Back to the Index Page

 
 
 

Peter the Hermit by August Strindberg

 

Christendom had awoken to new life after the great and terrible New Year's Eve of 999. Nearly a hundred more years had passed when a ragged barefooted pilgrim wandered out of the gate of Caesarea, on the shore of the Mediterranean. This was the town from which Paul had sailed for Rome in order to spread Christianity, which had now conquered all Europe, but had not been able to maintain a hold upon its birthplace, the Land of Promise, in which Christ had lived, suffered, and been buried.

The “False Prophet” had been the last possessor of Palestine. But when his kingdom, like all others, fell to pieces, quite a new race had issued from the unknown parts of Central Asia and now the Seljuks ruled in Syria. The last Fatimide Caliphs had been very indifferent in matters of belief, and the renowned Al Asis, who had married a Christian wife and was himself a sceptic, had made his wife's brothers Patriarchs of Jerusalem and Alexandria. Everything was altered since the time when the terrible Al Hakim had persecuted Christians as well as Jews, and destroyed the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem. And when the Seljuk Melikscha had at last captured the town, matters looked almost hopeless for the Christians, who still made pilgrimages to the Holy Sepulchre.

The pilgrim we spoke of above pursued his journey in a south-eastern direction, and now on the first day he saw the lovely Plain of Sharon spread out before him like a carpet or rather a sea of flowers—crocuses, narcissi, ranunculi, anemones, and especially the tall white Sharon lilies.

It was the Promised Land indeed! The whole of the morning he waded in flowers; at last he reached a village at the foot of a hill. There were waving corn-crops, climbing vines, flourishing olive and fig trees; well-fed cattle were watered at the spring, cows and goats were milked. The pilgrim, who possessed nothing in the world except his rags, asked for a bowl of milk, but obtained none. He went begging from door to door, but was hunted away. Every time that he received a refusal he seemed to be surprisingly cheerful. The fact was, he had come hither from a distant land in order to be able to realise how his Saviour had suffered, and now he was graciously allowed to experience it on the holy soil itself. He passed through the village, and found another sea of flowers outside it. He bathed his feet in a brook, and felt refreshed. But now at mid-day a wind from the sea arose, and clouds passed over the land. The violent rain beat down the fragile lilylike plants, the wind rooted them up or tore them in two, and collected them in heaps, which rolled along increasing in size as they went, and crushing other flowers in their path.

Towards evening the rain ceased, but the wind continued to blow, and the darkness came. The weary and hungry traveller prepared himself a bed with a heap of flowers which he kept in its place with some stones. After he had hollowed out the heap till it looked like an eagle's nest, he spread another pile of flowers over himself, and went to sleep, pleasantly narcotised by all the sweet scents. For several years he had tasted no wine and never been intoxicated, but this was a good substitute for it. He did not know whether he was asleep or awake; sometimes he felt as though he were rolling away like a wave; sometimes he lay still and listened to a scratching going on in his nest; there was a blowing and a roaring, a murmur in his ears and flashing before his eyes. Finally all was still; he believed he had gone to sleep, for he dreamt.

In his dream he was walking on the Mediterranean Sea; that he found quite natural, but there followed him knights on horseback, troops of armed men, whole races of people. They reached the land, they marched towards the East, and finally saw Jerusalem crowning the heights. Walls, battlements, and towers were crowded with heathen warriors, and the Christian knights halted in order to take counsel. But he, the poor pilgrim, spoke to them, and they listened to him.

“Why do you fear?” he said, “why do you fear these heathen and their walls? Look at me! I take my staff, ascend Mount Zion, strike the gate of David with my staff, and the city opens all her gates!”

He did so—in his dream, and Jerusalem was taken. It was a very simple matter; the knights and the armies honoured him, and he became governor of Jerusalem. When he awoke on the morrow, he got out of his nest, and when he looked round, he found himself before the Jaffa Gate of Jerusalem. He asked himself whether the wind had blown him all that long way, or whether he had traversed it in sleep. But his dream had been so vivid, that he found everything natural and simple.

He knocked with his staff at the door. And behold! it really opened, but only by the space of a hand-breadth, and a soldier asked what he wanted.

