Simply put, the Middle Ages are ten centuries of European history, starting with the Fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century AD, and ending with the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. With the widespread Greco-Roman influence in the background, we start to see invasions of barbarian tribes coming from the North and the East. Depending on the region, the Goths and Norsemen left more or less lasting traces. Despite the defeat of the Arabs by Charles Martel at Poitiers, it is they who are responsible for the isolation of Europe and the inaction that led to the emergence of the feudal system as both a political and social structure.
Following the mixed success of the Crusades (1095-1187), whose objective was the conquest of Jerusalem and the protection of the Byzantine Empire from the Muslim Turks, Christian Europe was led to rediscover the richness of its Hellenistic heritage. It also discovered trade routes with the East, furthering the advent of a bourgeois class seeking luxury and refinement. By dividing this period into two, we can better appreciate the unique features of Romanesque and of Gothic art. Romanesque art of the 10-12th century saw the Church rise to power, and an increase in the number of religious orders and their
monasteries. Its close links with the nobility of the period allowed for an intellectual, austere and aristocratic art, which even permitted itself a flirtation with symbolism.
Gothic art of the 12-15th century, with its roots in the Northern European tradition, is by contrast a natural and gently anecdotal art, developed by an urban bourgeoisie, and passed on by skilled craftsmen working in guilds. This was the era of great cathedrals, true masterpieces of Western European art.