"

While Peter shook his head in disbelieving wonder, the messenger inscribed a neat cipher in the proper column.

"No black knights, then? That bodeth ill for thy petition. But mayhap thy percentages can be made up elsewhere, elsewise. Hast thy crusade any Amerind or Hispanic knights?"

"What new unheard-of heresy is this 'Arian-rind' or what-it-be? We have naught but God's faithful Christians of the Holy Church. But hark ye: Hispanic have we by the legion. Your bureau must be satisfied: one full arm of our heavy armor is Spanish."

The messenger had brightened, but now his face fell. "Spanish? Dost mean from Spain?"

"Of course, oaf. What in the name of God's wounds dost thou think I mean by Spanish and Hispanic? Are all government men as daft as thee?"

"Sir Holy Peter, I respect thy cause and thy holiness, but I must call thee an ass. The rules are clear and specific: no Spanish knight may call himself Hispanic, nor may he qualify on the minority rolls as Hispanic. Wouldst buck the whole Department?"

Peter the Hermit wondered fleetingly whether he might not better have spent his time coaching a Little League jousting team, but he persevered. "Like the runes of the berserker Norse are thy incomprehensible regulations, but I shall keep trying. How might I reach thy quotas for miners? Shall I recruit in Cornwall?"

"Not miners, Sir Fool Hermit. Minority knights. Members of a rare or oppressed race or caste of people. Saxons? Goths? Jutepersons?"

"Why didst not say so sooner? We have a veritable potful of Italianate and Irish knights. And some Magyars, too."

The bureau fellow consulted his list. "Sorry; no Irish or Italians need apply. But how about women? Hast fifty percent female knights?"

It is vastly to Peter's credit that he continued the interview even after this proof of the messenger's lunacy. Without directly replying, he said, "Continue down thy list. Mayhap there be something there which a sensible man might apply to with a Yea that is Yea."

"Accessibility of thy facilities to the handicapped?"


"Can the halt, lame, crippled, leprous, and unclean enter thy tents unaided? Hast palfreys which a one-legged knight might mount? Hast chromium bars mounted by thy latrine pits? When thou preachest a fiery sermon, hast thou Spanish and Frisian editions circulating through the crowd? Hast deaf knights, knights lame, knights feeble?"

Quill poised over his vellum, the messenger did not look very hopeful.

"The halt?" exclaimed Peter. "Bet thy sweet mule we got the halt, lame, and crippled in this crusade. Boy, scribe old buddy, thou hast said a mouthful. I misdoubt me whether there be a whole man among us, if thou countest hernias, bad teeth, and the French disease for your handicapped."

The messenger cheered up a bit and scratched assiduously at his forms for a few minutes.

"What about equal-opportunity advertising? Didst preach this crusade among the urban poor, the Flemish quarter, or the Jews?"

"Preached to 'em all," Peter said. "Not to be immodest, but if there be a man—"

"Person," interrupted the bureau worker.

"If there be a person ever within five and twenty rods who heard me not, there be thy deaf and dumb."

There was a delay of months, then, as the King's Commission shuffled parchment. Records are sketchy, but apparently the department had decided to deny Peter's petition unless he could show that he had hired a dozen or more minority hermits to share the leading of the crusade.

The delay didn't matter, in the end, because Peter had already given up the idea of a second crusade before word of the decision reached him. Another government man had visited Peter after Ye H, E & W scribe had left, and he was the final straw, the reason for Peter's giving up forever his dream, his cause.

Peter was forced, you see, to file an Environmental Impact Estimate to assess the probable effect of his marching hordes on the European landscape. When he admitted that his holy legions would probably sack Thessalonica again, the government gave him a thumbs down. The crusade was disbanded, Peter given a small one-year Comprehensive Retraining Act grant, and that was that.

One last point. Many historians believe that it is a mistake to speak of "Peter the Hermit" in connection with the First Crusade, arguing that he did not become a hermit until after his encounters with the king's agencies. They did a more thorough job on his army than ever Saladin could have done, and he retired in disgust to a cave. He died in 1115, two months before the king's inspectors arrived at the Valley of Hermits to determine whether the cave-housing situation there was perhaps illegally discriminatory.

Victor Bobb teaches English at Eastern Illinois University, is the fiction editor of Karamu, and has published poetry, nonfiction, and fiction in various publications.