On periodisation: or, what’s the best way to chop history into bits?

Laura Sangha

This is the first post in our new Monster Mini-Series on periodisation. Click here for the Series introduction.

There are many different ways to divide the past up into analytical chunks, but some ways are more popular than others. In this post I offer a brief overview of some of the most common periodisations. It is of course a broad brush summary with a tendency to generalisation. Please do flesh it out with your own comments and refinements below the line – we have had a great response to the series on twitter and I will be collating many of these contributions for a later blog.

Binaries: modern / pre-modern

Starting with the simplest division: if you are short of time, the strongest chronological distinction often appears to be between the modern age, and all the stuff that happened before it. You know, when everyone was blindly superstitious, 99% percent of the population spent their lives covered in sheep poo, there was no electricity, no penicillin, no roads and subsequently a bunch of kings ordered everyone about whilst riding over-mighty dragons. Or something. Sometimes undergraduate ‘survey’ modules are organised along these chronological lines: at Exeter the ‘pre-modern’ module covers c. 500-1750; the ‘modern’ module covers 1750-present.

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Pre-modernity: knights, witches, muddy peasants and that sort of thing.

Of course this rather oversimplifies things. Europe in 700 didn’t look or feel anything like Europe in 1700. The divide also massively prioritises the last 200 or so years of history and diminishes the previous 1,300. It is a useful shorthand for showing potential undergraduates the breadth of your teaching programme or identifying yourself at a multi-disciplinary event, but not much more.

The holy trinity: medieval / early modern / modern

In Europe and North America, history is often chopped into three: the medieval (c. 500-1500), the early modern (er… let’s say c. 1500-1800) and the modern (c. 1800 – present). Jobs are frequently advertised using these categories (see pic), research seminars and centres (like the aforementioned Centre for Early Modern Studies) are organised along these lines and it is a description that we often apply to ourselves when talking to people outside of ‘our period’. The medieval era is often also broken down further into three (though as with the three larger categories, the beginning and end points are disputed and change depending on national focus): ‘early medieval (c. 500-1000); ‘central’ or ‘high medieval’ (c. 1000-1300) and ‘late medieval (c. 1300-1500).

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These conceptual divisions are most likely to be disputed or ill-defined (as with early modern). Chopping up history this way also erects unhelpful artificial boundaries between eras that become obstacles to sharing ideas and collaborative research. There is perhaps more overlap between central and late medievalists than early and central; and early medievalists might feel more affinity with Late Antiquity than anything else. Someone who works on the first half of the sixteenth century (early modern) might have a lot in common with a someone working on the fifteenth century (late medieval), but nothing to say to someone working on the late seventeenth or eighteenth century (early modern). Worse, these eras might not translate well beyond academia, since the wider public often use different terms to describe these time periods. Most problematically, these terms make sense when you envisage history as the narrative of western progression towards ‘modernity’ – where do other parts of the globe fit into the story?

Centuries 

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Fashionable fops? Must be the eighteenth century.

Perhaps we would be better off dividing things up a bit further and thinking in terms of centuries. Telling people that you work on the sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries can be a lot more meaningful that saying you are an early modernist. Most people have a vague sense of what a century was like, even if their impressions are mainly drawn from Blackadder (sixteenth-century = ruffs, pirates, bishops; eighteenth-century = regency fops, coffee, Revolution). Smaller, more manageable periods also allow for a more detailed understanding of change and difference between them. The difficulty with this is obvious – things don’t suddenly shift from one era to another when the calendar arrives at a new century.

‘Long’ Centuries (and ‘Long’ other things)

A solution to the problem of continuity across calendrical centuries is to think in terms of ‘long centuries’ – periods which more naturally fit the shape of history and are not fixed to the standard calendar definition, but are related to it. For example, many British historians consider the eighteenth century to begin in 1688 with the Glorious Revolution, and to end in 1815 with the Battle of Waterloo. British historian Eric Hobsbawm defined the long nineteenth century as the period between 1789 (French Revolution) and 1914 (beginning of World War I). This periodisation also has the effect of creating a ‘short twentieth century’ that begins in 1914 and ends in 1991 with the fall of the Soviet Union.

The short 20th century begins?

The short 20th century begins?