He wished, he said, to visit the Holy Sepulchre.

He could do so, was the answer, if he paid thirty silver zecchines.

As he had not so much, the gate was again closed.

The pilgrim, however, not to be frightened, struck again with his staff, certain that he would get in. Get in he did, quickly enough, and, after he had been well thrashed, was thrown out again and fell on a rubbish-heap on which dogs hunted for bones. This reception was not encouraging, but for the pilgrim it was exactly what he had expected and wished. He had been beaten in the same city where his Master Christ had been beaten and tortured.

What an honour! What undeserved grace!

But the thirty silver pieces! Why was the price just thirty? Because it was the traitor's reward for betraying the Beloved. He would try to collect them by begging, even if it took him ten years to do so.

He exhorted himself to patience, and went southward into the valley of Hinnom or the valley of Hell, where all the rubbish of the city was thrown. There was filth and an evil smell there, but the pilgrim did not notice it, for he only sought to catch a glimpse of the walls of the Holy City. When he came to the south end of the valley, he really beheld Mount Zion with David's Sepulchre. Then he fell on his knees and praised God in song:

    “Lauda Sion Salvatorem
    Lauda Ducem et pastorem
    In hymnis et canticis.”

Strengthened by prayer, he went on. He knew the topography of the place well, and when he came on a piece of waste ground underneath the Hill of Evil Counsel, he knew that it was Aceldama, or the Field of the Dead, which had been purchased with the traitor's blood-money to bury strangers in. But he had no thoughts of death, for he knew that he would live till he had taken the City. On the other hand, he was hungry. How bitterly he regretted now that he had not accustomed himself in his youth, like other famous eremites, to eat grass. Weary, but not depressed, he sat down on a rubbish heap which seemed quite fresh.

As he sat there, a dog came—a mangy famished creature—and laid his head on the pilgrim's knee.

“I have nothing to give you, poor thing,” said the pilgrim, and wiped the dog's eyes with the flaps of its ears, for it looked as though it had wept. But when the dog heard what the pilgrim said, it understood, for animals understood all languages merely by the tone. It then began to rummage in the rubbish heap. And behold! there lay, between two cabbage leaves, a pomegranate and a piece of white bread. The pilgrim, who was accustomed to all kinds of miracles, praised God, and ate. And when he had eaten, he thanked God the Merciful. The dog stood by the whole time, and watched him. “Ungrateful wretch that I am to have forgotten thee!” said the pilgrim; “now I will try my fortune!” He began to dig with his staff, and see! there lay a fresh bone, which he gave to the dog, his benefactor. They became friends, and kept together. They now went round the southern end of the city, and turned northward towards the Kedron. They followed the brook, having the city wall on their left and the Mount of Olives on their right. From the bottom of the valley he saw the place where the Temple had been, but no Temple was there now—only the dome of the Muhammedan mosque. Of the Holy Sepulchre there was nothing visible, for it lay within the City and was inconspicuous. He came to Gethsemane, where Christ had suffered, and he climbed the Mount of Olives, from whence he could look over Jerusalem. He did so, and wept. After he had paid his devotions in the ruins of the Church of the Resurrection, he went on northwards round the city, and came again to the Jaffa Gate, where he sat down, firmly resolved to wait till some Christian pilgrims came, for they came hither from all countries of the world. He wanted to beg from them till he had collected the thirty zecchines. So he sat through the first night without anybody coming. Towards morning the door was opened for the peasants who brought in provisions, and the bold idea occurred to him of trying to get in with them, but he was immediately detected and thrashed again. This, however, did not frighten him; he repeated the attempt every morning, though unsuccessfully. He slept on the ground, and ate from the rubbish heaps; he was jeered at by the children, beaten by the adults, and took everything quietly, convinced that some day his dream would be fulfilled. For thirty days he sat at the gate and received no money, but on the thirty-first he got up in order to take some exercise. He wandered down into the Valley of Hinnom, and his dog “Trusty” ran in front of him.

