It is natural to the human mind,' says Dr. Robertson, to view those places which have been distinguished by being the residence of any celebrated personage, or the scene of any great transaction, with some degree of delight and veneration. To this principle must be ascribed the superstitious devotion with which Christians, from the earliest ages of the church, were accustomed to visit that country which the Almighty had selected as the inheritance of his favorite people, and in which the Son of God had accomplished the redemption of mankind. As this distant pilgrimage could not be performed without considerable expense, fatigue, and danger, it appeared the more meritorious, and came to be considered as an expiation for almost every crime. An opinion which spread with rapidity over Europe about the close of the tenth and beginning of the eleventh century, and which gained universal credit, wonderfully augmented the number of credulous pilgrims, and increased the ardor with which they undertook this useless voyage. The thousand years mentioned by St. John [Rev. xx. 2, 3, 4] were supposed to be accomplished, and the end of the world to be at hand. A general consternation seized mankind; many relinquished their possessions, and, abandoning their friends and families, hurried with precipitation to the Holy Land, where they imagined that Christ would quickly appear to judge the world.
While Palestine continued subject to the caliphs, they had encouraged the resort of pilgrims to Jerusalem, and considered this as a beneficial species of commerce, which brought into their dominions gold and silver, and carried nothing out of them but relics and consecrated trinkets. But the Turks having conquered Syria about the middle of the eleventh century, pilgrims were exposed to outrages of every kind from these fierce barbarians. This change happening precisely at the juncture when the panic terror which I have mentioned rendered pilgrimages most frequent, filled Europe with alarm and indignation. Every person who returned from Palestine related the dangers he had encountered in visiting the holy city, and described with exaggeration the cruelty and vexations of the infidel Turks.
Among the most notorious of those who had returned with these accounts, was a monk known by the name of Peter the Hermit. By all accounts this individual seems to have been a weak-minded and contemptible being. He is represented as running from city to city, and from kingdom to kingdom, bareheaded, with naked arms and legs, and bearing aloft a ponderous crucifix in his hand, imploring and preaching with an enthusiastic madness on the necessity of wresting the Holy Land from the hands of the infidels. In a more enlightened age, Peter the Hermit would probably have been confined as a troublesome lunatic; in this, however, he was not only allowed to go on, but was encouraged and abetted in his career. The ambitious Hildebrande had expressed a strong desire to send armed forces from Europe to exterminate the Mohammedans from Palestine, in order that another country might be brought under his spiritual subjection; and Urban II, who at this time occupied the chair of St. Peter, warmly seconded the efforts of the enthusiastic monk. Nor was Peter's success small. Vast multitudes proclaimed themselves ready to engage in the undertaking. Two great councils of the church, one of them held at Placentia, and the other at Clermont, in Auvergne, attended by prelates, princes, and immense multitudes of the common people, declared enthusiastically for the war (1095). The pope himself attended at the last, and Peter and he having both addressed the multitude, they all exclaimed, as if impelled by an immediate inspiration, 'It is the will of God! it is the will of God!' These words were thought so remarkable, that they were afterwards employed as the motto on the sacred standard, and came to be looked upon as the signal of battle and rendezvous in all the future exploits of the champions of the cross. Persons of all ranks now flew to arms with the utmost ardor. The remission of penance, the dispensation of those practices which superstition imposed or suspended at pleasure, the absolution of all sins, and the assurance of eternal felicity, were the rewards held out by the church to all who joined the enterprise; and to 'the more vulgar class,' says Mr. Hallam, were held out inducements which, though absorbed in the overruling fanaticism of the first Crusade, might be exceedingly efficacious when it began to flag. During the time that a Crusader bore the cross, he was free from suits for his debts, and the interest of them was entirely abolished; he was exempted, in some instances at least, from taxes, and placed under the protection of the church, so that he could not be impleaded in any civil court, except in criminal charges or questions relating to land.'