The Crusades 101 | Jimmy Akin | IgnatiusInsight.com
As conventionally reckoned, the Crusades were a set of eight expeditions to the East that occurred in just under a two-century period, from 1095 to 1270. The term crusade has since expanded to be applied to a wide variety of wars--especially ones involving religion--and even to things that are not wars at all (e.g., Billy Graham's evangelistic events). Here we will focus on the eight traditional Crusades.
Understanding the Crusades requires an appreciation of the events that led to them. Since the legalization of Christianity in the early 300s, European Christians had been conducting pilgrimages to Palestine in order to visit the holy sites associated with the life of our Lord. These pilgrimages were major exercises of piety, for in that age travel to the Holy Land was difficult, time-consuming, expensive, and dangerous. Some pilgrimages took years to complete.
Christians also went to Syria, Palestine, and Egypt in order to live ascetic lives. This was the age in which Christian monasticism blossomed, and numerous Christians were anxious to go to the Holy Land and Egypt in order to lead lives consecrated to God by asceticism. They also undertook the hardships of the journey. For both pilgrims and ascetics there was one factor ameliorating the journey: the path to Palestine went through Christian lands.
In A.D. 612, the Arabian Muhammad, son of Abdallah, reported receiving a prophetic call from God through the angel Gabriel. At first, he made few converts. However, after being driven from his native Mecca in 622, he found refuge in the city of Medina, where his followers increased. Mounting a military campaign, Muhammad conquered several pagan, Jewish, and Christian tribes and was able to seize control of his native Mecca, as well as all of Arabia. He died in 632.
Following his death, Muhammad's successors--the caliphs--continued an aggressive campaign of expansion. In less than a century they had seized control--among other lands--of Syria, Palestine, and North Africa. Though today we are used to thinking of these lands as Muslim, at the time they were Christian. It has been said that the expanding Muslim empire consumed half of Christian civilization. Even Europe itself was threatened. Muslims seized control of southern Spain, invaded France, and were threatening to invade Rome itself when their advance was defeated by Charles Martel at the battle of Poitiers in 732.
It had been a hard century.
After Muslim expansion in Western Europe had been checked for the moment, their attention for a time turned elsewhere, and within two more centuries they had conquered Persia (Iran), Afghanistan, Pakistan, and parts of India. They also later advanced against Christian nations, conquering the Byzantine Empire in 1453 and encroaching as far as Vienna, Austria in 1683.
The Crusades occurred in the middle of this struggle. The immediate preparation for them took place in the eleventh century, with increases in long-standing tensions between Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land.