Preparing to part from Nick in Grosvenor Place, Widmerpool clumsily backs into an angry young woman––our first introduction to the redoubtable Gypsy Jones––and an elderly male companion, whom Nick gradually recognizes as Mr. Deacon. “He looked much the same, except that there was now something wilder––even a trifle sinister––in his aspect: a representation of Lear on the heath, or Peter the Hermit, in some nineteenth-century historical picture, preaching a crusade.” [BM 91/84]
Peter the Hermit is the historical epithet given to Peter of Amiens, a French monk of the eleventh century AD who was reputed to have lived for a time as a hermit. Legends identify Peter the Hermit as the instigator of the First Crusade against the infidels in the Holy Land, but reliable accounts assign that role to Pope Urban II. Peter was, nevertheless, an uncommonly charismatic preacher, and when he was moved to join the crusaders against the Turks, he gathered with him a huge following of peasants as he marched across Europe toward Jerusalem in 1096. His fortunes in battle were no match for his stirring rhetoric, however, and he was lucky to return alive to Liege (in present-day Belgium), where he founded a monastery at Neufmoutier and died in 1115.
If Peter the Hermit’s story is muddled by legendary accounts, his actual appearance is even more obscure; he is represented quite variously in visual lore through the ages. Nick’s memory is likely drawn to something like the image represented here, which is reprinted from a nineteenth century history text and provides a bit of the wild and hoary aspect Nick senses in Mr. Deacon’s appearance.