A century before, when the year changed from 999 to 1000, many people had anticipated the end of the world. Coming up to 1100, the same expectation was in the air. In the months surrounding Pope Urban II’s call to Crusade, natural disasters lent credibility to the feeling that the world might end. There was a lunar eclipse; Hugh Vermandois, King Philip I’s brother, found it persuasive and so did many common people. The weather had been poor for a few years, so there were local famines and then, due to the dampness, a fungal infection entered the wheat. This is called ergot, and it produces a natural LSD. Starving peasants ate the deformed wheat and started tripping; some died.
The Pope’s council had been held in Clermont, in central France. One famous priest in attendance was Peter the Hermit. He immediately began to preach the Pope’s call, walking west and north into Normandy and Flanders. Within two months, the message was spreading through these regions with a new twist: Peter the Hermit had himself received a call directly from Christ. All devout Christians were called to come to this historic pilgrimage, in which the armies of all Christians would come together in the Holy Land to welcome Christ’s return. Peter the Hermit may have been to the Holy Land on pilgrimage himself; he told lurid stories about Seljuk cruelty to Christians.
Two types of listeners received his message. The largest group was of paupers and uneducated peasants. They believed that the prayers of sick, poor and disabled people were purer and more effective. The poorest of the poor were welcomed to be part of the historic pilgrimage. This group included beggars, women, and children. They had no sense of military purpose; they were gathering for the end of the world, following a divine call.
The other significant group provided leadership, such as it was. They were mostly trained knights and minor aristocrats who did not fight in the organized armies of the major royalty. Count Emicho of Leiningen said that he had received his own personal divine call. His town was located along the Rhine river and he began gathering knights and others from Rhine Valley towns. Another knight leader is known as Walter the Penniless, but that seems to be a trick of translation; he was really called Walter (Guatier) of Boissy-Sans-Avoir and became known as Walter Sans-Avoir, which sounds like “Walter who Hath Not.” A few priests, like Peter, also not only preached pilgrimage but became gathering points and then leaders for groups in France and Germany.
Pope Urban II had set a date of mid-August, 1096 for the main expedition to set out. This was a realistic date that permitted messenger travel, gathering provisions, and doing some last-minute weapon-making and training. But by spring, enthusiastic paupers, priests and minor knights were ready to go. They didn’t plan ahead for provisions. Some assumed that the journey was short; some had nothing to begin with. The knights assumed that they’d live off the land, which is what they tended to do anyway. Everyone assumed that God would provide, and especially that the Byzantine Emperor (whose riches were legendary) would provide as soon as they crossed into his territory.
Hungary and Bulgaria were both recently converted to Christianity; Bulgaria was loyal to Constantinople, while Hungary had pledged loyalty to the Roman Pope. So, as the evangelists saw it, they had only to gather in Germany and walk on foot through Hungary, and then they’d be at the Emperor’s doorstep in Belgrade. There was no reason to wait; winter was ending and only famine and ergot awaited those who stayed to plant and harvest at home. Some may have been eager to leave due to thinking that to the east lay riches and ample food.
Cologne, the oldest Roman town in the Rhineland, was the agreed starting point. Waves of volunteers arrived and waited, then impatiently set out. Perhaps as many as five ragged “armies” of knights and paupers left Cologne that spring and summer. Peter the Hermit went with one group; Count Emicho and Walter Sans-Avoir led others.