At the Battle of Manzikert, in 1071, the Seljuk Turks massacred the Byzantine Empire’s armies. The feared Turks overran Asia Minor and began to threaten even the capital of Constantinople. Meanwhile, they had also conquered Jerusalem, preventing Christian pilgrimages to the holy sites.

In 1074, Pope Gregory VII proposed leading fifty thousand volunteers to help the Christians in the East and possibly liberate the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Finally, in 1095, in response to desperate appeals from Eastern Emperor Alexius Comnenus, the new pope, Urban II, preached a stirring sermon at Clermont:

“A horrible tale has gone forth,” he said. “An accursed race utterly alienated from God … has invaded the lands of the Christians and depopulated them by the sword, plundering, and fire.” Toward the end, he made his appeal: “Tear that land from the wicked race and subject it to yourselves.”

The people were riled. They began shouting, “Deus vult! Deus vult!” (“God wills it!”) Urban II made “Deus vult” the battle cry of the Crusades.

Why the Crusaders Went

The pope’s representatives then traversed Europe, recruiting people to go to Palestine. The list of the First Crusade’s leaders read like a medieval “Who’s Who,” including the fabled Godfrey of Bouillon. Soon waves of people—probably over one hundred thousand, including about ten thousand—knights were headed for the Holy Land. Thus began over three hundred years of similar expeditions and pilgrimages, which gradually became known as crusades, because of the cross worn on the clothing of the crusaders.

Why did so many respond?

A spirit of adventure, for one thing. Pilgrimages ...

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