After he had walked for a while he noticed that his companion had vanished. When he called him, the dog answered by barking. The pilgrim followed the sound, and presently he saw the dog standing by a hole in the wall. There was an entrance, and, following his guide, he came without hindrance right into the town. The first thing he did was to visit the Holy Sepulchre, but it was closed. Then he remembered that there was a Patriarch of Jerusalem, who in some degree acted as a protector of the Christians. But where did he live? “Perhaps you know,” he said to the dog.

The dog understood, pricked up his ears, and ran through a labyrinth of crooked streets till he stood at a little door, with a bell-cord hanging by it. The pilgrim pulled it, the door opened, and an old white-bearded man came out, reached the new-comer his hand, led him like a friend into the house, and bade him sit down. “I have waited long for you, Peter,” he said. “Yes, I recognise you, for I have seen you for a year in my dreams, but I know not who you are, and whence you come. Tell me your history.”

“My history! I am from Amiens in France. I am now called Peter; was formerly a soldier, followed William the Conqueror to Hastings, and took part in the invasion of England. I returned to my own country, and became a school teacher. I could, however, obtain no peace in my soul, but entered a convent. In the solitude of my cell, I reflected on what I heard from my brother monks in the chapter. It was the time when Henry IV began the conflict with Gregory VII. The Pope was right, for Europe ought to be governed from Rome, and Gregory, who wished to set up Christ's Kingdom in spirit and in truth, had united all Christian States together; he imposed tribute from Scandinavia to the Pillars of Hercules. The Emperor was a schismatic, and worked only in the interests of Germany. The matter ended at Canossa, as you know, when the Emperor had to kiss the Pope's foot. And that was right at that time, for the spiritual head is higher than the worldly one. But Canossa was not the end. Gregory, the mighty champion of the Lord, fell into the same sin as David. In the first place, he summoned the Norman Guiscard from Sicily to his aid. Guiscard came with a horde of Turks and heathen, pillaged Rome, and set it on fire. That was shameful of the Pope, who now fled with Guiscard to Salerno—which was his Canossa. But he was also still cruel enough to stir up Henry's sons against their father. Then the great Gregory died in banishment, and Rome was extinct. Rome is no more, but Jerusalem shall be. The chief city of Christendom shall be born again, and rise from its ruins.”

The Patriarch had listened, and, though he smiled at first, he was finally serious. “Your faith is great, my son,” he said. “But who will take the lead? Who will collect the people?”

“I,” answered the Hermit—“I will open the Holy Sepulchre; I will drive out the heathen, and I will have the first Christian King of Jerusalem crowned!”

“With two empty hands?”

“With my rock-like faith.”

There was silence.

“Say something, Patriarch!” resumed Peter. “Try to damp my courage if you can; confront me with objections, and rob me of confidence. You cannot! There, I will go now to Rome and speak with Urban II. But give me a letter to confirm my statements when I describe the behaviour of the heathen in the city of Christ. I ask nothing else of you; the rest I will do myself.”

“Whoever you are, you shall have the letter, but rest first for a few days.”

“No! I have gone three hundred and fifty miles and rested for thirty days. Give me something to eat in the kitchen, while you write the letter, and I start before sunset. When I come again, I shall not be alone, but my name will be Legion. And you will see the accomplishment of my words and your dreams, for God wills it.”

       * * * * *

The Hermit Peter walked a hundred and fifty miles to Piacenza, and there met Pope Urban II, who was holding a council. He received no encouragement, for the idea of a crusade was no novelty. Gregory VII had collected fifty thousand men for that purpose, but could not carry out his plan. With a true Christian spirit, the Hermit took this failure as a warning to redouble his efforts.

He went to France, preached and stirred up the people, with the result that all France was aflame with crusading fervour when Urban II came to Clermont to hold another council. Then the Crusade was determined on. Peter could not wait, but, together with Walter Pexejo and Walter von Habenichts, he collected a host which finally reached forty thousand in number, including old men, women, and children. There were no soldiers however, but only adventurers who wanted to run away, slaves who sought freedom, and malcontents who wished for change.

They followed the Rhine towards its source, and then the Danube, along whose banks the great road to the East ran. As they approached the frontier of Hungary their number had increased to sixty thousand. The King of Hungary, Kolowan, was not exactly hospitable, and not a person whom it was safe to jest with. The Crusaders received a hint that they were not very welcome, and therefore sent their only mounted men,—exactly six in number—as ambassadors to the King.

