As Islam spread after its inception in the 7th century C.E., the lands held sacred by Christians fell under Moslem rule. The pope, Urban II, in 1095 C.E. began the pursuit of reconquering these former Christian lands (particularly Jerusalem), by visiting areas in Western Europe and preaching the need for a “crusade” against the infidels.
Many nobles and knights went on crusade with the hope of not only reconquering the holy land, but of carving out for themselves fiefs and kingdoms in this land of “milk and honey”. The first leaders to “take the cross” succeeded in retaking Jerusalem in 1096. After this initial venture, there followed subsequent crusades which attempted to free Jerusalem again, but none succeeded like the first crusade. Throughout the next two hundred years the battle for Jerusalem between Islam and Christianity continued, with one side gaining ground just to lose it again to the other. Ultimately, Jerusalem fell to the Moslems in 1244 not to be regained by Christians again during the Middle Ages.
In the end the resources needed and the crusading ideal itself fell short of Pope Urban II’s dream of a united Christian holy land. Later crusades were directed not at Islam, but at Constantinople, pagan peoples of Eastern Europe, and heretics in France, among others.
Although some critics are quick to write off the crusades as an excercise in futility and exacerbating religious strife between Islam and Christianity, the cultural interaction that developed as a result of the crusades broadened the cultural horizons of medieval Europeans. This exposure to Eastern culture encouraged the development of new forms of scientific study and allowed access to previously unknown classical literature, thus facilitating the humanist movement of the Renaissance period.
From the crusades also sprouted the military orders, such as the Knights Templar, the Knights Hospitaller, and the Teutonic Knights. These “fighting monks” became well organized armed forces, and accrued large sums of money from the management of lands they conquered, or given to them for the Christian cause.