Other periods have been similarly stretched to allow for continuities across time. Reformation era England used to be defined by the dates of reforming legislation (c. 1530s-1560s), but as historians became more interested in the religious and social consequences of reform, the era expanded to the 1580s and beyond. This highlights the extent to which our questions about the past define our periodisation – an English political historian might tend to define the Reformation as 1530-1560; but if you were interested in the cultural repercussions of reform for ordinary people you might consider 1540-1640 more appropriate. Alternatively, it is possible to conceive of the seventeenth century as a continuation of arguments with their roots in sixteenth century reform, as Nicholas Tyacke and others have (Tyacke defines the ‘Long Reformation’ as c. 1500-1800).

These latter periodisations in many cases are less arbitrary than those discussed previously, and as more precise chronologies they are often bound to events, just like my next few categories.

Reigns, Dynasties, Rulers

Another shorthand I often use to describe my own specialism is ‘Tudor and Stuart England’. Since the Tudor and Stuart families ruled England for periods roughly matching the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (1485-1603 and 1603-1714) it is a handy and relatively good description, but clearly this will not be applicable to all dynasties. Since early modern rulers often had a strong influence on political and religious spheres, it is also the case that a change of monarch often resulted in national innovation or change, so dividing things up into reigns can be a useful analytical tactic. Dividing time up according to government can sometimes make a lot of sense, but as with many of our other categories it militates against comparison with other nations and empires. The category also lends itself to political approaches, but might not be that relevant for thinking about longer term cultural shifts.

Watersheds I: Critical Events (1066 / 1485 / 1649 / 1688 / 1789)

In defining the long eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, key events are identified as marking the beginning or end of an era. In many cases, an event is seen to be something completely different in tone or scope to things that had gone before – it is ‘something new’, it is innovative, it marks a strong discontinuity with the previous era. Battles and revolutions that overturn or replace the ruling class often fit the bill. In national terms, 1066 tends to be the starting point for the Central Middle Ages in English history, and think also of the ‘abdication’ of James II in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688. In France (and western history more generally) the French Revolution is often seen as the beginning of the ‘modern’ age, marking the death knell of the ‘ancien régime’ and all that it stood for. These events are of such crucial importance that they are ‘turning points’ or ‘watersheds’ – the stuff that went before flowed in a different direction to the stuff that happened afterwards and produced different results. Thus though changes in ruling classes can be watersheds, not all of them are – it depends on the political and social consequences.

The death of the ancien régime, the start of modernity?

The death of the ancien régime, the start of modernity?

Watersheds II: Cultural eras (Renaissance / Reformation / Enlightenment / Modernity)

Other watersheds might not be tied to particular events, but instead are conceived of as shifts in the priorities and aims of culture and society. The Renaissance is often the term applied to the revival of the arts and high culture under the influence of classical models which began in fourteenth century Italy and spread throughout most of Europe by the end of the sixteenth (although similar Renaissances have also been identified earlier too). The Reformation applies to the great religious movements of the sixteenth century, the object of which was the reform of the doctrines and practices of the Church of Rome. (Until recently in the U.S. the term ‘Renaissance and Reformation’ was used to define the period 1300-1700, though early modern is now preferred). The Scientific Revolution used to be the term used to describe the emergence of ‘modern science’ in the early modern period, though there are now fundamental objections to the concept. Similarly the Enlightenment refers to the project of freeing human understanding from customary beliefs, a characteristic goal of contemporary philosophical writing.

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Finally the Enlightenment releases westerners from darkness.

There are differences between these categories. Sixteenth-century evangelicals did seek to ‘reform’ the Church, and early modern intellectuals understood themselves to be part of a project of ‘Enlightenment’, but no natural or mechanical philosopher would have called themselves a ‘scientist’, since this is a category that only came into existence much later. It is important to distinguish between contemporary rhetoric and later analytical categories in the labels that we use of the past.

Summary

Those are just a few of the most common ways that we divide the past into periods. What are the consequences?

Firstly, geographical variation disrupts most of these categories. They might seem generally applicable for ‘the west’, but they are not universally applicable both within that area and beyond it. The categories are very often underpinned by triumphal notions of ‘progress’ and prioritise the history of ‘winners’ (modernity being the ultimate goal of all nations). This can also make comparative study harder, since our units of study don’t match up across national boundaries. Does periodisation encourage parochialism in the discipline?

Secondly, whilst it is possible to generalise about ‘the west’, many of the categories we use are rather arbitrary. How can we pinpoint when a cultural era begins and ends? At what point do you stretch a concept so far that it no longer has any coherence or usefulness (an objection often offered to the idea of the ‘Long Reformation’)? Does periodisation have a ‘lumping’ effect, encouraging us to prioritise continuity at the expense of change? Do watersheds do the opposite? Is the end result a lack of chronological awareness which results in mistaken analysis?

