Periodization is the attempt to categorize or divide time into named blocks. The result is a descriptive abstraction that provides a useful handle on periods of time with relatively stable characteristics. However, determining the precise beginning and ending to any "period" is often a matter of debate.
Most disciplines that attempt to talk fruitfully about the past find it helpful to break up what has happened in various ways, and to give these smaller units names. The names are valuable to the extent that they aid analysis and description. Periodization from the sciences includes the geologic Cretaceous or Jurassic periods, while examples from human history include the Zhou Dynasty, the Baroque Period, and the Harlem Renaissance.
To the extent that history is continuous and ungeneralizable, all systems of periodization are more or less arbitrary. Yet without named periods, however clumsy or imprecise, past time would be nothing more than scattered events without a framework to help us understand them. Nations, cultures, families, and even individuals, each with their different remembered histories, are constantly engaged in imposing overlapping, often unsystematized, schemes of temporal periodization; periodizing labels are continually challenged and redefined. One historian may write a new history of the Renaissance in Europe; another may claim that there was no such thing as the European Renaissance.
Not only will periodizing blocks inevitably overlap, they will often seemingly conflict with or contradict one another. Some have a cultural usage ("the Gilded Age"), others refer to prominent historical events ("the Inter-War years: 1918–1939"), yet others are defined by decimal numbering systems ("the 1960s", "the 17th century"). Other periods are named from influential or talismanic individuals ("the Victorian Era", "the Edwardian Era", "the Napoleonic Era").
Some of these usages will also be geographically specific. This is especially true of periodizing labels derived from individuals or ruling elites, such as the Jacksonian Era in America, the Meiji Era in Japan, or the Merovingian Period in France. Cultural terms may also have a limited reach. Thus the concept of the "Romantic period" may be meaningless outside of Europe and European-influenced cultures. Likewise, "the 1960s", though technically applicable to anywhere in the world according to Common Era numbering, has a certain set of specific cultural connotations in certain countries. For this reason it may be possible to say such things as "The 1960s never occurred in Spain." This would mean that the sexual revolution, counterculture, youth rebellion and so on never developed during that decade in Spain's conservative Roman Catholic culture and under Francisco Franco's authoritarian regime. Likewise it is possible to claim, as the historian Arthur Marwick has, that "the 1960s" began in the late 1950s and ended in the early 1970s. His reason for saying this is that the cultural and economic conditions that define the meaning of the period covers more than the accidental fact of a 10 year block beginning with the number 6. This extended usage is termed the "long 1960s". This usage derives from other historians who have adopted labels such as "the long 19th century" (1789–1914) to reconcile arbitrary decimal chronology with meaningful cultural and social phases. Similarly, an Eighteenth Century may run 1714–1789. Eric Hobsbawm has also argued for what he calls "the short twentieth century", encompassing the period from the First World War through to the end of the Cold War.
Similar problems attend other labels. Is it possible to use the term "Victorian" outside of Britain? It sometimes is used when it is thought that its connotations usefully describe the politics, culture and economic conditions characteristic of the last two-thirds of the nineteenth century. Nevertheless periodizing terms often have negative or positive connotations that may affect their usage. This includes Victorian, which often negatively suggests sexual repression and class conflict. Other labels such as Renaissance have strongly positive characteristics. As a result, these terms sometimes extend in meaning. Thus the English Renaissance is virtually identical in meaning to the Elizabethan Period. However the Carolingian Renaissance is said to have occurred during the reign of the Frankish king Charlemagne. There is a space of approximately seven hundred years between these two renaissances. Other examples include the American Renaissance of the 1820s-60s, referring mainly to literature, and the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, referring mainly to literature but also to music and the visual arts.
Because of these various positive and negative connotations, some periods are luckier than others regarding their names, although this can lead to problems such as the ones outlined above. The conception of a "rebirth" of Classical Latin learning is first credited to an Italian poet Petrarch, the father of Humanism, a term that was not coined until the 19th century, but the conception of a rebirth has been in common use since Petrarch's time. The dominant usage of the word Renaissance refers to the cultural changes that occurred in Italy that culminated in the High Renaissance around 1500. This concept applies dominantly to the visual arts, referring to the work of Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo da Vinci. Secondarily it is applied to other arts, but it is disputed whether it is useful to describe a phase in economic, social and political history. Most professional historians (defined as paying members of organizations devoted to the propagation of history in higher education, like the American Historical Association) now refer to the historical periods commonly known as the Renaissance and the Reformation as "the Early Modern Period". There is a gradual change in the courses taught and books published to correspond to the change in period nomenclature, which in part reflects differences between social history and cultural history. The new nomenclature suggests a broader geographical coverage and a growing attention to the relationships between Europe and the wider world. The timeframe is also slightly different, in that "Renaissance" tends to refer to events over a generally earlier period than "Early Modern".
