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Chapter XXXIV, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 1


The Institution of Chivalry - Peter the Hermit - The Council of Clermont.
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In the year 1096 Robert determined to join a crusade then about to set out for the Holy Land, and to enable him to do so, he agreed to resign his duchy of Normandy into the hands of Rufus for a sum of 10,000. This transaction is described by the historians as having been a mortgage for three years; but it must have been evident, even to the uncalculating mind of Robert, that he had little chance of regaining possession of his property at the end of that time.

To enable us to understand this extraordinary proceeding on the part of Robert, it will be necessary to examine the causes which led to those expeditions which are called the Crusades. These causes, which had been in operation for hundreds of years before, were two, of very opposite nature - viz., in the East, the spread of Mahometan power; and in the West, the institution of chivalry, preceded by the introduction of Christianity.

The institution of chivalry had for its object the cultivation of those virtues which may be classed under the word manhood, in its best and widest sense. The true knight was supposed to be pious, truthful, and brave; a generous friend, a gallant warrior, a devoted lover. It was necessary for him to add great strength of body, and skill in all manly exercises, to gentleness of manner and culture of mind. Terrible in battle, it was his duty to wield the sword of justice, to strike down the oppressor and the tyrant; but to help the weak, and give his life, if need be, in the cause of the innocent.

The youth who aspired to knighthood began his career as a page in some noble house, where, under the gentle influence of women, he was taught various accomplishments and imbued with that beautiful though fantastic dream of honour which he hoped to realise in his future life. At the age of fourteen the page became an esquire, and was permitted to wear a sword. He now began a regular course of training for arms, and usually sought to attach himself to some knight of fame, whom he attended in hall or field, and supported in battle. The young aspirant was admitted to the honours of knighthood at the age of twenty-one, unless he had previously won his spurs by some gallant feat of arms. This honour was of rare occurrence, as, by the laws of chivalry, the duties of esquire were limited to attendance upon his lord, and he was permitted few opportunities of personal distinction.

The original spirit of chivalry was essentially religious. The initiation into the order of knighthood was a religious ceremony, and usually took place on one of the feasts of the Church, as Easter-day, the day of Pentecost, or Christmas-day. The aspirant prepared himself for his new dignity by long vigils, fasts, and prayer; and on the night before the ceremony took place, he repaired alone to the church, where he passed the hours in watching beside his armour.

On the day appointed, high mass was performed in the presence of the nobles and bishops and an assembly of the people; and after the sword of the novice had been consecrated to the service of heaven, he took a solemn vow, according to the laws of chivalry, "to speak the truth, to succour the helpless and oppressed, and never to turn back from an enemy." The bishop then dubbed him a knight, and the other knights, and often the ladies present, advanced and armed the youth. The spurs were usually buckled on first, and thus came to be regarded as the-symbol of knighthood.

Such was the form by which a young man was admitted to the highest dignity of chivalry. Chivalry recognised nothing higher or nobler than the condition of a knight. and the fame of every man was borne by the mouths of minstrels and palmers, not tied to his name by a title.

Various writers have attempted to fix the date at which chivalry first took its rise; but on this point there is no certain information. Probably the idea of chivalry was the growth of centuries, and made its way gradually through the corruptions of the times in which it was born. Whatever may have been its origin, the institution was in its infancy in the tenth and eleventh centuries, and received no marked development until the time of the first Crusade. The stories of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table ("Morte Arthur" was a French romance, translated by Sir Thomas Mallory, Knight, and printed by Canton, a.d. 1481.) are probably as fabulous as the wonders of Merlin, or the tales of the Arabian Nights. In the days of Charlemagne, chivalry, in the general sense of the word, was yet unborn; and though in the time of Alfred its spirit undoubtedly existed in our own country, it had yet assumed no name or distinctive form

According to Tacitus, customs bearing a resemblance to those of chivalry existed in his day among the German nations. On the fall of Rome, these tribes subdued and colonised the country now called France, and it is probable that they planted there the germ of the institution of chivalry. The first traces of its existence in France appear soon after the time of Charlemagne. It originated with a few knights, who endeavoured to introduce among their licentious companions a love of virtue and honour. However small may have been the early success of their efforts, the principle of chivalry to which they gave expression shines like a star in those dark ages.

