Introduction. Periodisation in a Global Context*

Preprint Thomas Maissen, Barbara Mittler, and Pierre Monnet

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When I was a small boy and was taught history—very badly, of course, as nearly everyone in England is—I used to think of history as a sort of long scroll with thick black lines ruled across it at intervals. Each of these lines marked the end of what was called a ‘period’, and you were given to understand that what came afterwards was completely different from what had gone before. It was almost like a clock striking. For instance, in 1499 you were still in the Middle Ages, with knights in plate armour riding at one another with long lances, and then suddenly the clock struck 1500, and you were in something called the Renaissance, and everyone wore ruffs and doublets and was busy robbing treasure ships on the Spanish Main. There was another very thick black line drawn at the year 1700. After that it was the Eighteenth Century, and people suddenly stopped being Cavaliers and Roundheads and became extra-ordinarily elegant gentlemen in knee breeches and three-cornered hats. They all powdered their hair, took snuff and talked in exactly balanced sentences, which seemed all the more stilted because for some reason I didn’t understand they pronounced most of their S’s as F’s. The whole of history was like that in my mind—a series of completely different periods changing abruptly at the end of a century, or at any rate at some sharply defined date.[1]

(George Orwell The Rediscovery of Europe)

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Epochal divisions and terminologies such as “antiquity”, “baroque,” the “classical age,” the “renaissance,” or “postmodernity,” the “long 19th” or “short 20th” centuries are more than mere tools used pragmatically to arrange school curricula or museum collections. In most disciplines based on historical methods, these terminologies carry very specific meanings and convey rather definite imaginations for the discursive construction of nations and communities. Indeed, many contemporary categories of periodisation have their roots in national teleologies created in Europe, reflecting particular religious or historical traditions. Thus they are closely linked to particular power relations. As part of the colonial encounter they have been translated into new “temporal authenticities” in Africa, Asia and the Americas, as well as in Europe.

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German historians in particular, in C. H. Williams’ ironic description, “have an industry they call ‘Periodisierung’ and they take it very seriously. […] Periodisation, this splitting up of time into neatly balanced divisions is, after all, a very arbitrary proceeding and should not be looked upon as permanent.”[2] In producing and reproducing periodisations, historians structure possible narratives of temporality, they somehow “take up ownership of the past,” (Janet L. Nelson)[3] imposing particular “regimes of historicity” (François Hartog).[4] Accordingly, periodisations are never inert or innocent, indeed, they have been interpreted as a “theft of History” (Jack Goody).[5] The aim of this volume is to uncover some of the dynamics behind particular cultural and historical uses of periodisation schemes, as concepts for ordering the past, and thus to reconsider these terminologies “devised to think the world” (Sebastian Conrad).[6]

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Periodisations are culturally determined. They beg for systematic comparison in order to identify the contextual specificity and contingency of particular understandings of particular historical epochs. An interdisciplinary and transregional perspective allows for a reconsideration of the (non-)transferability of historical periodisations and the possibility to work out categories of historical analysis that go beyond nation-bound interpretative patterns.

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This volume aims to show where, when, how and why periodization schemes reveal clear cultural, social, and national leanings and predispositions. We will discuss the making of these chronologics, and the variable systems (e. g. religious, spatial) and morphologies (e. g. linear, spiral, circular) they take. We will focus on different agents and modes involved in the making of periodisation schemes (institutions ranging from the university to the school or the museum but also genres such as the documentary or the historical novel). We will discuss how European attempts at structuring the History, and along with them, particular chronotypes and chrononymes have been translated worldwide into universal and/or national and communitarian models.[7] At the same time, we will also focus on alternative, complementary and or silenced models of periodisation and epoch-making. By bringing together scholars with an expertise in different regions of the world, we hope to better understand the importance of temporality in the making of global history.

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Huang Yongping: La Carte du Monde.

