The crusades were a series of military expeditions mounted by western European political and religious authorities with the goal of wresting control of Jerusalem and surrounding areas from Islamic political authority. Initiated at the end of the eleventh centuries, the medieval crusades continued until the latter part of the thirteenth century, and most scholars count the total number of crusades as eight.
The crusades were marked both by violence, much of which was directed against people who were not western European (or “Latin”) Christians, and by sustained cross-cultural encounters which, for many Europeans, impacted their sense of self for centuries to come.
The First Crusade was called in 1095 by Pope Urban II in order to take control of Jerusalem. This ancient city was important to Christians because it was the city where Jesus was crucified; it was important to Jews because it was the location of the Temple built by Solomon; and it was important to Muslims because it was from Jerusalem that the prophet Muhammad ascended on his Night Journey to heaven. When Pope Urban II issued his call to arms, hundreds of years had passed since Jerusalem had been under Christian rule. Many of the important cities of the eastern Mediterranean, including Jerusalem, had been conquered by Muslim armies in the seventh century. From the seventh through the eleventh centuries Jerusalem was ruled by Muslims, but its population practiced multiple religions, and Christian pilgrims continued to visit.
It was a disruption of the balance of power in that region — the rise of the Seljuq Turks, who were Sunni Muslim — that led to Pope Urban II’s call to crusade in 1095. The Orthodox Christian Byzantine Empire was threatened by the Seljuqs’ recent conquest of Byzantine land in Asia Minor, which also disrupted the pilgrimage from western Europe to Jerusalem. Pope Urban used the Byzantine emperor’s request for aid as a wedge to open the possibility of Latin Christian control in the Holy Land. Motivations behind the crusades were complex: they were not only deeply spiritual, but also economic and political. Their goal was not to convert non-Christians, but instead to solidify political control over sacred territory.
Pope Urban II, who preached the First Crusade in 1095, directed those who took up his call to arms to have the sign of the cross (Latin: crux), made of cloth, sewn to their clothing. By this mark, all who encountered them would know their mission. In later centuries these soldiers came to be known as “crusaders,” meaning those who had taken or been marked with the cross, and the battles in which they fought came to be known as the crusades. Crusading rhetoric stirred up such furor against non-Christians that anti-Jewish violence arose in Europe even before the crusaders reached the Holy Land. The Pope’s promise of indulgences – i.e. the remission of punishment that one must undergo for having sinner – for all who took part in the crusades also implied that the killing of Muslims in battle was a spiritually-beneficial act.
Between the call for the First Crusade in 1095 and the fall of Acre in 1291, the crusades formed part of a broader military offensive by western European Christians throughout the Mediterranean. The crusader drive also manifested on the Iberian Peninsula (modern-day Spain and Portugal), North Africa (especially Egypt), and Sicily, as well as within Europe and the Baltics.
Across the territories the crusaders conquered, they built churches and castles, and they also adapted pre-existing structures (like the Islamic shrine known as the Dome of the Rock) for their own use. In the process of living in these lands for some two hundred years — from the fall of Jerusalem in 1099 to the loss of Acre in 1291 — Latin Christians used and appreciated objects made in the eastern Mediterranean: green-splashed earthenware bowls, fine painted glassware, and deeply-colored silks. These objects were carried back as commercial trade goods, as war booty, and as diplomatic gifts to Europe where they were highly valued, often re-gifted, and displayed in palace chambers and cathedral chapels. Islamic and Byzantine textiles, ceramics, metalwork, and glassware brought home from the eastern Mediterranean impressed western European patrons and artists, who used these imported objects as inspiration when creating local art, including the Chertsey tiles.