The laws of chivalry gradually became recognised and enforced, and were submitted to by every man who desired to win either the smiles of women or honourable fame among men. Refined and mystical as were the doctrines of chivalry, its laws were practical and severe, demanding mortification and self-denial. In later times the simple and austere habits of the knights were exchanged for luxury and licentiousness, and the spirit of chivalry decayed with the growth of those arts of life which conduce to ease and refinement.

Towards the end of the eleventh century, the attention of Europe was attracted to the state of affairs in the Holy Land, and chivalry, which had hitherto been rather a name than a reality, received from this cause a sudden and powerful impulse.

From the period of the destruction of the second temple, the history of Jerusalem had been a record of strife and bloodshed. During the early occupation of the city by the. Romans, the holy places were profaned by pagan rites, and the spots venerated alike by Jew and Christian became the scene of sacrifices to heathen deities.

In the fourth century, when Rome herself acknowledged the doctrines of Christianity, churches were erected on the ruins of the temples of Venus and Jove, and Jerusalem was again regarded as the seat of the true faith. When Mahomet appeared and spread his new doctrines throughout the East, the aspect of affairs was once more changed, and the Holy City fell into the hands of the Arabians. In the year 969, the dominion of the caliphs of Egypt was established over the whole of Palestine.

In the following century a multitude of rude and savage Turkmans from the shores of the Caspian Sea invaded the lands of the people of the south. These Tartar hordes, called in history the Seljuk Turks, gradually extended their conquests, and between the years 1038 and 1092 obtained possession of Persia, Arabia, and the greater part of Syria. The invaders embraced the religion of Mahomet, and in many cases a fusion took place between them and the conquered nations. After various vicissitudes, Jerusalem, in the year 1091, was in the hands of the Turkish supporters of the Caliph of Cairo.

In every age the Holy Land had been held in the highest veneration by the Christian nations. Pilgrims proceeded thither from the most distant parts of Europe, in the faith that the long and toilsome journey would be rewarded by an expiation of their sins. With unwavering faith in the protection of Heaven, the pilgrim set out on foot to traverse inhospitable wastes, cross rivers and seas, and make his way through unknown regions to the land of promise. Dressed in the costume mentioned in the Bible, and carrying with him only a staff in his hand and a scrip at his side, he trusted entirely to charity for his support. Wherever the Christian religion prevailed among the people, that charity was not withheld; his character was held in veneration, and food and lodging were provided for him as a religious duty. At rare intervals along his way, he came to a hospital or almshouse, built for the reception of pilgrims by some Christian prince. On his return he placed in the church of his native town the branch of the sacred palm-tree (Old chroniclers speak of pilgrims returning from the Holy Land -with their staves wreathed with palm; and from this custom arose the word "palmer," which signified a holy traveller to Jerusalem.) (which he had brought from Jerusalem), in proof of the accomplishment of his vow.

During the time that Palestine remained under Christian rule, these pilgrimages were performed without much danger, and devotees from all parts of Europe flocked to the Holy City. The coffers of the Church were enriched by the sale of relics, which each traveller eagerly desired to possess.

Under the sway of the Caliphs the pilgrimages continued, but the Christians were treated with indignity by the Turks, and various persecutions took place. In the tenth century a belief was entertained that the end of the world was at hand, and people of all classes hurried to Jerusalem in hope of a purification from their sins. In the eleventh century the persecutions of the Christians increased, and their condition became wretched in the extreme. They were, indeed, tolerated in the Holy City on payment of a tribute of two pieces of gold yearly, but their religious ceremonies were prohibited, their property frequently plundered, and the honour of their daughters violated.

