The Crusades rank among the most controversial wars in the history of mankind, and they go up against some pretty stiff competitors (WWI, the Boer War, and every time the English have fought their Celtic neighbours to name but a few). Spanning two hundred years, the historical view of the Crusades has changed slowly at the time; at the time they were thought a holy mission from God, at a later date a noble but ultimately flawed idea, and now many historians take the view that crusaders were little more than a bunch of murdering rapists plundering their way across the holy land. In fact, throughout history only one thing has been agreed on; that they were an abject failure.
The story of how the crusades came to be is a rather twisted one. During the early years of the second millennia AD, Christianity and Islam were spoiling for a fight that has, in some respects, yet to end. Christianity had a head start and had taken firm root in Europe, but over the last few centuries Islam had been founded and spread across the world like wildfire. Zealots, often with a Qur’an in one hand and a sword in the other had spread the word of Allah and Muhammed across the Middle East, Turkey, North Africa and pretty much all of Spain & Portugal south of Barcelona. Indeed, they probably would have gone further (given their immense technological, financial and military clout), had Islam as a religion not descended into infighting with the creation of the Sunni and Shia denominations and the collapse of the unified caliphate. Nevertheless, many Islamic empires were vast and incredibly powerful, and a serious force to be reckoned with.
The rise of Islam was an interesting phenomenon, unique to the world at the time, because of the way it is backed by the principle of jihad. Nowadays, the word tends to be taken to mean ‘holy war’, which is misleading- jihad refers to a Muslim’s attempts to struggle (‘struggle’ being the literal meaning of the word) against non-Muslims, both in a spiritual and worldly capacity. This can be taken to refer to a literal physical struggle against the enemies of Islam, and it was under this guidance that Muslim armies swept across the world under the banner of their religion. This was a strange concept to Christian nations, for whilst they had certainly fought before they had never done so for religious reasons. The Bible’s main messages are, after all, of peace and love for thy neighbour, and the Ten Commandments even state explicitly that ‘You shall not kill’. War was many things, but Christian was not, up until this point, among them.
However, the success of the Islamic approach, demonstrating just how powerful war and faith could be when they went hand-in-hand, lead the Church to reconsider, and added fuel to the fire of an already heated debate regarding whether the use of violence was ever justifiable to a Christian. There was already enough material to provoke argument; particularly in the Old Testament, God is frequently seen dispensing his wrath upon sinners (including one apparent count of genocide and a systematic cleansing of pretty much the entire world, among other things) in direct contravention of his son’s teachings. Then there were the questions of how one was otherwise meant to fight back against an invading force; ‘turn the other cheek’ is all very well, but loses its attractiveness when one is faced with someone attempting to kill you. Other schools of thought held that sin could be justified if it prevented a greater evil from occurring; but others stuck to the old view, claiming that violence could never be justified and only begat, or was begotten by, other violent acts.
It should also be remembered that the medieval Church was a distinctly political entity, and knew perfectly well that to attempt to tell, say, the vastly powerful Holy Roman Empire that it couldn’t declare war was just asking for trouble. Indeed, in later years the HRE even set up its own puppet papacy of ‘antipopes’, allowing them to excommunicate whoever they wanted and thus claim their wars were righteous.
However, the real trump card for the ‘just war camp’ was Jerusalem. The city of Jesus’ Crucifixion, the capital of Israel under the rule of King David (it is worth remembering that Mary’s spouse Joseph was of the House of David, hence why he returned to Bethlehem, the city of David when the Roman census was called), thought by many to be the place of Christ’s hidden tomb, it was the holiest city in the Christian (and Jewish) world, as even the Vatican would admit. However, it was also where, according to Islamic scripture, Muhammed undertook ‘the Night Journey’, in which he travelled to Jerusalem on a winged mule, and met with several prophets before ascending to speak directly with God (apparently the main source of discussion was an argument between God and the prophet Musa concerning how many prayers per day were required, with poor Muhammed acting as a messenger between the two. I would stress, however, that I am not especially knowledgeable with regards to Muslim scripture; if anyone wants to correct me on this, feel free to do so in the comments). This made it one of the holiest cities in the Muslim world, and Islamic forces had captured it (and the rest of Palestine to boot) in 636. The city had changed hands several times since then, but it had remained Muslim. For a long time this hadn’t been too much of a problem, but come the 11th century the Muslim rulers started acting against the Christian population. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was destroyed, the Byzantine Empire (which, although Orthodox, was still technically on Catholic Europe’s side) was getting worn down by near-constant war against its Muslim neighbours, and Christian pilgrims started being harassed on their way to Jerusalem.
It was this that really tipped the Catholic Church’s ‘just war’ debate over the edge, and the Church eventually adopted the stance that war could be justified in the eyes of God if it was pursued in His name (a concept similar in nature to the jihad principle of justified warfare in fighting against the enemies of one’s religion). This was a decision made with one thing in mind; to win back the Holy Land from the Saracen infidels (Saracen being the coverall name given by Catholics to the Muslim occupiers of Jerusalem). To do that, the church needed an army. To get an army, they called a crusade…