On periodisation: a defence of ‘early modern’

As Laura outlined in the previous post of this ‘monster series on periodisation, the term ‘early modern’ has – since the 1970s, at least in the history departments of UK universities  – come to be seen as one of the ‘holy trinity’ of historical periods: the medieval, the early modern, the modern. But why?

There a number of reasons why its widespread acceptance and use could be considered somewhat surprising. Its current prevalence in publication and job titles – and on this blog, which self-identifies as an ‘early modern history’ blog – is remarkable given that it is a relative newcomer to the periodisation party. And as Laura has already highlighted, there is little agreement on when exactly it was (1500-1700 is, of course, the right answer…)[1]

But to me the main reason why its rise to near canonical status seems a little odd is because of what it implies: that the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are best understood as being on their way to somewhere else, or as a sub-period of modernity, rather than being a distinct historical period in their own right. But these kinds of ‘modernisation narratives’ – viewing the past as if the only story is the triumphant and inevitable march of all things towards the shiny here and now (more pessimistic forms of historical determinism are, of course, available) – were heavily criticised and fell into decline among historians at more-or-less the same time that the term ‘early modern’, with all its ‘modernisation narrative’ implications, was enjoying its assent.[2] Very odd.

pid_2559indexIndeed, since the 1970s one of the most significant developments in historical approaches to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries has been a desire to excavate the beliefs, culture and actions of contemporaries and to understand them ‘on their own terms’ – in the process often emphasising just how different and distinct, rather than similar and vaguely modern, the period was. Is ‘early modern’ really the best term for capturing this singularity? Perhaps not, but the term was and is widely deployed by cultural historians nonetheless. In fact, Keith Thomas, Natalie Zemon Davis and Peter Burke can all be counted among the pioneers of both cultural history and the term ‘early modern’.

Another related criticism of the term is that if we want to do justice to the way contemporaries understood their own world, shouldn’t we at least use a descriptor for it that would have been recognisable to them? (A debate we have had here on this blog in relation to the terms we use to describe the subjects of ‘history from below’). Labelling them as early versions of ourselves may not be the best way to do justice to how they understood themselves in time. That said, ‘early modern’ historian Phil Withington has recently argued that sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Englishmen did to some extent think of themselves as ‘modern’, and as witnesses to the dawn of a new age that made a distinct break with the immediate past – albeit one that looked back to the insights of the ancient world for inspiration, rather than eagerly anticipating the development of the smartphone.[3] It is possible, then, that some contemporaries would have recognised and approved of the suggestion that they were living in a new ‘early modern’ era of history. Or at least some literate, male, educated, urban elites would have done so.

Modern men?

Modern men?

And therein lies a problem. Any attempt at finding a suitable term for describing a specific historical period will almost always fit in some ways but not in others: ‘early modern’ might have struck a chord with sixteenth-century English humanists, but I doubt it would have meant much to the agricultural labourer and his ale-selling wife. This applies even if we remove the requirement to use a term that might have resonated with contemporaries, and just aim for something that accurately characterises the period from our own point of view: ‘early modern’ might actually be quite an apt description of the emerging agrarian capitalism and the nascent commercial market in intoxicants, two processes that were distinctive features of this period and would very much have been felt in the lives of our alewife and labourer. But ‘early modern’ might serve less well as a way of characterising the belief in witches, ghosts and fairies that would have been shared by our humanists and rural workers alike.

In other words, I think it’s a bit of a fool’s errand to try and defend our use of the term ‘early modern’ as an apt universal descriptor of this period of history (and that’s only focusing on its applicability to England, 1500-1700), let alone one that contemporaries would have given the nod to. But my title promises a defence of ‘early modern’, so there is one coming. The obvious argument would be to emphasise the practical necessities – it’s a useful short-hand already widely in use, these are never perfect, and so on – and the importance of practicalities should not be overlooked. In fact I’m sure they account for the term’s ongoing use more than any particular intellectual attachment to it does.

But I also think it is useful as a way of describing the way historians approach this period. If we think of ‘early modern history’ less as the history of a period that was characterised by an early stage of modernity, and more as a field of study driven by a certain set of questions, I think ‘early modern’ is a helpful way of referring to those questions. For it seems to me that the central question that still drives much of the historical research into this period – perhaps implicitly as often as explicitly – is how modern were the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries?