Since the fourth century it was generally believed that the very cross on which Christ suffered had been discovered at Jerusalem. This belief afforded an additional stimulus to the piety of devotees, and a piece of the sacred wood was regarded as of inestimable value. Pilgrims, therefore, still made their way to Jerusalem, but were not permitted to enter the city except on payment of a piece of gold - a large sum at that day. Very few of the pilgrims possessed enough to satisfy this demand, and they were driven from the gates, with their long-deferred hope turned to utter despair. Many of them died from famine before the walls of the city; many more perished by the roadside, as they pursued their weary journey homewards; and but a few survived to tell the tale to Europe, and to kindle the flame which was soon to burn up with fury.

The Christian emperors of the East are reported to have sent letters from time to time to the princes of Europe, detailing the sufferings of the Christians in Judea, and soliciting assistance. These appeals, together with the accounts of Turkish cruelties given by the returned pilgrims, caused a feeling of deep indignation throughout Europe, and aroused the spirit of chivalry.

At this time there appeared on the scene a remarkable man, who is known to posterity by the name of Peter the Hermit. In his youth he had been a soldier, and had been married, but subsequently he became a priest. He is described as having been small and mean in person, but with eyes powerful in expression, and an eloquent voice. He had long been noted for the austerity of his life, and it is said of him that he found pleasure in the greatest abstinence.

This man formed the determination of visiting Jerusalem, and having performed the journey in safety, he paid the piece of gold demanded, and was admitted into the city. Here he was a witness of the cruelties perpetrated upon the Christians, and was seized with horror and indignation at the sight. He held a conference with the Greek patriarch, who, at the suggestion of Peter, determined to write to the Pope and the princes of the West, describing the misery of the Christians, and praying for protection.

Furnished with his credentials, Peter returned to Italy and laid his complaint before Urban II. The Pope was then engaged in a dispute with Henry IV., Emperor of Germany, who was endeavouring to depose Urban, and to place Guibert, a pope of his own election, upon the throne. Urban was also embroiled with Philip I. of France, in consequence of the adulterous intercourse held by that prince with Bertrade, in defiance of the pontifical authority. The Pope had been compelled to seek the protection of Robert Guiscard, a powerful freebooter, who set the majesty of France and Germany at defiance. There Peter sought the Pope, and in the presence of Bohemond, Prince of Tarentum, the gallant son of Robert, the first council was held, which resulted in the preaching of the Crusade.

The tale told by the hermit was received with the deepest attention, and the Pope warmly espoused his cause. Urban gave his authority to the scheme of the Crusade, and with the promise of his active co-operation, Peter set out to preach the delivery of the Holy Land throughout Europe.

The story of his progress is toll by various writers of that age. "He set out," says Guibert Nogent, "from whence I know not, nor with what design; but we saw him at that time passing through the towns and villages, preaching everywhere, and the people surrounding him in crowds, loading him with presents, and celebrating his sanctity with such high eulogiums, that I never remember to have seen such honours paid to any other person. He showed himself very generous, however, in the distribution of the things given to him. He brought back to their homes the women that had abandoned their husbands, not without adding gifts of his own, and re-established peace between those who lived unhappily, with wonderful authority. In everything he said or did, it seemed as if there was something divine; so much so, that people went to pluck some of the hairs from his mule, which they kept afterwards as relics; which I mention here, not that they really were so, but only served to satisfy the public love of anything extraordinary. While out of doors, he wore a woollen tunic with a brown mantle, which fell down to his heels. He had his arms and his feet bare, ate little or no bread, and lived upon fish and wine."

Such was the appearance of the man whose eloquence drew after him the whole of Europe. The records of history afford no other instance of events so stupendous, arising from a cause apparently so insignificant. The position of Peter, however, is not to be measured by his woollen garb and low estate. The fame of the anchorite had gone before him; he carried with him the Pope's authority; he was a palmer from Jerusalem, who had himself seen the things he described. The age was enthusiastic, and religious sentiment, as well as knightly ambition, was enlisted in the cause which he preached.

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Pictures for Chapter XXXIV, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 1

Palm-tree of Judea
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St. Helena
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