Periodization, which became a branch of historical method and the philosophy of history in the twentieth century, has to do with the division of time's arrow—the theoretical timeline of the movement from past to present and future. In Western tradition this speculative aspect of history has its roots in myth and in the Bible—in Hesiod's succession of gold, silver, and bronze ages, for example, and in the periods and generations of the nation of Israel since Creation and the Fall, which long furnished the framework for the Judeo-Christian story of humanity, within which other cultural traditions were synchronized. To these, Christian theologians added ideas of particular ages (aetates), especially those before the law, under the law, and under grace, and later the ages of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, inspired by Joachim of Fiore (c. 1130 or 1135–1201 or 1202); and such messianic periodization passed also into eastern Europe, especially Poland. In ancient and medieval times, as in the work of St. Augustine of Hippo, Isidore of Seville, and the Venerable Bede, there was much speculation about the natural "ages of man"—three, four, six, or seven of them—which carried the analogy of the trajectory of human life (birth, youth, maturity, degeneration, and death) into the collective experience of nations or of humanity as a whole. Thus in the twentieth century Claude de Seyssel adapted Joachim's conceit of four ages to French history, marking infancy from the legendary Pharamond, youth to the end of the Merovingian dynasty, maturity under the Carolingians, and old age under the Capetian. On the political level the commonest way of describing the structure of history was through the biblically inspired conceit of the succession of four world monarchies—Medes, Persians, Greeks, and Romans, which included the Carolingian refoundation, the "Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation," down to its extinction by Napoleon in 1806. The notion of periods defined through political dominance was continued in the modern European tradition by recognition of Spain, France, England, Germany, and the United States (and the Soviet Union) as leading powers in their respective hours of glory.
For five or more centuries Western history has been dominated by the ancient-medieval-modern periodization, which arose from the conception of a "middle age" between ancient cultural splendor and its modern recovery by the humanists of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and by Protestant Reformers reacting to the intellectual "barbarism" of medieval scholasticism. As Petrarch (1304–1374) wrote in one of his sonnets (Epistolae metricae 3.33): "Long before my birth time smiled and may again, / for once there was, and yet will be, more joyful days. / But in this middle age time's dregs / sweep around us.…" And "in order to forget my own time, I have constantly striven to place myself in spirit in other ages"—whence the conceit of a rebirth of antiquity and the aforementioned triad of periods. Similar to Petrarch's perspective was the view of Christian humanists and reformers like Martin Bucer (1491–1551), who wrote of "the various periods of the church," from the purity of the primitive church to the centuries of oppression under Antichrists to his own time of a return to the true gospel in the Kingdom of Christ. The seventeenth-century notion of "a middle time between ancient and modern," fixed in the textbook tradition by Conrad Cellarius (1574–1636), and continued into the later period, when the "renaissance of letters" was essentialized and publicized as simply "the Renaissance" by Jules Michelet, Jacob Burckhardt, and their epigones, later became the subject of debate by twentieth-century scholars. In the nineteenth century his convention of three ages was applied by European historians also to India, China, and America.
Periodization focused first on literary and artistic change, but from the eighteenth century it attended also to the material base and, in the work of Adam Smith, Anne Turgot, and Y.-A. Goguet, developed a stadial conception of human history. "The four stages of society," wrote Smith in 1762, "are hunting, pasturage, farming, and commerce." He explained these stages and the "origins of government" with the help of the ancient theory of three constitutional forms: "In the age of hunters there can be very little government of any sort, but what there is will be of the democratical kind.… The age of shepherds is that where government properly commences, followed by agriculture, property, and rule by a few rich men, and then by the emergence of chieftains, marking a monarchical government." Arts and manufactures are then cultivated, "as property arrangements and disputes are multiplied and civilized through writing" (pp. 201, 459). By the end of the century this thesis, promoted also by Lord Kames, James Dalrymple, John Millar, Lord James Barrett Monboddo, William Russell, Christoph Meiners, and others had become commonplace in Britain as well as the continent, and it had a significant impact on the ideas of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and later world historians and textbook writers.
This line of inquiry and interpretation were part of what Dugald Stewart called "conjectural history," and there were many examples of efforts at periodization in this connection, beginning with the old biblical narrative, which Bishop Bossuet (1627–1704) divided into twelve "epochs" from Adam and the Flood down to Charlemagne's empire. A more secular periodization was devised by Giambattista Vico, who posited a succession of three ages—poetic (barbaric), heroic (feudal), and human (civil). Perhaps the most famous system was that of Marie-Jean Caritat, Marquis. de Condorcet (1743–1794), who, like Bossuet a century earlier, divided universal history into "epochs," but ten instead of twelve and following not Biblical chronology but rather a "reasoned" sort of history, analogous to Lockean psychology but projected onto a collective tabula rasa. Condorcet followed the improvement of social skills, technology, and the advancement of learning—from tribal, pastoral, and agricultural society, through the ancient and medieval periods, down to the invention of printing, the rise of modern philosophy, the founding of the French Republic in the age of revolutions, and his own agenda—"reason, toleration, and humanity"—which he presented in the form of prophecy. So he made his transition from the ninth to the tenth epoch, which was devoted to "the future progress of the human mind" and which represented a secular version of the eschatological dimensions of Christian tradition. As humanity approaches perfection, so history becomes futurology, and this heritage was taken up by French Utopians, Socialists, Positivists, Marxists, and not a few historians in the next century, who offer a wide range of ideas of progress.
Marx continued the economic interpretation, making the primary mode of production and class conflict the criteria, and the result was the threefold division of history of (primitive) feudal, capitalist, and proletarian, which inspired research, speculation, and polemic for over a century. For Marx history begins in barbarism and its kinship relations and moves on to the higher form of feudalism, based on control of landed property and serfdom, and then, with the development of trade, commerce, and finance, to a capitalist mode of production and industrialization that, generating proletarian class consciousness, looks forward to a transition to communism. The materialist view of history, inherited by Marx from Enlightenment political economy, was taken up as well by prehistorians, who on the basis of archeological researches distinguished the ages of stone (old and new—paleolithic and neolithic), bronze, and iron, which replaced or gave solid reinforcement to the "four-stage" system of eighteenth-century conjectural history, by connecting it with more precise chronological—that is, stratigraphic—calibrations. In the twentieth century the Annales school shifted attention from events and periodization to structures of long duration, and historians of women have questioned the relevance of traditional periodization to the turning points in the history of women.
Systems of periodization continue to appear, but most are variations on these old themes, applying ideas of evolution and "modernization," if not decadence and decline. Of course there are lower levels of periodizing, that is designating periods, whether by centuries, decades, cultural styles (Romantic, Baroque, Gothic, fin de siècle), political domination (Elizabethan, Napoleonic, Victorian, Soviet, Nazi), or individual celebrities (the age of Shakespeare, Bach), and the like. As for the time line for the story of the human species the parallel columns started by Eusebius and filled in by later chroniclers has been vastly expanded by geographical, archaeological, and anthropological discoveries, and periodization in the old sense has been marginalized, although appending a "postmodern" age to a modern one suggests that the impulse still survives.
Donald R. Kelley
- Periodization of the Arts - What Is A Period?, Periodization And Globalization: Mesoamerica As A Case Study, Feminism And Periodization
- Periodization - Bibliography
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