Fig. 1 Huang Yongping: La Carte du Monde 2000.
Photo credits: Huang Yongping

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Huang Yongping (*1954), a Chinese-born artist now resident in France, in his Map of the World—La carte du monde (2000), arranged in spiral form, uses 400 copper needles, with little flags giving specific dates between the years 2000 and 2046, to pinpoint the beginning moments and locations of a series of epoch-making catastrophes. According to the artist, this artwork is a mix of “the past, the present and the future” (Interview in Le Monde, 13.05.2016) as it illustrates the modification of the world, the metamorphoses of political and economic forces, the ascension of new geographic regions and the decline of ancient empires, the provisional apparition of new candidates for power and the violence that these ambitions provoke. La carte du monde is one in a series of works entitled Empires in which Huang reflects on what he considers “the engine for the transformation of the world” (and at the same time, its destruction): Power. For Huang “maximum power equals maximum destruction.”

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The art work captures, in a creative way, what we would like to achieve in this volume in analytical terms: zooming in and out on periodisation and the multiple and expansive possibilities of thinking about it—in terms of spaces, of times and of materialities—we are out to understand the powers, the method behind it—its chronologics, that is—and we suggest to be rethinking its possible uses in the writing of world of global history.

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Periodisation is the business, first and foremost, so it may seem to many, of History or rather historiography. As an academic discipline with particular methods, History in turn is a typical product of 19th century Europe, not unlike other disciplines in the humanities and the social sciences: literature, art, musicology, philosophy, political economy, sociology, anthropology, etc. In terms of chronologics, they each follow a similar teleological narrative, which leads, essentially, from archaism to modernity.[8] This does not necessarily mean that this is a narrative of progress; different kinds of “classicism” from earlier times are also seen as exemplary, and indeed, distant “noble roots” have been at least as important for the making, the genealogies of national histories as the glorious unfolding of the respective nations in their respective present. History has thus been interpreted as a sequence of political (e. g. monarchical, constitutional, democratic) and cultural phases (e. g. use of paper, use of print technology, etc.) which, on the one hand, structured the development of mankind and, on the other, made possible the formation and growth of particular nations.

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These two processes, the development of mankind on the one hand and of individual nations on the other, were linked through the concept of civilization, i. e. the continuous emancipation of mankind from nature. In this vision, mankind originated a set of cultural skills through time and space, on a path leading from East to West as several powerful nations handed over the leader’s torch one to the next. Dividing history, literature, art or music at particular stages in history meant positioning a particular nation on the (always already validatory) scale of this “civilizing process,” one which was headed, inevitably, towards modernity. Many well known concepts stem from this teleological interpretation of the past: “development,” “progress,” and “the non-simultaneity of the simultaneous,” for example, introduced, significantly, by a German art historian, Wilhelm Pinder, in his 1926 book The Problem of Generation in European Art History.[9]
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As to the epochs themselves—the classical triad antiquity, middle ages, and modern age, following the renaissance—they do not necessarily imply a teleological end, but they are still used in a critical, indeed, judgmental manner as well. Yet, while these concepts are still widely used, even Europeanists are becoming aware that one may want to question or at least problematize them. There are obvious problems with periodisation: why should we divide up historical continuity in the first place? Any criterion demarcating periods of time is necessarily arbitrary. Is it possible at all to subordinate the many very different phenomena that are part of historical experience to one logics, one category, one terminology? Moreover, periodisation schemes tend to be far too general to encompass all the important phenomena in a given time or region. To what extent are elitist periodisation schemes, for example, developed for the fine arts or politics, actually able to cover or include social and economic experiences of the many, at the microlevels of society? “Chrononymes,”[10] i. e. the established terms used for certain periods of time, may often correspond to shared perceptions, as does, for example, the “Interwar period—Entre deux guerres” 1918–1939 for many Europeans. But this certainly does not work as an imaginary feasible and understandable for all of them, since this Western European perception can easily be aligned with the experiences of civil war in Central, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe after 1918, not to mention, in the rest of the world. If we continue to use established periodisation schemes, should we modify these “traditional” terminologies, then, by adding, for example “Chinese” or “Italian” to Renaissance or should we look for new terms altogether?[11] Does a term that fits one country very well correspond to the situation in another equally well? Probably not. Just take “Classicism” in Germany, England and France; surely we are not talking about the same phenomena while using the same term, nevertheless. Many historians, among them prominent scholars such as Jacques Le Goff or Reinhart Koselleck, have questioned, therefore, not only the arbitrary choices of particular periodisation schemes, but the very practice of using them while others have shown how much we would lose were we to discard them all together (e. g. Johan Huizinga). Kurt Flasch even went so far as to state: “The concept ‘epoch’ had its time, and its time is over.”[12]

