Essay by ages_1College, UndergraduateA+, November 2002

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The Crusades were a series of wars by Western European Christians to recapture the Holy Land from the Muslims. The Crusades first started in 1096 and ended in the late 13th century. The term Crusade was originally used to describe the European efforts to retake Jerusalem from the Muslims. Europeans later used crusade to designate any military effort against non-Christians.

The origins of the Crusades probably began with the death of Charlemagne, king of the Franks, in 814 and the collapse of his empire. Christian Europe was under attack and on the defensive. Magyars, who were nomadic people from Asia, literally rioted and looted eastern and central Europe until the 10th century. Beginning about 800, several centuries of Viking raids disrupted life in northern Europe and even threatened Mediterranean cities. But the greatest threat came from the forces of Islam, who were militant and victorious in the centuries following the death of their leader, Muhammad, in 632.

By the 8th century, Islamic forces had conquered North Africa, the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, and most of Spain. Islamic armies established bases in Italy, greatly reduced size and power of the Byzantine Empire, the Eastern Roman Empire, and besieged it capital, Constantinople. In the 11th century the balance of power began to swing toward the West. The church became more centralized and stronger from a reform movement to end the practice where kings installed important clergy, such as bishops, in office. Also Europe's population was growing. European human and economic resources could now support the Crusades. European traders had always looked to the Mediterranean, now they sought greater control of the goods, routes, and profits. So worldly interests coincided with religious feelings about the Holy Land and the pope's newfound ability to mobilize and focus a great war.

The Pope Urban II, in a speech at Clermont in France in November 1095, called for a great Christian expedition to free Jerusalem from the Seljuk Turks, a new Muslim power that had recently begun harassing peaceful Christian pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem. The First Crusade, which began in 1096, was successful in freeing Jerusalem. It also established a Western Christian military presence in the Near East that lasted for almost 200 years. The Crusaders called this area Outremer, which was French for "beyond the seas." The Crusaders faced many obstacles. They had no obvious or widely accepted leader, no relations with the churchmen who went with them, no definition of the pope's role, and no agreement with the Byzantine emperor on whether they were his allies, servants, rivals, or perhaps enemies. These uncertainties divided the Crusaders into factions that did not always get along well with one another. Different leaders followed different routes to Constantinople, where they were all to meet. As the Crusaders marched east, they were joined by thousand of men and even women, ranging from petty knights and their families, to peasants seeking freedom. They followed local lords or well-known nobles or drifted eastward on their own. They didn't know a lot about the Byzantine Empire or its religion. Few Crusaders understood or had much sympathy for the Eastern Orthodox religion, which did not recognize the pope, used the Greek language rather than Latin, and had very different forms of art and architecture. They knew even less about Islam or Muslim life. For some the First Crusade became an excuse to unleash savage attacks in the name of Christianity on Jewish communities along the Rhine. The original forces of perhaps 25,000 to 30,000 overcame the Muslim states of what are now Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. This happened because the rulers of these states failed to realize the effectiveness of the enemy. The Franks took the key city of Antioch in June of 1098 and then moved on to Jerusalem. The battle at Jerusalem ended in a bloody and destructive Christian victory in July of 1099, in which many of the inhabitants were massacred.

The Crusades of the 12th century, through the end of the Third Crusade in 1192, illustrated the tensions and problems that plagued Europe as a whole. Nobles maintained links with their families at home, and they built lives and careers that spanned the Mediterranean. In town and the countryside, daily life in the region did not change greatly; a military master was just like another. Christian lords had no plan to convert the natives. They wanted to maintain their position and to enjoy the lives of European nobles. As they settled in, they lost interest in any papal efforts at raising new military expeditions. To the rulers of Muslim states military effort was important. Europeans had religious and political interests. The soldiers who were loyal and effective that had enabled the Crusaders to triumph in 1099 disappeared. Islamic rulers turned almost at once to the offensive, although a major blow to Christian power did not come until 1144, when the Muslims recaptured Edessa, on the Euphrates River. The city of Edessa had guarded the back door of the Noble holdings, which were mostly near the coast. This loss marked the beginning of the end of a Christian military movement against Islam. News of the fall of Edessa was heard throughout Europe, and Pope Eugenius III called the Second Crusade. Although the enthusiasm of 1095 was never matched, a number of major figures joined the Second Crusade, including Holy Roman Emperor Conrad III and the France's King Louis VII. Conrad made the mistake of choosing the land route from Constantinople to the Holy Land and his army was decimated at Dorylaeum in Asia Minor. The French army was more fortunate, but it also suffered some serious casualties during the journey, and only part of the original force reached Jerusalem in 1148. Along with King Baldwin II of Jerusalem and his nobles, the Crusaders decided to attack Damascus in July. The expedition failed to take the city, and shortly after the collapse of this attack, the French king and the remains of his army returned home. The Second Crusade resulted in many Western casualties and no gains of value.