St. Bernard appealed to Pope Eugenius III to sound another call to arms. Eugenius, enmeshed in conflict with the infidels of Rome, begged Bernard to undertake the task himself. It was a wise suggestion, for the saint was a greater man than he whom he had made Pope. When he left his cell at Clairvaux to preach the crusade to the French, the skepticism that hides in the heart of faith was silenced, and the fears spread by narratives of the First Crusade were stilled. Bernard went directly to King Louis VII, and persuaded him to take the cross. With the King at his side he spoke to a multitude at Vézelay (1146); when he had finished, the crowd enlisted en masse; the crosses prepared proved too few, and Bernard tore his robe to pieces to provide additional emblems. “Cities and castles are emptied,” he wrote to the Pope; “there is not left one man to seven women, and everywhere there are widows to still living husbands.” Having won France he passed to Germany, where his fervent eloquence induced the Emperor Conrad III to accept the crusade as the one cause that could unify the Guelf and Hohenstaufen factions then rending the realm. Many nobles followed Conrad’s lead; among them the young Frederick of Swabia who would become Barbarossa, and would die in the Third Crusade.
At Easter of 1147 Conrad and the Germans set out; at Pentecost Louis and the French followed at a cautious distance, uncertain whether the Germans or the Turks were their most hated foes. The Germans felt a like hesitation between Turks and Greeks; and so many Byzantine towns were pillaged on the way that many closed their gates, and dispensed a scanty ration by baskets let down from the walls. Manuel Comnenus, now Eastern Emperor, gently suggested that the noble hosts should cross the Hellespont at Sestos, instead of going through Constantinople; but Conrad and Louis refused. A party in Louis’ council urged him to take Constantinople for France; he refrained; but again the Greeks may have learned of his temptation. They were frightened by the stature and armor of the Western knights, and amused by their feminine entourage. His troublesome Eleanor accompanied Louis, and troubadours accompanied the Queen; the counts of Flanders and Toulouse were escorted by their countesses, and the baggage train of the French was heavy with trunks and boxes of apparel and cosmetics designed to ensure the beauty of these ladies against all the vicissitudes of climate, war, and time. Manuel hastened to transport the two armies across the Bosporus, and supplied the Greeks with debased coinage for dealings with the Crusaders. In Asia a dearth of provisions, and the high prices demanded by the Greeks, led to many conflicts between saviors and saved; and Frederick of the Red Beard mourned that his sword had to shed Christian blood for the privilege of encountering infidels.
Conrad insisted, against Manuel’s advice, on taking the route followed by the First Crusade. Despite or because of their Greek guides, the Germans fell into a succession of foodless wastes and Moslem snares; and their loss of life was disheartening. At Dorylaeum, where the First Crusade had defeated Qilij Arslan, Conrad’s army met the main Moslem force, and was so badly beaten that hardly one Christian in ten survived. The French army, far behind, was deceived by false news of a German victory; it advanced recklessly, and was decimated by starvation and Moslem raids. Reaching Attalia, Louis bargained with Greek ship captains to transport his army by sea to Christian Tarsus or Antioch; the captains demanded an impossible fee per passenger; Louis and several nobles, Eleanor and several ladies, took passage to Antioch, leaving the French army in Attalia. Mohammedan forces swept down upon the city, and slaughtered nearly every Frenchman in it (1148).
Louis reached Jerusalem with ladies but no army, Conrad with a pitiful remnant of the force with which he had left Ratisbon. From these survivors, and soldiers already in the capital, an army was improvised, and marched against Damascus under the divided command of Conrad, Louis, and Baldwin III (1143–62). During the siege disputes arose among the nobles as to which should rule Damascus when it fell. Moslem agents found their way into the Christian army, and bribed certain leaders to a policy of inaction or retreat.27 When word came that the emirs of Aleppo and Mosul were advancing with a large force to relieve Damascus, the advocates of retreat prevailed; the Christian army broke into fragments, and fled to Antioch, Acre, or Jerusalem. Conrad, defeated and diseased, returned in disgrace to Germany. Eleanor and most of the French knights returned to France. Louis remained another year in Palestine, making pilgrimages to sacred shrines.
Europe was stunned by the collapse of the Second Crusade. Men began to ask how it was that the Almighty allowed His defenders to be so humiliated; critics assailed St. Bernard as a reckless visionary who had sent men to their death; and here and there emboldened skeptics called in question the most basic tenets of the Christian faith. Bernard replied that the ways of the Almighty are beyond human understanding, and that the disaster must have been a punishment for Christian sins. But from this time the philosophic doubts that Abélard (d. 1142) had scattered found expression even among the people. Enthusiasm for the Crusades rapidly waned; and the Age of Faith prepared to defend itself by fire and sword against the inroads of alien beliefs, or no belief at all.