Kolowan was in Pesth, with a well-equipped army, and his country was enjoying the blessings of peace, when the envoys arrived. “What do you want?” he asked.

“We seek a free passage to Constantinople.”

“How many of you are there?”

“Exactly sixty thousand.”

“Although I feel honoured by the visit, I cannot entertain grasshoppers. I have heard of your wild enterprise; I know that you have no provisions with you, and that you beg and steal. Return therefore to your country, or I will treat you as enemies!”

The envoys rode back with the King's answer. But Peter would not turn back.

“Forward! forward! Crusaders and Christians!” he cried, and the whole host crossed the frontier. The Hermit rode on an ass at the head of them, and knew not what went on behind him—robbery, drunkenness, and licence.

The King learned what had happened, and rode out with all his knights. When he saw this mass of ragged rascals, drunk and savage, but all wearing the red cross, he fell in a rage and attacked them. Those who did not fly were trampled underfoot and sabred down so mercilessly, that, out of the sixty thousand, only three thousand reached Constantinople, among whom was the Hermit.

“We have sown our blood,” he said; “our successors will reap.”

The Emperor of Constantinople had certainly for a long time waited for help from the West against the wild Seljuks, but he had expected armed men. When he now received a rabble of three thousand beggars and vagabonds, many of them wounded, he resolved to get rid of these guests as honourably as possible. He set them in flat-bottomed boats, and shipped them across to Asia Minor. “Thence you have a straight road to Jerusalem,” he said. But he did not say that the Seljuks were encamped on the opposite coast. Accordingly, the rest of them were massacred by the wild hordes near Nicasa—in the same town in which, during the early days of Christianity, so many fateful debates had taken place.

But the Hermit escaped, and returned to Constantinople, where he waited for the great army of the Crusaders. He waited a whole year, just as confident of victory and undismayed as before.

       * * * * *

In the little town Tiberias, on the shore of the Lake of Gennesareth sat the old Jew Eleazar, with his family, prepared to celebrate the Passover, or the Exodus from Egypt. It was the tenth day of the month Nisan of the year 1098. The lake shone clear, and its banks were green; the oleanders were in blossom, the lilies had sprung up in the pleasant season when the earth rejoices.

It was evening; all members of the family were dressed as though for a journey, with shoes on their feet and staves in their hands. They stood round the covered table on which the roasted lamb smoked in a dish surrounded by bitter lettuce. The ancestral wine-cup was filled with wine, and white unleavened bread laid on a plate close by.

After the head of the family had washed his hands, he blessed the gifts of God, drank some wine, returned thanks, and invited the others to drink. Then he took some of the bitter herbs, and ate and gave to the others. Then he read from the book of Moses a passage concerning the significance of the feast. After that, the second cup of wine was served, and the youngest son of the house stepped forward and asked, according to the sacred custom, “What is the meaning of this feast?”

The father answered: “The Lord brought us with a strong hand out of the Egyptian bondage.”

As he drank from the second cup, he said, “Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits.” They then all sang the 115th Psalm, “Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto Thy name give the praise, for Thy truth and mercy's sake. Wherefore should the heathen say, Where is now their God?”

Thereupon a blessing was pronounced on the unleavened bread and the roasted lamb, and they sat down to eat, in a state of contentment and with harmless talk. The old Eleazar spoke of past times, and contrasted them with them the present: “Man born of a woman lives but a short time, and is full of trouble; he cometh up like a flower, and is cut down; he fleeth hence like a shadow, and continueth not. A stranger and a sojourner is he upon earth, and therefore he should be always ready for his journey as we are, this holy evening.”

The eldest son Jacob, who had come home in the evening after a journey, seemed to wish to say something, but did not venture to do so, till the fourth and last cup was drunk.

“But, my children,” continued Eleazar, “not only is Israel unsettled and roaming on the earth, but all nations are in a state of wandering. The difference between them and us is that their gods are mortal, while Israel's God lives. Where is Zeus, the god of the Greeks? Where is the Romans' Jupiter? Where are the Egyptians' Isis, Osiris, and Ptha? Where is the Woutan of the Germans, the Teutates of the Gauls? They are all dead, but Israel's God lives; He cannot die. We are at any rate in Canaan, in our fathers' land, even if Zion is no longer ours, and we cannot forget the goodness which the Lord has shown us.”