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Erm… roughly 1500-1700?

There are many other difficulties. Some periodisations prioritise what was happening in one particular sphere (political, religious etc), so aren’t universally applicable. Others are retrospective (Scientific Revolution), they are analytical rather than descriptive, and are therefore less likely to have longevity as descriptions. They key thing to remember is the functional and non-neutral nature of such labels. We all choose to use different ones depending on who we are talking to, what we are talking about, and the point that we want to make. I describe my period differently depending on whether I am talking to a student, the chap in the coffee shop, an interview panel, or delegates at the Reformation Studies Colloquium. In each case different labels are needed depending on the hearer’s existing knowledge, the level of precision aimed at, the theme that is being addressed and the amount of time (or words) that is available. It’s perfectly natural that we do this. But perhaps we are not always as reflective as we could be about how these decisions influence the study of history, or how those choices might impoverish our interpretations.

With thanks to Susan Cogan, Matt Milner and Levi Roach, who all contributed their knowledge and ideas to this post.

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9 thoughts on “On periodisation: or, what’s the best way to chop history into bits?

  1. It’s interesting that archaeologists tend to use ‘post-medieval’ where historians would use ‘early modern’ (i.e. 1500-1750ish, though I’m sure definitions vary as well). There’s a sense of this period as transitional in both terms, but the movements away from/towards the ‘core’ of the discipline are in opposite directions. http://www.spma.org.uk/

    • I didn’t know that about archaeologists – thanks Andy. That’s a great point – this is one of the key ways in which we tend to think of our research identity: we have a key period as our focus, but then might ‘look back’ or ‘look forward’, and each perspective will inform the questions that we are asking and the themes that we focus on within our key period. Perhaps for historians post-medieval would be better than early modern, because early moderns liked to ‘look back’ for the precedents and knowledge that informed their world? Mark’s next post in the series should be right up your street since it touches on some of this!

  2. Andy’s mention of archaeologists, Ari Friedlander’s comment in the earlier post about literary studies and my position in a History, Classics and Archaeology Department reminded me that other ‘historical’ disciplines have other periodisations. The obvious one is ‘antiquity’, which can include Bronze, Iron, Classical, etc, and with ‘late antique’ blending into ‘early medieval’. And a friend of mine in my department actually studies across the much earlier ‘prehistory’/’antiquity’ divide. Because of the (material) sources that she focuses on, the arrival of writing isn’t terribly important to her. So, I wonder how much of our periodisation is influenced not only by regions we work on and the questions we ask, but also by the sources we use.

    • Thanks Brodie – very helpful. Along these lines, someone on twitter suggested that the availability and use of printed sources is a key feature of early modern history. So… the sources we use can demand very different methodologies, thus naturally providing boundaries between different periods?

  3. Perhaps considered as a sub-category, antiquated, but still resonating in the popular mentality, ‘the age of…’ (sometimes still used for special subjects?). A paradigmatic phenomenon is taken to represent the era (the age of chivalry, the age of democratic revolutions (Palmer), the machine age, or a variety of Hobsbawm epithets, usw).
    Actually, my undergraduate course in Modern History extended from c.410 to 1939 and I suspect that the institution still persists with this anachronism.
    As for Archaeology, there is a basic division into Prehistory and Historical, although the latter now tends to be used more often in association with the material culture of the medieval period onwards, with a subdivision of Industrial Archaeology. The subdivisions are partly based on older concepts of material culture and typology (so Upper and Lower Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic) and then those bronze and iron ages.

  4. (The late) Douglass C. North, John Wallis, and Barry Weingast, _Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Human History_ (Cambridge, 2009) – unintelligible (to me) except to remark on North’s obsession with institutional development (so vague) and facilitation and the forms of the state (but isn’t the state forever in formation?).

  5. Pingback: On periodisation: a defence of ‘early modern’ | the many-headed monster

  6. This via email:

    Thanks for stimulating a debate about periodisation.

    One important point that seems to be missing from the discussion here is an appreciation of how and why periodisation imbues a sense of time with meaning and how this process is inherently tied up with, and an expression of, broader assumptions people have about history, time, and the past (which are themselves various and always changing). As professional historians are well aware, our own sense of history, and the period labels we use to categorise it, has a history. It is disappointing to see how little attention has been given to placing the current debate about periodisation within this essential historiographical context, not least because of the way such an omission skews the discussion towards what might be viewed as some unhelpful oversimplifications.

    David Manning.

  7. Pingback: On periodisation: two ‘early modern’ Englands? | the many-headed monster

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