The term Middle Ages also derives from Petrarch. He was comparing his own period to the Ancient or Classical world, seeing his time as a time of rebirth after a dark intermediate period, the Middle Ages. The idea that the Middle Ages was a "middle" phase between two other large scale periodizing concepts, Ancient and Modern, still persists. It can be sub-divided into the Early, High and Late Middle Ages. The term Dark Ages is no longer in common use among modern scholars because of the difficulty of using it neutrally, though some writers have attempted to retain it and divest it of its negative connotations. The term "Middle Ages" and especially the adjective medieval can also have a negative ring in colloquial use ("the barbaric treatment of prisoners in such-and-such a prison is almost medieval") but this does not carry over into academic terminology. However, other terms, such as Gothic architecture, used to refer to a style typical of the High Middle Ages have largely lost the negative connotations they initially had, acquiring new meanings over time (see Gothic architecture and Goth subculture).
The Gothic and the Baroque were both named during subsequent stylistic periods when the preceding style was unpopular. The word "Gothic" was applied as a pejorative term to all things Northern European and, hence, barbarian, probably first by Giorgio Vasari. Vasari is also credited with first using the term "Renaissance" (rinascita), the period during which he was art historian, artist, and architect. Giorgio Vasari coined the term "Gothic" in an effort to describe, particularly architecture, that he found objectionable, supposedly saying "it is as if the Goths built it". The word "baroque" (probably) was used first in late 18th century French about the irregular natural pearl shape and later about an architectural style perceived to be "irregular" in comparison to the highly regular Neoclassical architecture of that time. Subsequently these terms have become purely descriptive, and have largely lost negative connotations. However, the term "Baroque" as applied to art (for example Rubens) refers to a much earlier historical period than when applied to music (Händel, Bach). This reflects the difference between stylistic histories internal to an art form and the external chronological history beyond it.
In many cases people living through a period are unable to identify themselves as belonging to the period that historians may later assign to them. This is partly because they are unable to predict the future, and so will not be able to tell whether they are at the beginning, middle or end of a period. Another reason may be that their own sense of historical development may be determined by religions or ideologies that differ from those used by later historians.
It is important to recognise the difference between self-defined historical periods, and those that historians defined later. At the beginning of the 20th century there was a general belief that culture, politics and history were entering a new era—that the new century would also be a new era in human experience. This belief was repeated at the beginning of the 21st century, though in a very different way. Other cultural and historical phases have only been described many years, or even centuries, later.
Origins of periodization
The origins of periodization is very old and first became part of the Western tradition in the myths of Ancient Greece and The Bible. Virgil spoke of a distant Golden Age and recurrent cycles of history. The Bible outlines a narrative of history from Creation to the End of time. One Biblical periodization scheme commonly used in the Middle Ages was Saint Paul's theological division of history in to three ages: the first before the age of Moses (under nature); the second under Mosaic law (under law); the third in the age of Christ (under grace). But perhaps the most widely discussed periodization scheme of the Middle Ages was the Six Ages of the World, where every age was a thousand years counting from Adam to the present, with the present time (in the Middle Ages) being the sixth and final stage.
Periodization of origins
It is easy to confuse the origins of periodization with the periodization of origins. The periodization of origins is an attempt to classify time periods in the distant past for which there is no direct record. As stated above, any sort of periodization is subject to qualifications and contentions that should not be taken lightly. Periodization of origins has its own challenges apart from, say, periodizations that rely on text, which are subtle and philosophically complex.
One tactic for periodization of the distant past, as in Anthropology, is to rely on events, such as the invention of some tool or the origins of language, which are known to exist, but about which little is known in detail.
- Lawrence Besserman, ed., The Challenge of Periodization: Old Paradigms and New Perspectives, 1996, ISBN 0-8153-2103-1. See Chapter 1 for an overview of the postmodernist position on Periodization.
- Bentley, J. H. 1996. Cross-Cultural Interaction and Periodization in World History. American Historical Review (June): 749–770.
- Grinin, L. 2007. Periodization of History: A theoretic-mathematical analysis. In: History & Mathematics. Moscow: KomKniga/URSS. P.10–38. ISBN 9785484010011.
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