The primary use of the term is to describe the series of expeditions from Western Europe, beginning in 1095 to recover the Holy Land from Islam. The loss of the Holy Land to Muslims in the 7th century was felt to be the greatest insult to Christians and they always wanted to recapture it. The relationship with the Muslims became really bitter with the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem in 1009. Still more dangerous was the threat from a group of Turkic peoples, the Seljuks from Central Asia, who were extending their power towards the West. The decisive event was the battle of Manzikert in 1071 where the Byzantine army was routed completely. This prompted Emperor Alexios I to appeal to the Western Church for help and the Pope, Urban II, in 1095 decided to come to the help of the Byzantine Emperor, and thus the Crusades were born. The Church delegated the whole enterprise to kings because waging war was the duty of the king. The word, doubtless, derived from the cross worn on the clothing of Crusaders and pilgrims to the Holy Land. Many forces, ideological and social combined to produce the Crusades. The long tradition of pilgrimages to the Holy Land was strengthened at this time by the growing devotion to the Lord’s historical life and hence to the places where he had lived. The Western Church had progressively abandoned the original Christian hostility to war. Crusaders were encouraged by the grant of indulges and by the status of martyr in the event of death. At the same time the prospect of acquiring land in the East helped persuade both nobility and the peasantry to participate in the movement.
The first Crusade took place from 1096 to 1099 after it was solemnly proclaimed by Pope Urban II in 1095. In spite of initial setbacks, the Crusaders finally managed to capture Jerusalem in 1099, and set up Latin rule there which lasted till 1187. The second Crusade from 1147 to 1149, preached by St Bernard of Clairvaux, was provoked by the fall of the Christian city of Edessa on the Persian border but it failed to relieve the situation in the East in any way. In 1187 Saladin recaptured Jerusalem and this disaster provoked the third Crusade from 1189 to 1192. Considerable territory was recovered but Jerusalem itself remained in Saladin’s hands. In 1202 Pope Innocent III called for the fourth Crusade, which had truly disastrous consequences. It deflected from its original objective and proceeded to Constantinople and ended in the plundering and sacking of the city in 1204. The Crusaders proclaimed a Latin Empire in Constantinople and proclaimed a temporary reunion. This sealed definitively the Eastern Schism. The Greeks have neither forgiven nor forgotten this event and still consider the Westerners as enemies of the Church and the nation. In 1212 thousands of children and youth from France and Germany set out for the so-called Children’s Crusade. It ended in disaster. They were captured and sold as salves in the slave trading centres of Alexandria. The fifth Crusade began in 1228 under Frederick II. Through negotiations with the Sultan El-Kamil, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth were recovered. But in 1244 Jerusalem was recaptured by the Muslims, and the sixth Crusade under Louis IX began in 1248 to recover it. His troops were beaten back at Cairo. Jerusalem would never be recovered. In 1270 there was a seventh Crusade, which ended with the death of Louis IX.
The gains of the Crusades were minimal as far as the original aim was concerned. By 1291 all the remaining Latin possessions in the East were lost and the Crusaders left Palestine for good. Public opinion in the West was becoming critical of Papal conduct of Crusading, partly because the concept had been extended to cover expeditions against non-Christians in Europe, against heretics or against political enemies of the Papacy. At the same time the expansion of Ottoman power into Eastern Europe prompted many unsuccessful attempts by Western Christendom to organize expeditions against it but the fall of Constantinople itself in 1453 put an end to such attempts. Islamic critics count the Crusades among the historical injustices which the West has perpetrated against Islam.
(Professor of Church History at Oriens Theological College, Shillong)