This is the introductory post to our new occasional Monster Mini-Series on periodisation in history. In a series of related blogs we will be exploring historical chronologies, examining the ways in which we chop up the past into more digestible chunks. We are interested both in how we do this, but also why, and what the consequences are for both how we conceive of the past, and how this in turns effects the organisation and practice of the discipline.
I quite often find myself needing to explain what period of history I work on, and it isn’t always straightforward. For example, my students are often not familiar with the term ‘early modern’ and remain convinced that anything that isn’t modern is ‘medieval’. At the University of Exeter’s recent Community Day, one of the most popular questions from visitors to the ‘Centre for Early Modern Studies’ stand was: what dates / centuries / years does that refer to? (In case you are interested, the other top question was: ‘what’s the devil’ from children colouring in woodcuts of said infernal being).
This is an issue that has a bearing on the many-headed monster too. We self-identify as an early modern blog, and the Monster’s tagline is that we offer “‘the history of ‘the unruly sort of clowns’ and other early modern peculiarities”. Whilst fellow academics might have a grasp of what that means, the blog aspires to reach an audience beyond professional historians, to whom the term may appear rather opaque.
The answer to what ‘early modern’ means is, of course, 1480-1700. Or perhaps 1500-1750. Or maybe 1450-1800. Actually it really depends. Oh, and if you are outside of Europe and North America you might not recognise the term at all, being equipped with a completely different way to think about your national past.
The problem is not just that ‘early modern’ is a loose category, since its beginning and end are impossible to define. It is also a relatively recent term – it was only in the 1970s that ‘early modern history’ became established as a distinct academic field, and of course the field only makes sense in partnership with the ‘modern’ era (since it’s the ‘early’ bit of it).
But if we have different opinions about the fundamental features that make the ‘early modern’ period distinct (collapse of medieval certainties? New styles of government? Dramatic economic and social change?), then we are also likely to disagree about when the early modern period began and ended. And is it actually possible to identify the particular decade when change began to overwhelm continuity with the past, or when there was a ‘paradigm shift’ in the ways that people thought about and experienced the world? And what about the fact that different parts of the globe develop very differently and chop up their past into very different segments as a consequence?
The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that chronology is ‘the science of computing and adjusting time or periods of time, and of recording and arranging events in the order of time’, but for the historian it is actually about imposing our interpretations on the past and dividing it up according to them. On Thursday I will begin our mini-series with a brief overview of these interpretations and the ways that we typically tend to divide up the past.