The Middle Ages form the middle period in a traditional schematic division of European history into three "ages": the classical civilization of Antiquity, the Middle Ages and Modern Times. The idea of such a periodisation is attributed to Flavio Biondo, an Italian Renaissance humanist historian.
The Middle Ages are commonly dated from the fall of the Western Roman Empire (or by some scholars, before that) in the 5th century to the beginning of the Renaissance in the late 14th or early 15th century. Which field of study a scholar specializes in, or what regions of Europe they study cause much of the variation. Commonly seen periodization ranges span the years ca. 400–476 AD (the sackings of Rome by the Goths to the deposing of Romulus Augustus) to ca. 1453–1517 (the Fall of Constantinople to the Protestant reformation begun with Martin Luther's 95 theses). These dates are approximate, and are based upon nuanced arguments; for other dating schemes and the reasoning behind them, see "periodisation issues", below.
The Middle Ages witnessed the first sustained urbanisation of northern and western Europe. Modern European states owe their origins to events unfolding in the Middle Ages; present European political boundaries are, in many regards, the result of the military and dynastic achievements in this tumultuous period, as it "set the table" for the decisive events and movements like the Protestant Reformation forming the huge shifts in attitude that led to the rise of modern nation-states which came to increasingly dominate the world from the seventeenth century on.
The era which followed saw the rise of strong centralized monarchial states in Denmark, Sweden, Spain, France, England (and then further evolution to Great Britain), and eventually Russia and Germany; the independence of Switzerland and the Dutch Republic, and the decline of power by the two territorially largest international powers of the era, the Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania. Concurrently, the trade rich late Medieval financial powers, Portugal and the Serene Republic of Venice lost their hold on merchantile trade to the more vigorous shipping efforts in newer sea powers, or lost struggles with the old.
The Crusades were, in some aspects, Europe's defense against Islamic expansion and aggression. These were armed pilgrimages intended to liberate Jerusalem from Muslim control. Jerusalem was part of the Muslim possessions won during a rapid military expansion in the 7th century through the Near East, Northern Africa, and Anatolia (in modern Turkey). The first Crusade was preached by Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont in 1095 in response to a request from the Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos for aid against further advancement. Urban promised indulgence to any Christian who took the Crusader vow and set off for Jerusalem. The resulting fervour that swept through Europe mobilized tens of thousands of people from all levels of society, and resulted in the capture of Jerusalem in 1099 as well as other regions. The movement found its primary support in the Franks; it is by no coincidence that the Arabs referred to Crusaders generically as "Franj". Although they were minorities within this region, the Crusaders tried to consolidate their conquests, as a number of Crusader states – the Kingdom of Jerusalem, as well as the County of Edessa, the Principality of Antioch, and the County of Tripoli (collectively Outremer). During the 12th century and 13th century there were a series of conflicts between these states and surrounding Islamic ones. Crusades were essentially resupply missions for these embattled kingdoms. Military orders such as the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller were formed to play an integral role in this support.
By the end of the Middle Ages the Christian Crusaders had captured all the Islamic territories in modern Spain, Portugal and Southern Italy. Meanwhile, Islamic counter attacks had retaken all the Crusader possessions on the Asian mainland, leaving a de facto boundary between Islam and western Christianity that continued until modern times.
Substantial areas of northern Europe also remained outside Christian influence until the 12th century or later; these areas also became crusading venues during the expansionist High Middle Ages. Throughout this period the Byzantine Empire was in decline, having peaked in influence during the High Middle Ages. Beginning with the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, the empire underwent a cycle of decline and renewal, including the sacking of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1204. Despite another short upswing following the recapture of Constantinople in 1261, the empire continued to deteriorate.
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