On periodisation: an introduction

Laura Sangha

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.


The University of Exeter’s community day: What does early modern mean, and who is this strange horned and hoofed man?

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).


A dentist’s view of historical periodisation.

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?


Gibbet: early modern. Guillotine: modern.

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.


21 thoughts on “On periodisation: an introduction

  1. Categorising history in our western culture-centric way, as we do, is itself a consequence of the ‘reason’ that has always been used as one of the defining philosophies of the early modern mind set. The other irony for me is the implicit relativism; ‘modern’ is a fluid concept and already our western intellectual world has the conceit of being ‘post-modern’ or ‘revisionist’. My professional work here in New Zealand has been classified as ‘post-revisionist’, whatever that means. A point that speaks much about the mind set that seeks to classify rather than understand in the abstract, perhaps.

    • Yes – thanks, those are really useful contributions. One of the things I will be tackling in my next post is the fluidity of all of the labels, which, as you say, in many cases seem to tell us a lot more about the priorities of the ‘labellers’ than anything else. As for post-revisionism, it does really raise the question of ‘where to next’, doesn’t it?

      • That’s something I’ve actively tackled in my work (weirdly, Google decided to credit that to someone with the same name as me at your university). I’ve been explicitly exploring the intellectual frameworks of history as I’ve written my various books on the NZ colonial system, which has always been a very fertile territory for that sort of analysis. It’s had two outcomes: one is that the Royal Historical Society at University College in London elected me a Fellow on the back of it. The other is that the rest of the local New Zealand academic community have performed like spoiled kindergarten brats trying to damage my repute and income – their malice got to the point where our acknowledged top academic historian (now at Oxford) got wildly angry and swore on national radio during interview, merely when my name was mentioned, much to the discomfit of the interviewer. (He’s never had the integrity to actually approach me in person, of course.)

        In terms of the discipline itself, the key parameter for me has been to first understand the twentieth century intellectual frameworks that have inevitably informed the way we’ve viewed history as ‘revisionists’ or ‘post-modernists’ (similar terms for the same basic phenomenon) – including the socio-cultural framework within which the academy operates.

    • Thanks – yes, absolutely, that’s a good point. There are plenty of uses of the term before the 1970s. I was following Randolph Starn in ‘The Early Modern Muddle’. He found that the term first appeared in print in 1941, and then grew more established. He states ‘as good an anniversary date as any for the arrival of early modern European history as an established field is 1970’, since that year saw the publication of Eugene Rice’s textbook Foundations of Early Modern Europe, 1460-1559, and the inauguration of the Cambridge Studies in Early Modern History.

      Randolph Starn, ‘The Early Modern Muddle’, Journal of Early Modern Studies, 6.3 (2002).

      • A quick search on the Bibliography of British and Irish History would appear to support the case for 1970 as a watershed in it’s use.

        There are a couple of articles that use ‘early modern’ in their title in the 1940s, but perhaps the most significant early use it turns up (to my mind at least) is Alan Everitt’s Past and Present article from 1966 on ‘Social Mobility in Early Modern England’. There are only 1 or 2 other uses in the 1960s, but from 1970 onwards it starts to appear in several titles each year. So, it clearly has pre-1970 roots, but that does seem to be the year it became more widely established in print.

        (I like the fact that we have already managed to launch into a discussion of the proper periodisation of the use of the term ‘early modern’…)

  2. Looking forward to this! I’m never entirely comfortable with describing my work by period, perhaps because it doesn’t fit very easily – 1790-1820ish ends up being too early for modern, too late for early modern, it’s both ‘long’ eighteenth and ‘long’ nineteenth century … This hasn’t really bothered me too much, since I’ve always been happy to draw on any body of scholarship that seems to provide useful insight (from within or beyond the historical discipline), but looking for jobs might prove more difficult, given that lectureships in particular tend to be advertised by period … Will be very interested to see what others have to say!