The last cup was drunk, and after another psalm the festival was at an end.

“Now, Jacob,” said Eleazar, “you want to talk. You come from a journey, though somewhat late, and have something new to tell us. Hush! I hear steps in the garden!”

All hurried to the window, for they lived in troublous times; but, as no one was to be seen outside, they sat down again at the table.

“Speak, Jacob,” Eleazar said again.

“I come from Antioch, where the Crusaders are besieged by Kerboga, the Emir of Mosul. Famine has raged among them, and of three hundred thousand Goyim, [Footnote: Gentiles.] only twenty thousand remain.”

“What had they to do here?”

“Now, on the roads, they are talking of a new battle which the Goyim have won, and they believe that the Crusaders will march straight on Jerusalem.”

“Well, they won't come here.”

“They won't find the way, unless there are traitors.”

“Moslems or Christians, they are all alike, but Moslems could be our friends, because they are of Abraham's seed. 'God is One!' Had their Prophet stood by that, there would have been nothing between us, but he fell through pride and coupling his own name with that of the Highest—'Muhammed is His Prophet.' Perhaps, but he should not be named in the same breath with the Eternal. The Christians call him a 'false prophet,' but that he was not.”

“The Christians could rather....”

“The Christians are misguided, and their doctrine is folly. They believe the Messiah has come, although the world is like a hell, and men resemble devils! And it ever gets worse....”

Then the door was flung open, and on the threshold appeared a little man, emaciated as a skeleton, with burning eyes. He was clothed in rags, carried a cross in his hand, and bore a red cross-shaped sign on his shoulder.

“Are you Christians?” he asked, “since you drink of the cup and eat the bread, as our Lord Jesus Christ did on the night of his betrayal?”

“No,” answered Eleazar, “we are of Israel.”

“Then you have eaten and drunk your own damnation, and misused the Holy Sacrament for purposes of witchcraft! Out with you!—down to the lake and be baptized, or you will die the death!”

Then Eleazar turned to the Hermit, and cried “No! I and my house will serve the Lord, as we have done this holy evening according to the law of our fathers. We suffer for our sins, that is true, but you, godless, cursed man, pride not yourself on your power, for you have not yet escaped the judgment of Almighty God. I will give my life and shed my blood for the law of my fathers, but God's justice will punish you, as your pride has deserved.”

The Hermit had gone out to his followers. Those within the house closed the window-shutters and the door.

There was a cry without: “Fire the house!”

“Let us bless God, and die!” said Eleazar, and none of them hesitated.

All fell on their knees. Eleazar spoke: “I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He will stand at the latter day upon the earth. And when I am free from my flesh, I shall see God. Him shall I see and not another, and for that my soul and my heart cry out.”

The mother had taken the youngest son in her arms, as though she wished to protect him against the fire which now seized on the wall.

Then Eleazar began the Song of the Three Children in the fire, and when they came to the words,

    “O Thank the Lord, for He is good,
    And His mercy endureth for ever,”

their voices were choked, and they ended their days like the Maccabees.

On 16th July 1069, Peter the Hermit entered Jerusalem through the same Jaffa Gate before which he had sat as a beggar. When Godfrey of Bouillon became King of Jerusalem, Peter was appointed Governor. After he had seen his dream fulfilled, he returned to his own country, entered the convent Neufmoustier, near Luttich, and remained there till his death.

The Kingdom of Jerusalem soon came to an end. The Muhammedans re-occupied it, and remain there to this day.

The remarkable thing about these predatory expeditions—the Crusades—was that they were led by the Normans, and were curiously like the raids of the Vikings. The indirect results of the Crusades are still treated of in students' essays, which generally close with the moral, “there is nothing evil which does not bring some good with it.” Voltaire and Hume, on the other hand, regard the Crusades as the enterprises of lunatics. It is a difficult matter to decide!

 
 
 

Back to the Index Page