Take, for example, the recent periodical literature (i.e. journal articles) on the social and economic history of Britain and Ireland, 1500-1700, which I am currently responsible for reviewing – on an annual basis – for the Economic History Review (you can read my review of articles published in 2014 here, if you have access). In the process of reading through over 50 articles published during 2014 it became clear that the overwhelming majority were in some way concerned with questions about the extent to which the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries exhibited characteristics that are associated with modernity. How urbanised was Britain and Ireland in this period? To what extent did landowners exhibit and embrace ‘capitalist’ ways of thinking? Can we locate the emergence of the modern ‘state’ in these years? Was climate change presenting major challenges to sixteenth and seventeenth century societies? Did women play a significant economic role? How widespread was something we might call ‘consumer culture’ at this time? How widespread were the use of what we think of as industrial fuels such as coal in the seventeenth century? You get the idea.

One might argue that this is a peculiar feature of socio-economic history, with its focus on questions of long-term development, but I’d argue that the point could be extended to the types of cultural history that endeavour to treat the period ‘on its own terms’. In their own way they are concerned with questions of similarity and difference between the modern world and the one we study, even if their aim is generally to assert the essential differences. And that is a crucial point to make: the answers historians of this period give to the question of how modern it was vary considerably and depend very much on what they are looking at. It would be hard to say that the periodical literature I reviewed, taken together, offered a coherent overall response to this question, such is the range and complexity of conclusions reached across all of the issues I’ve outlined above.

The variety in the conclusions we reach about the modernity of our period is precisely what makes ‘early modern’ a dubious descriptor of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It is not our answer; it is our question.

Oh dear, I hear you cry, it looks like he might be heading towards the oldest trick in the terminology debate book: just add a question mark! It’s the ‘early modern? period’. Or maybe the ‘early modern periods‘.

In all seriousness though, I think ‘early modern’ does serve as a good descriptor of a field of history, and can be applied to (many) historians to indicate the approach that they take to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It makes our central research question explicit. And that’s what I like about it. All periodisations are imposed by historians on the past, and probably say more about us than our subjects. So why not take this as a starting point for how we divide up and describe the past?

Of course, whether they are the right research questions to be asking about the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is a whole other debate in itself, but foregrounding our research questions in our attempts at periodisation can only help to encourage that debate.

I’ll be honest though, I haven’t spent much time thinking about how this principal works out in practice for other periods. It seems to me that ‘medieval’ and ‘modern’ are less obviously re-purposed as short hands for particular research questions, or sets of questions, and I’m not expecting you to all rush off and come up with new terms (though it might be fun to try). But perhaps at the very least it’s an idea that medievalists, early modernists, modernists (or any other denomination of historian) might find it interesting to discuss across the usual boundaries of periodisation…


[1] There has been some discussion ‘below the line’ and on twitter of when exactly the term ‘early modern’ became well established in UK academia. We will be pulling some of these contributions together in a later post, but for now I’ll just add another reference to a historian who argues that the 1970s were a seminal decade: Phil Withington, Society in Early Modern England (Polity, 2010), p.2.

[2] On the relationship between modernisation narratives and the ‘early modern’ see Garthine Walker’s chapter on ‘Modernisation’ in Garthine Walker (ed.), Writing Early Modern History (Hodder Arnold, 2005).

[3] Phil Withington, Society in Early Modern England (Polity, 2010).

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5 thoughts on “On periodisation: a defence of ‘early modern’

  1. Great post, Mark. A line of thought – I wonder if the raft of new universities established in the 1960s might have been, in some senses, the birthplaces of the ‘early modern’ as a concept. Thinking about Austin Woolrych heading off to Lancaster to establish the history department there, I recalled that he once wrote a chapter in 1970 on ‘Early Modern History’, in an edited collection of Harold Perkins’. I suspect that chapter might contain some very good clues about what shifted in the 1960s. At the very least, many of the universities established during that time have, for whatever reason, become particularly excellent in the early modern field – Kent,, Warwick, Essex, Lancaster, Newcastle.

  2. I wonder about causation here: Is this a good period descriptor because it applies to the questions we’re asking, or are we asking these questions because the descriptor is influencing our approach to the period?

    • Nice question: the old chicken-and-egg. As I’ve just said above, I think we might need a post on the reasons behind the rise of the term in the 1970s to help unpick whether this set of questions came before or after the descriptor started to be widely used.

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

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