    • Thanks for your comments Ruth. I am also a ‘straddler’, victim of the ill-fitting nature of periods. The antiquarian that I am currently working has a diary that covers 1677-1725, a very awkward chronology. ‘Late Stuart’ sort of does the job, whilst ‘late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-centuries’ is just too unwieldy for conference paper titles! One of the angles we are hoping to follow up on is the implication for job titles – so watch this space!

  3. Just a few random examples from pre-1970.

    C.F. Strong, The early modern world (1955: abbreviated title)
    Alistar C.Cromble, Medieval and Early Modern Science 1959)
    D.Banerjee, Early modern Chinese history (1965)
    G.N.Clark, Early Modern Europe from about 1450 to about 1720 (1966)
    J.N.Parry, The European Reconnaissance (1968)
    Douglas Knoop & G.P.Jones, The mediaeval mason … i …. early modern times (1968)

    The term “early modern” was widely used well before 1970: I took courses with it in the title between 1962 and 1965 when an undergraduate.

  4. Really looking forward to the next post on this.

    Whilst i more than agree with statements above there is also, perhaps, a need to not over analyse the matter.

    Whilst clearly a choice is made over the use of a term of description or analysis, this can be both positive or negative in terms of its wider inferences, it is usually the easiest point of reference even if it is not widely understood.

    Put another way, is there something positive in the fact that we have to explain what ‘we’ ‘mean’ by ‘early modern’ it forces us to be clear in the description but more over reflective in our methods, ideas and approaches.

    • Many thanks for your comments. Yes, I entirely agree that having to explain the labels is a ‘good thing’, and that there is value in have points of reference – we need to divide history up so that we can orientate ourselves and others. What we hope to do in later posts is precisely what you say – encourage reflection on methods and approaches, plus on the way that these points of reference might have repercussions (particular for teaching and the job market) that are not intended. There is of course always a danger that this might tip over into ivory tower-ed navel gazing, but hopefully we will avoid that!

  5. For those interested, I blogged about the variety of ways one could periodize early modern warfare here: http://www.smh-hq.org/smhblog/?p=65.
    And if one does a Google Ngram viewer search (as we always should), you get a gradual increase in its usage through the 70s and 80s, with a huge ramp up in the 1990s:

    • Thanks very much for the additional information – many of the things you touch on in the early part of your post are exactly the things that I am covering in my next one in fact. The Google Ngram is also very useful – it confirms similar corpus searches that various people on twitter have carried out (ie on JSTOR etc) that show a very similar pattern.

      • As a literary scholar, my sense is that our field really started using the term in the wake of a very influential essay on periodization and terminology by Leah Marcus, ‘Renaissance/early modern studies’, in Stephen Greenblatt and Giles Gunn, Redrawing the Boundaries: The Transformation of English and and American Literary Studies (New York: MLA, 1992), 41-63. It might account for some of what you’re seeing in Ngram’s view of the 90s.

  6. I have an interest in Early Modern furniture, I think. Mostly oak carved chairs, boxes, beds and cupboards. Reading research on dating these items, it is always apparent that time was a little more lumpy in those days. The court tended to introduce new continental fashions in furniture decoration and this gradually filtered down to the provinces through the ‘nobility’. In the provinces they tended to lag behind, or be unaware of the changes at court and thus ‘older’ fashions in furniture decoration carried on maybe 50 or a hundred years after they were considered passé in London. Thus two chairs, say, with a similar decoration, but geographically far apart in England, could also be far apart in date of manufacture.

    Does history in general have a geographic element to its classification?

    • That’s a great point and another one of the difficulties with periodisation. We tend to treat time as one large ‘lump’, but of course in different places (and in different social groups and so on), change takes place at very different speeds. These geographical differences are usually most noticeable when you compare different nations or areas of the globe, but as you rightly point out, the ‘lag’ could function at a national level too. The urban / rural divide can make a big difference here too. Yet another difficulty in trying to generalise!

      Historians struggle enough with using different labels for different countries (and I will probably be following up on this in a later post), so although they are aware of different rates of change and do incorporate this into their work, that doesn’t necessarily feed into periodisation within national contexts.

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