Saint Peter Armengol
From bandit to redeemer
Join me today as we encounter the strange case of a living martyr.
Name: Peter Armengol
Life: Around 1238 - 1304
Feast: April 27
It was the middle of the 13th century, and Lord Arnaldo Armengol was leading a group of his men through the hills when the bandits attacked. Arnaldo was a lord in the service of the King of Aragon. The kings of what would be Spain and Portugal were engaged in a multi-generational struggle recapture the Spanish peninsula from the Moors, Muslims who had invaded three centuries earlier. The Spanish were slowly gaining the upper hand, and the armies of Islam were being pushed into the South of the peninsula.
One of the consequence of such a long grinding war was that there was always a surplus of fighting men looking for some extra coin - and some didn’t mind stealing it. Many mercenaries didn’t mind doing a bit of banditry between jobs. Bandits were a fact of life, but this particular group in the hills had shown enough tactical and strategic cunning that they were becoming a problem.
The bandits attacked Arnaldo. But what they didn’t know was that Arnaldo was looking for them. He had been sent by the king to find them and eradicate them. The best way to do that was to lure them into an attack. He probably disguised his soldiers as traders, so that they could throw off their cloaks and draw weapons when the bandits were already committed.
Arnaldo was, perhaps, a little old to be leading this kind of raid. We know that he had a son, Peter Armengol, who was just the right age to be doing this sort of thing. Peter was intelligent and strong, and would have spent his youth learning the art of war. He should have been leading this sort of expedition.
Things had not worked out that way. Peter was, in fact, almost the stereotype of the rich kid gone bad. Instead of leading his father’s men, he had caused trouble, going from little acts of rebellion and cruelty to full out crime. Eventually he left home and, as far as his parents knew, disappeared into the seedy underbelly of Spain at war.
We do know what had happened to Peter. He had gone from one bad thing to another, from stealing to violence until he had become a bandit himself. While we don’t have a lot of details, we can guess that the direction of his life was like that of his rough contemporary, Eustace Busquet. Like Peter, Eustace was a noble who went bad and eventually ended up in banditry. He’s like a bad version of Robin Hood, and his deeds were remembered by an anonymous medieval author in the very funny Romance of Eustache the Monk.
In the Romance, Eustace goes bad early, and even learns some magic. But for all that he starts off as a lovable rogue. He joins a monastery for some reason only to get kicked out for bad behaviour. While there, he uses his spells to do things like steal the abbot’s dinner and make the other monks fart in church. That’s how he gets his nickname, ‘the monk’, but Eustace’s story really gets started when his family has a falling out with the local Count.
Eustace forms a gang and finds ways of making the Count miserable. He is especially good at dressing up in a disguise and stealing the Count’s horse - something he does again and again. You’re laughing along in the story so that you hardly notice when it starts to get darker. Eustace catches a boy whom the Count has sent to spy on him, and cuts his tongue out before sending him back to ‘report’. The Count sends a spy into Eustace’s gang. Eustache figures it out, and gets the boy to braid the rope that will hang him as he begs in vain to be allowed to go to confession before his death. When Eustace captures the Count’s men he cripples them by cutting off their feet.
By the time Eustace is captured, you as the reader are no longer chuckling at his antics. Eustace’s story shows us the way that nobles were often able to avoid direct punishment. His powerful relatives agree that he’s a bad guy but they prevent the Count from executing him, and Eustace ends up elsewhere in Europe. He finally dies when he backs the wrong party in a war, and is beheaded during a sea battle, and you find yourself thinking that this end sounds about right. “No man who spends his days doing evil can live a long life,” says the anonymous poet in final verdict.
We don’t know how closely Peter Armengol’s life mirrored that of Eustace, but we know there were similarities. Peter had also gotten into banditry. Like Eustace, he would have been trained as a fighter and leader since he was a young boy. Like Eustace, he was soon in charge of the whole group. It was Peter’s tactical and strategic mind that had made the bandits in the hills so effective. He was, in fact, the chief of the bandits who were currently attacking the soldiers of his estranged father, Arnaldo Armengol.
Arnaldo knew that he had to take out the military mind behind the bandit raids. So when the fight began, Arnaldo looked for the bandit leader and hacked his way toward him. Father and son crossed swords, and it seems that at first they did not recognize one another. In one version of the story, it was not until Peter managed to wound his father and heard him cry out that he recognized whom he was fighting.
Quite unexpectedly for Peter, he suddenly found himself at a moment of profound choice. Would he fight his own father? It must have been crushing for Arnaldo to realize what Peter had been doing with his life. But for Peter, it was worse. He dropped his sword and fell to his knees in front of his father, begging his forgiveness. He promised to turn his life around.
