The Crusades is the name given to a series of military campaigns during the Middle Ages in which Christian armies from Europe waged war against the Muslim Turks of the Holy Land (now Israel and Palestine). The stated objective was to re-establish European control over the sites considered holy by Christians, especially Jerusalem. The Crusades were prompted partly by religious motivations and partly by commercial and territorial ambitions.

Popularity of the Crusades

The Crusades were supported by all classes of society -- both the nobles and the poor of Europe. The army of the First Crusade, which started in 1096, consisted of between 60,000 and 100,000 men. New campaigns were launched sporadically over the next 200 years, with the Ninth (and final) Crusade starting in 1271. There even was a Children's Crusade in 1212, led by a French peasant named Stephen of Cloyes, that ended tragically for those who volunteered -- some were sold as slaves and others died of hunger or disease.

Religious Reasons

There were powerful religious motivations for the Crusades. The Holy Land had been controlled by Muslims since the seventh century, and by the end of the 11th century this situation had become intolerable to some Christian leaders of Europe. Therefore, after Byzantine Emperor Alexis appealed for help against the Muslim Turks, Pope Urban II made a speech in 1095 in which he "exhorted Christendom to go to war for the Sepulcher" (the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem). This was certainly a period of religious fervor in Europe. Many people went on pilgrimages, there had been a strengthening of spirituality and some wanted to find a more active way of expressing their Christian faith. In this context, a Crusade has been compared to an "armed pilgrimage."

Economic and Commercial Reasons

There also were economic and commercial motivations for the Crusades. Europe had become prosperous, and this resulted in a desire for an expansion of trade. The middle classes, especially merchants, wanted to increase trade with the Muslims, bypassing the Byzantine merchants. The Italian city states, which had gained both prosperity and naval power, were particularly interested in developing more trade with the East.

Territorial Reasons

Closely connected to the commercial reasons were territorial motivations. European prosperity, combined with growing military resources, resulted in a desire for territorial expansion. Nobles, especially among the Normans, wished to acquire new colonial possessions in the East. Also, because of improvements in agricultural productivity, more land was needed for cultivation by peasants. Such material motivations complemented the religious reasons that spurred the Crusaders.