The Crusades were a series of military campaigns during the High Middle Ages (ca. 1000-1300). Led by Western European nobles, their purpose was to seize and defend cities in the Levant deemed important to Christianity, most of all Jerusalem. Control of this region was also important for the security of the Byzantine Empire.2,3
The Crusades only became possible during the High Middle Ages, when Western Europe experienced a vibrant recovery of population and wealth. In response, the Byzantine Empire appealed for military support against the Islamic powers of the east. The papacy assented, calling upon the lords of Western Europe to make war.3
Apart from religious zeal, nobles were drawn by prospect of land and spoils. Yet their bloodlust and greed were such that they often fell to fighting and pillaging long before reaching the Holy Land. These atrocities included the first acts of genocide against the Jews.3
Although there were nine Crusades in all (by traditional reckoning), only the First Crusade achieved lasting success. After taking several important cities in the Levant, the crusaders (who hailed largely from France and the Holy Roman Empire) seized the city of Jerusalem, mercilessly slaughtering its Jewish and Muslim populations. The Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, spanning a strip of the Levant coast, was thereby established; it lasted for roughly two centuries.3,8
A number of distinct military forces emerged to defend the Latin Kingdom. These included three monastic orders of knights, each of which grew enormously wealthy and powerful: the French-founded Templars, the German-founded Teutons, and the Italian-founded Hospitalers. In addition to defending/expanding Christian territory in the Holy Land, the knightly orders protected and cared for pilgrims who journeyed there (as reflected in the modern term "hospital", derived from "Hospitalers"). Conflict between the orders hastened the end of the Latin Kingdom.3,4,5
The Crusades were important for engendering a spirit of adventure and discovery in Western Europeans, and exposing them to the ideas and inventions of other cultures. Foreign exposure also improved Westerners' knowledge of their own heritage: European scholars found, to their delight, that much Greek literature lost by Europe had been preserved by the Arab world.1,3
2 - "Byzantine Empire", Encarta. Accessed August 2009.
3 - "Crusades", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed August 2009.
4 - "Knights Hospitalers", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed August 2009.
5 - "Knights Templars", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed August 2009.
6 - "Teutonic Knights", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed August 2009.
7 - "Inquisition", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed August 2009.
8 - "Crusades", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed August 2009.