Bandits like Eustace had used the same trick. Since Peter, like Eustace, was a noble, his father was able to get a legal pardon for him. We can easily imagine a version of this story where Peter goes bad again just like Eustace did. But in fact, it seems that in that fight with his dad, Peter had hit rock bottom. He realized that he had thrown his future away, and he decided the spend the rest of his life in penance. Peter went to Barcelona and joined one of the bravest and most fearless monastic orders of the middle ages: the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy, often called the Brothers of Mercy or the Mercedarians. These Brothers of Mercy were dedicated to the cause of freeing Christian slaves.
Slavery has always existed and probably always will. In the 13th century, depending on where you were in Europe, you ran the risk of being enslaved by Christians, Jews, Muslims or pagans. But on the Spanish peninsula, Muslim slavery was the big problem. For one thing, the ongoing war of the Reconquista, the retaking of Christian lands, meant that there were always Christians being captured in battles. Also, the position of Spain left them exposed to raiders in the Mediterranean, who captured travelling Christians and brought them back to North Africa to be sold. It’s easy to forget that these slavers were active and a major threat to Christian travelers as far away as North America well into the 19th century.
When someone was captured as a slave, his family might want to ransom him back. A family with money could hire a specialist, or they could ask for assistance from one of the military orders. Spanish cities sometimes had something like ‘slavery insurance’, whereby they could assist a family to get a member back by trading a Muslim captive or by paying in money or goods.
But what about the poor, and those who had no family or friends to advocate for them? That was largely left to the Brothers of Mercy. Founded when Peter Armengol was young, the brothers had rapidly grown into a fairly large organization. Their headquarters were in Barcelona, but they were quickly setting up new monasteries across Spain.
The Brothers of Mercy followed the monastic Rule of Augustine, and took as their patron Our Lady of Mercy. But they were also structured like a warrior order, with an order Master and subordinate Commanders at all the local monasteries. Some have argued that at one time there were military members in the order, and someone must have been running security for their work. But much of what the brothers did was fundraising, travelling across Christian Europe pleading the case of the slaves who had no one else to plead for them. All the money raised was brought to the monasteries in preparation for the plans that would be made every year in May.
When he joined the order, Peter would have spent several years doing little more than fundraising. But his noble upbringing would have given him certain advantages. He would have been stronger and tougher than many of his fellow monks. He may have been able to read. He would have been trained to take command of a situation. The Order Master was looking for monks like that. As Peter gained seniority, he was ready to take on the great work of the Brothers of Mercy and become one of the ‘redeemers’ chosen at the May council.
A redeemer had the difficult task of going into Muslim lands and finding the slaves that no one else had tried to rescue and that seemed to have been forgotten by the world. The redeemer would be spending the money raised by the order the year before. Almost certainly, there would be hard choices. The redeemers couldn’t save everyone. Not only did they have to choose well, but redeemers had to avoid getting cheated, robbed, or imprisoned as they went on their way.
The redeemers were fully aware of an important asymmetry between Christianity and Islam. Slaves could get better treatment by converting. Muslim slaves sometimes converted to Christianity, in which case they generally became free men. One check on this is that baptism requires a bit of work, and the cooperation of at least one other person to do the actual baptizing. In Islam, conversion is much easier, since it consists of repeating the shahada, a single sentence about Allah and Mohammed. For this reason, Christian slaves found it easier to apostatize.
Peter went on several trips to the occupied Spanish cities of Granada and Murcia to free slaves held there. He did well enough that the Order Master found him ready for the biggest challenge a redeemer could face: to travel to the North African coast and redeem slaves held in the cities there.
Peter and another monk set out for Algiers on the African coast. They would probably have used the redeemer ‘passports’ which began to be issued in 1251, which could establish their identities and - sometimes - help with safe passage. The trip went well. Using the money the Brothers of Mercy had collected, they were able to free 346 slaves in Algiers, then another 119 in Bougie, modern day Béjaïa. Some of these were Brothers of Mercy who had been held from previous visits. Everything was going well, and the money was spent. And then they got word about another group of slaves.
18 boys had somehow ended up owned by the same master. They were only children. The more the monks heard about them, the worse the story got. Someone was pressuring the boys to convert to Islam. It was pretty clear that if something was not done, they would give in to the pressure. So Peter Armengol made a deal with their master. Money would be raised back in Spain. The boys would go home and the debt would be paid. Of course, the master was not so naïve as to let them go with just a handshake agreement. Someone would have to stay as a hostage to make sure the money actually arrived.
