[Sunflower logo of the Kansas Heritage
Group]Lectures in Medieval History

The First Crusade, 1095-1100

[Map of the Mediterranean world in 1092]

Map of the Mediterranean World in 1092

1. The crusading movement was a significant event in the history of medieval Europe. They opened an era in which Western Europe came into direct contact with the great trade routes that united the civilizations of Eurasia For the first time since the fall of the Roman empire, western Europe was not isolated, but a part of a greater world. Many things flowed along these trade routes. Some were good, such as paper, the compass, medicines and spices, new crops and advances in mathematics. Some were not so good, such as leprosy, gunpowder, and bubonic plague.

Like most great events, there were many factors, some immediate and apparent, some basic and apparent, and some in between that went together to cause the people of western Europe to seek to conquest and hold the lands of the Eastern Mediterranean.

2. Causes

A. Basic Causes

1. European society had survived the raids of the Magyars, Vikings, and Saracens, and its economy and society were recovering quickly. There was a new spirit of adventure apparent in the art, literature, an actions of the western Europeans. This was manifested at least partly in an increased popularity of pilgrimages -- journeys to visit distant holy places to worship there and view the relics of the saints. This was a religious activity, but the many of the pilgrims clearly enjoyed themselves like tourists in any age.

2. Europe was already in a period of expansion, and its capacity for war and conquest had grown during the years of fending off raiders from all direction. Most importantly from the standpoint of the crusades, the Italian city states had developed navies of merchant/fighting vessels that had seized control of the Mediterranean. They had reconquered Sicily and southern Italy from the Muslims, and there was a general sense that, like the Vikings and Magyars, the force of the Muslims was spent and that the way eastward lay open.

3. The spirit of religious reform that had led to the Investiture Controversy had been accompanied by an increase in popular spirituality. People were no longer to accept their religion passively; many wanted to participate actively and to do something positive in honor of their god.

B.Intermediate Causes

Despite their growth, European society and economy were in a state of transition, and were unstable.

1. The aristocracy found themselves at relative peace, and were losing the importance they had enjoyed when they stood between Europe and its attackers. Their numbers were growing because there were no longer the losses in battle they had once sustained. They needed more land with which to endow their children and were beginning to fight with each other over the land that was available to them.

2. The kings were now working to reverse the decentralization that had been characteristic of the feudal age. They, and many who now looked to them for protection and leadership, wanted to reduce the privileges enjoyed by the aristocracy and transfer that power to the central governments of the kingdoms, and they wanted to ends the civil wars caused by the aristocracy and establish a greater measure of law and order.

3. The Church had split into eastern and western organizations in 1054, and the pope's wanted somehow to heal that split. They were involved in the Investiture Controversy and were looking for allies, such as the still-prestigious eastern Roman emperor.

4. Churchmen generally recognized the new spirituality of the age and wished that there were some way that the Church could build upon this and assume the moral leadership of Europe and the Europeans.

5. The middle classes were now aware of the profits of the eastern trade, and were searching for some way to bypass the middlemen of the eastern empire and to trade directly with the Muslims. They knew that they could become rich by cutting out the Byzantines and taking for themselves the profits that the Byzantine merchants had been making on trade with them.

6. The economic system was in a state of transition, with some districts specializing in some "industrial" crops to the point that they did not raise enough grain to feed themselves, and were doing so before the transportation and internal trading system had advanced enough to distribute consumer goods efficiently. So there were frequent local famines. At the same time, agriculture was improving so greatly in productivity that many people no longer had work. The peasants needed more food and more land to cultivate. In 1095, a famine and epidemic in northern France and the Lowlands was causing widespread misery and the lower classes were some miracle to deliver them.

7. Pilgrims returning from the Holy Land were bring home stories of the atrocities being committed by the Seljuk Turks, masters of the Levant, against pilgrims, and of the way in which they were desecrating the places holy to Christians. This caused great outrage, in part because the average western European was better acquainted with the Bible lands than any place other than their own villages and towns. The Holy Land was the Christians "other home."

C. Immediate Causes

Since their victory at the Battle of Manzikert (1071), the Seljuk Turks had been pressing towards Constantinople and were now actually within sight of the city.

Alexius Comnenus, the eastern emperor, needed reinforcement. A couple of years previously, he had seen a group of western knights under the command of Count Robert of Flanders and returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He had been impressed by their fighting ability and decided to try to hire about 1200 such warriors. he sent his request, and the reasons for it, to Pope Urban II.

Urban was pleased, since the Holy Roman Emperor had set up a rival "pope" as a manoeuver in the Investiture Controversy, but the eastern emperor had asked for help from him. He wanted to help, so, after a council held at Aurillac in France, he gave an impassioned speech to the laymen who had come to hear him. He said little about helping Alexius -- since the westerners did not like the Byzantines all that much -- and concentrated on the mission to free the Holy Land. He promised them the Church's blessing, the aid of God, and the certainly of being taking immediately into heaven for those who fell in the attempt.

The crowd was swept up in the call, and the cry of Deus vult! ("God wills it!") spread far and wide. Almost all classes and nationalities of Europeans responded in a movement far greater and more varied than Urban may have expected. It is unlikely that anyone realized how well this call suited the needs and predisposition of the Europeans of the time.

3. Consequences

Against all odds, the first armed pilgrimage to the Holy Land was successful, and the Christians captured Jerusalem in 1100. They benefitted from the disunity among the Muslims and set up the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. Although it was only ninety years before the Muslims had reorganized and taken back most of what they had lost, the effect of the crusaders' success was great.

A heightened sense of confidence animated the Europeans and, with new influences from the East, culture and intellectual life flourished. Western Europe, so some historians hold, came of age.


Lynn Harry Nelson
Emeritus Professor of
Medieval History
The University of Kansas
Lawrence, Kansas
Founder of Kansas Heritage Group

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