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After the death of Charlemagne, king of the Franks, in 814 and the following collapse of his empire, Christian Europe was under attack and on the defensive. The Magyars, nomadic people from Asia, ravaged eastern and central Europe until the 10th century. Around 800, several centuries of Viking raids disrupted life in northern Europe and even threatened Mediterranean cities. Nevertheless, the greatest threat came from the forces of Islam, very militant and victorious in the centuries following the death of their leader, Muhammad, in 632. By the eighth 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 the size of the Byzantine Empire, and besieged the capital, Constantinople. In the 11th century the balance of power began to swing toward the West. For the first time in many years, the popes were able to effectively unite European popular support behind them, a factor that contributed greatly to the popular appeal to the first Crusades.
Moreover, Europe?s population was growing, its urban life was beginning to revive, and both long distance and local trade were gradually increasing. European human and economic resources could now support new ventures on the scale of the Crusades.
It was against this background that Pope Urban II called for a great Christian expedition to free Jerusalem from the Seljuk Turks through a speech he delivered at Clermont in France. The pope was spurred by his position as the spiritual head of Western Europe, the temporary absence of strong rulers in Germany or France who could either oppose or take over the effort, and by a call for help from the Byzantine Empire. These factors were unquestionable causes, and at the same time, useful justifications for the pope?s call for a Crusade. In any case, Urban?s speech appealed to thousands of people of all classes. It happened to be the right message at the right time.
The First Crusade was successful in its aim for freeing Jerusalem. Ii also established a Western Christian military presence in the Near East that lasted for almost 200 years. It was the main event of its day. It attracted no European kings and few major nobles, drawing mainly lesser nobleman and their followers. They came primarily mainly from the lands of the French culture and language, which is why the Westerners in Outremer were referred to as Franks.
The Crusaders faced many obstacles. They had no obvious or widely accepted leader, no agreement about 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 concerns 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 thousands of men and even women, ranging form petty knights and their families, to peasants seeking freedom from their ties to the manor. A vast amount of people with all sorts of motives and contributions joined the march. They followed local lords or well-known nobles or drifted eastward on their own, walking to a port town in Constantinople. Not many knew what to expect. They knew little about the, Byzantine Empire or its religion, which did not recognize the pope, used Greek rather that Latin, and had very different forms of art and architecture. They knew even less about the 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 River.
They wanted to maintain their privileged position and to enjoy the lives of European nobles in a new environment. As they settled, they gradually lost interest in any papal efforts at raising new military expeditions. They never reached any real compromise with the Byzantine emperor regarding reconquered territory that had once been his, Although the two groups of Christians had a common enemy, this was not a sufficient motive for a cooperation between worlds with so little mutual regard.
The end of a possible Christian military barrier against Islam sparked the second crusade. The news of the fall of Edessa, a town on the Euphrates, echoed throughout Europe and Pope Eugenius III called the Second Crusade. The emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Conrad III and France?s King Louis VII joined the Second Crusade. Conrad made the mistake of choosing the land route form Constantinople to the Holy Land and his army was massacred at Dorylaeum in Asia Minor. This Crusade resulted in many Western casualties and no gains in Outremer, a town in France. In fact, the only military gains during this period were made in what is now Portugal, where the English troops, which had turned aside from the Second Crusade, helped free the city of Lisbon.
After the failure of the Second Crusade, it was not easy to see where the future developments would lead. New groups of soldiers such as the famous knights of St. John of Jerusalem called the Hospitalers, and the Poor Knights of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, called the Templars were professional soldiers willing to spend long periods in the East. The orders of Crusading knights tried to meditate between the Church?s concern and to more worldy interests of princes who saw the East as an extension of their own ambitions and administrative plans. After the Second Crusade, these orders steadily began to gain popularity and support. As the crusading movement became players
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