On periodisation: unanswerable questions, questionable answers

Laura Sangha

The many-headed monster’s mini-series ‘On Periodisation’ really struck a chord with our readers, prompting an outpouring of comments both below the line and on twitter. I have captured many of these in this Storify – thanks so much to everyone who took the time to offer their thoughts, and my apologies to anyone whose comments I missed, but it was hard to keep up!

Picture2The digested version is that comments tended to fall into three categories: those who were prompted to reflect on periodisation in relation to their own research; those who offered a transnational perspective; and those who added an interdisciplinary slant to the discussion. Whilst debates on this topic are a constant of historical research, social media has the benefit of creating a more diverse conversation which encourages broader perspectives and raises new complications. If the debate continues I intend to add to the story in due course, so please do join the conversation.

My original intention was to try to summarise these contributions in another post, but when it came to it I struggled because the responses were both (a) too various, and (b) too contingent. Thus this post instead focuses on the shared responses to periodisation, in the form of a series of questions people ask about it. Continue reading

On periodisation: two ‘early modern’ Englands?

Brodie Waddell

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

Last week I had the privilege of attending Laura Gowing’s inaugural lecture on ‘A Trade of One’s Own’. She told the fascinating story of women’s changing relationship with London and its livery companies over the course of the seventeenth century.

It was a brilliant lecture in all sorts of ways, but what caught my ear was the way she implicitly divided her story into two periods. From my recollection, there were relatively few formal changes in the way the companies dealt with women over the course of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – yet Gowing showed that unofficial norms shifted substantially. Specifically, she showed that the number of women as mistresses and apprentices rose from the 1640s onwards and resulted in a new landscape in which – for example – about 40 percent of the shops in the Royal Exchange were owned by women by the end of the century.

The Royal Exchange, 1671

The Royal Exchange, 1671

Although Gowing did not discuss the reasons for this shift in detail, she alluded to the disruptions of the Civil Wars, the rise of new women-made fashions such as the mantua gown, and the increasing preponderance of women among migrants to the metropolis. In fact, pinning down a specific cause may be impossible because the change seems to have been almost ‘over-determined’. In the middle decades of the seventeenth century, everything seemed to be changing.

Dividing ‘early modernity’

This lecture set me thinking about my own sense of periodisation. Laura has talked about start and end points for the ‘early modern’, Mark has discussed the question of ‘modernity’ itself, and Jonathan has addressed the thorny notion of a ‘Reformation era’. But what about the divisions within the ‘early modern period’, however defined?

It seems to me that there has increasingly emerged a sense of an ‘early early modern period’ and a ‘late early modern period’. I’ll call them the EEMP and LEMP, because acronyms add an air of authority. Continue reading

On periodisation: religion, early modernity, and ‘The Reformation’

Jonathan Willis

In some ways, ‘The Reformation’ (I’ll explain the excessive punctuation in a bit) may seem like an odd contribution to a blog mini-series on periodisation.  After all, surely ‘The Reformation’ was a thing, an event, something that happened, rather than a neutral description of a period of time (although, as we are coming to discover, there is rarely anything neutral about how anybody, let alone a historian, parcels up the past).  As Laura mentioned in her introductory post, use of ‘The Reformation’ to describe a period of time tends to have most currency in North America, where ‘Ren-Ref’ is a convenient shorthand for the periods of the renaissance and reformation, c.1400-c.1600, or c.1350-c.1650, or c.1300-c.1700; well you get the idea…  I am a product of the UK Higher Education system, however, having never studied or worked in the US or Canada, and so I’m going to leave ‘Ren-Ref’ to one side for now.  Instead, there are two related questions I want to address in this post.  Firstly, how useful is religion in helping us to define the early modern period?  And secondly, how should we define the chronology of ‘The Reformation’ itself?

Religion and Early Modernity


A less contentious way of measuring time?

To what extent can we define early modernity with reference to developments in the religious sphere?  For the sake of argument, and because one post can’t do everything, I’m going to work within the eurocentrism of the term early modern, and accept for now its customary definition as c.1500-c.1700.  In some ways, there is a fairly good case for arguing that the early modern period saw within it some fairly distinctive developments in matters of religion, and that therefore these developments do help give a sense of coherence (or at least, of coherent incoherence) to the period as a whole.  To start with the most obvious, we might characterise the early modern period as one which witnessed at its outset the collapse of 1500 years of broad religious unity: provocatively, one recent overview of early modern history has taken as its title Christendom Destroyed.[1]  The Protestant Reformation, and the growth in number of religious sects and denominations that broke away from the previously hegemonic monolith of the (Roman) Catholic Church, and subsequently from one another, could plausibly be seen as the defining characteristic of the early modern age. Continue reading

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’. Continue reading

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.


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). Continue reading

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. Continue reading