Most monks take three central vows, vows to obey their superiors, to remain personally poor and to remain sexually chaste. Many orders take a fourth vow which can often help to understand the particular gift of that order. The Brothers of Mercy have a fourth vow, which is to give absolutely everything, including their lives, for captives or those oppressed. In the context of 13th century Spain, this meant that Peter Armengol willingly took the place of the slaves. He would be a hostage, and if for some reason the Brothers of Mercy refused to pay, Peter would be killed. Ignatius Vidondo, a Brother of Mercy of the 17th century, explained the central idea of the Brothers of Mercy this way (the passage is read in the litany commemorating Saint Peter Armengol):
We Mercedarians redeem the Christian slaves for love of God who is Love and deserves to be loved for himself. The reason for which we love our neighbor is because we love God, who is Love and source of all love. Therefore, this twofold love has the same source and nature. The virtue of mercy demands external acts of charity. The redemption of Christian slaves from the power of the infidels, to protect them from errors, vices, and danger of denying the faith, is an act of love toward God and neighbor. From this act of mercy, the virtue of love shines forth moving us to work for the freedom of the slaves who are in painful conditions of captivity suffering even spiritually with the danger of being lost in body and soul.
It is one thing to work for the freedom of the captives, but quite another to vow to take their place. Peter Armengol was a tough man and physically courageous - we can deduce that just from his career as a bandit. But to be willing to vow to trade your life for that of a brother in Christ is another level of courage and manliness entirely. “Greater love hath no man than this,” says Jesus, “that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13).
The other monk hurried away with the slaves he had redeemed to raise the money for which Peter was a guarantee. Time passed and the funds were raised. Unlike the slave boys, Peter was a troublesome captive. Not only was he not tempted to convert to Islam, but he effectively evangelized his guards and fellow prisoners where he was being held. Tradition has it that he was punished, but everyone knew he was worth more alive than dead. In prison, Peter waited for his brothers to come and pay the ransom. The deadline approached... and passed. Suddenly the situation had changed.
The slave master who had accepted Peter as a guarantee decided he had been cheated. Obviously Peter’s companions had no intention of paying the ransom. The prison was only too happy to be rid of this troublesome friar. Peter was taken out of prison and hanged on a tree, and his body was left there to be eaten by birds.
In fact, the Brothers of Mercy had not forgotten about Peter. They had merely been delayed. A day - some accounts say that it was longer - after the hanging, a Brother of Mercy rushed into town, looking for Peter. When he heard that he had been hanged, the other monk went to find the body, thinking he could at least bury it. He found Peter, still hanging where he had been left. When he cut Peter down, he discovered to his surprise that Peter was still alive.
In time, Peter Armengol explained what had happened. All alone in a strange land, abandoned by everyone, he had cried out to Mary, the patron of his order. And Mary had come. It was she, said Peter, who upheld him while he was hanging from the tree, keeping him alive hour after hour. The other monk rejoiced. Peter was alive. What is more, they could use the ransom money they would have used to save him to save other slaves, which they did, and returned to Barcelona.
Many people think of Peter Armengol as a martyr who lived. He was willing to die, and in the ordinary course of things he would have died for Christ. His story is interesting in the way that near death experiences are interesting, because it gives us insight into what being a martyr is like.
Peter’s martyrdom left him changed. His neck was broken, and it never healed properly so that his head was always on an odd angle. He was pale and walked with a limp for the rest of his life.
His monastic discipline changed as well. Back in Barcelona, he withdrew from the world, living on bread and water, and spending his days in contemplation and prayer. The conversation with Mary which had begun while he was being hanged never stopped. When visitors came upon him at prayer, they sometimes heard his lively side of that ongoing conversation. And as often seems to happen to saints who are deep in prayer, Peter was sometimes found levitating in the midst of these strange conversations.
For Peter, it was as if the door of martyrdom had opened, only to close too soon to let him pass through it. He was willing enough to talk about what had happened to him, but for Peter it always led to the sad, oft repeated question, “When shall I come and appear before the face of the Lord?”
Years passed, and eventually Peter Armengol got very sick. His last words were from the Psalms: “I will please the Lord in the land of the living.” It seems a funny thing for a dying man to say. Wasn’t he leaving the land of the living? I think the last words of Peter Armengol were telling his fellows what he had learned as a living martyr. He had found the redemption he was searching for. What he had glimpsed through the door of martyrdom wasn’t death but a realm of life, a continuing encounter with the very source of Being.
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