The Crusades are best understood as referring to the series of conflicts which occurred throughout the Levant from 1095 to 1272. It began when the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (who was also the head of the Eastern Orthodox Church) sent an appeal to the Church in Rome for military aid against an incursion of Arab Muslims into his realm.
Pope Urban II received Alexios’ request and launched the First Crusade on 27 November 1095. Since Christian teachings forbade violence, Urban issued an indulgence which guaranteed the manumission of sins for any who fought to reclaim the Holy Land. Merely the attempt to liberate the city of Jerusalem was a guarantee for entry into heaven.
The Crusades would define the geography of Europe and the Mediterranean basin, and have lasting repercussions even in today’s geo-politics. While many historians depict the Crusades as a black and white conflict between Europe and the Middle East, and between the Christian and Muslim worlds, the reality was not as clear cut.
1) The Crusades Were a Reaction
The common belief today is that Islam was an innocent victim of European aggression. It was not. In 638, Arab Muslims defeated a bigger Christian Byzantine army at the Battle of Yarmouk, convincing them that god was on their side and that they had a sacred obligation to spread their faith through whatever means necessary.
The following year, they took Turkey, Armenia, and Egypt. By 652, Christian North Africa fell, as did Cyprus in 654. Constantinople, the capital of Christianity in the East, suffered its first siege in 674. In 711 the first incursions into Spain and the Caucasus regions began. Crete fell in 820, followed by southern Italy in 827.
The rest of Europe was too disunited to stand against this encroachment till 1095 when Urban launched the First Crusade. Though Jerusalem was far away, Spain and Italy were not.
2) The Crusades Were Fought Between Christian and Muslim Forces
There was not a single Christian force, any more than there was a single Muslim one. The kingdoms of Europe were fragmented and constantly at war with each other, a state of affairs that also existed between the diverse Muslim sultanates.
Although the First Crusade was a joint force of different Christian kingdoms, there was no alliance that bound them together or obligated them to work as a united force. As the Crusades progressed, many Christian kingdoms made alliances with Muslim kingdoms against other Christian forces and vice-versa. What began as a Christian response to Muslim expansion degenerated into a free-for-all melee with Christians and Muslims working together against other Christians and Muslims.
3) The Crusades Were Strictly Religious in Nature
As the previous example demonstrated, while this was so officially, the practice was often otherwise. It is usually taken for granted that prior to the Protestant Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church dominated Christianity in Europe. Up until the Crusades, however, it did not.
There were other rival Christian factions, such as the Eastern Orthodox Church, and later, the Avignon Papacy in France. By the time of Pope Urban II, the Church in Rome was already the dominant religious and political force in Western Europe, but its position was always threatened by the fact that Europe was so fragmented.
The diverse peoples accepted the Church in Rome’s authority, but it was largely voluntary and rarely enforceable. By getting the disparate kingdoms to recognize and react to the common threat of Islam, he hoped to unite Europe and bring about the order and stability it badly needed.
There was also the issue of law and order. That knights functioned to save damsels in distress is a modern myth invented during the Victorian era. In truth, the hyper-machismo attitude of the medieval military order was responsible for many atrocities, which Urban hoped to stop.
By sending them to the Levant, he hoped to kill two birds with one stone. The first was to stop the Muslim invasions and the second was to let them vent their aggression outside Europe.
4) The Indulgences Were a License to Kill
While interpreted that way by many, the Bull of the Crusade had limitations. It began as early as the 11th century as a reward for those who built churches, helped the poor, and spread the faith. Only later were the indulgences extended to those who fought against Muslims, pagans, and those deemed to be heretics.
To avail of the indulgence, it was required that one be genuinely sorry for their sins and to confess them. They then had to swear never to commit sin again. Sins committed after that act were not covered by the indulgences. The church did not want blood stained Crusaders to return to Europe to ravage the local population. Countering those indulgences were the Islamic call to jihad, or holy war.
5) The Middle East Has Never Forgotten the Crusades
The ongoing conflicts in the Middle East are often described in modern Arab media to be a continuation of the Crusades. The historical record shows otherwise. The reason many Islamic kingdoms fell to the Crusaders was because the former were in constant conflict with each other. It was only when the disparate Islamic forces joined together under Saladin at the Battle of Hattin in 1187 that the Crusader states finally fell.
By the Middle Ages, most Arabs did not even consider the Crusades, though in Europe, they were seen as a good and noble cause. It was during the Protestant Reformation (1517 to 1648) that Europeans began rethinking their attitude.
Martin Luther was responsible for that about face when he preached that fighting the Muslims was akin to fighting Christ. His reasoning was that the Turks were sent by god to punish Christendom for its sins.
It was only with the set up of the modern state of Israel in 1948 that the Arab media began looking back to the Crusades as a rallying cry against Europe and America.