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Evidently, these problems become ever more manifest when we talk and write in terms of world or global history (terms that are not exactly identical in meaning, either, which is why we keep using them both, for the moment). How to use these terms, especially with periodisation on our minds, is a debate we will want to engage in more throughout this volume. But let us come back to periodisation: periodisation is comfortable and may even be unavoidable. But is periodisation and the use of specific chronotypes, i. e. the European or rather occidental, Western European form of interpreting very particular pasts as universal processes, really tantamount to a “theft of history”, to use Jack Goody’s words; a “usurpation of history” by those who have now, for quite some time, dominated the process of globalization and who have thus declared their domination as the result of a metaphysical process imposed on mankind? Or is periodisation simply a culturally shaped enterprise—the secularization of Christian salvific history as Karl Löwith has taught us?[13]

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If we label our own time modernity, for example, do we have to follow Shmuel Eisenstadt in speaking of “multiple modernities” all over the world and consequently of different ways of coming to and shaping such modernities?[14] Or is there such a thing as a “modernity-in-common,” as Carol Gluck calls it, and what does that entail then?[15] Not only when it comes to periodisation, we all know that we will have to think and write history in a manner different from what has been done traditionally if we are out to cope with the realities and challenges of the 21st century. As of now, however, we do not quite know how—and world or global history approaches do not seem to constitute an easy way out.

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François Hartog has illustrated that the moment of introducing periodisation schemes, or “régimes d’ historicité”[16] in Europe in the 19th century, was a very crucial moment, historically, of industrialization, colonization and nation-building, a moment when, due to uprooting technical, political and cultural changes, relations between past, present and future needed to be fundamentally redefined. Perhaps today we are at a similar moment—of crise de l’histoire as Gérard Noiriel would put it.[17] Postmodern historicity entails elements as different as the apparent acceleration of time and the contraction of space, both helped on by digitization and the internet, which also facilitates the deconstruction of event and fact, the apparent triumph of the present over the past in some societies and the ideological instrumentalization of the past in others. Postmodern historicity entails new milleniarisms in some places and a disenchantment about the future in others, the “new” but immediately contested idea of the anthropocene, as well as the evident competition by chronologics from other parts of the world. The fact that national history and world or global history are seen to be situated at opposite ends (where they need not necessarily be) is just another piece of evidence for the existence of a “crisis” in postmodern historiography which is further illustrated by the heated debate around the new Histoire mondiale de la France, a collective work edited by Patrick Boucheron, to which some 122 historians, Pierre Monnet among them, have contributed. In the Histoire mondiale de la France Patrick Boucheron proposes the globalisation of both the national and the regional as categories.[18] Without following a continuous narrative, he has chosen a series of sometimes surprising dates to structure the book. These dates are deliberately and even provokingly unconventional, besides maybe 800—the coronation of Charlemagne—which, in itself, however, is not taken as a starting point, but as the end of the Roman imperial idea. The “beginnings” in this history are 842/43, 1202, 1347, 1633, 1751, 1795 (the “nation des lumières” ends with the Terreur), 1858 (mondialisation à la française), 1907, 1960 and 1989. This kind of de-centering of the timely perspective facilitates new manners of thinking national or regional histories, but it may be more difficult to find convincing time perspectives on historical change on the level of the global. If we want global or world history to be more than just adding up specific local or national events in a collage, how can and how should such histories be structured?

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This is the question we would like to explore further in this volume: Once we have acquired a better understanding of different terminologies, different practices and different processes of periodisation, the making of epochs in different parts of the world, we may be able to conceive several plausible narratives (rather than just one master narrative) in and for periodisation in global or world history, acknowledging thereby different historical experiences, and as many different historical pasts as we possibly can, thus de-familiarizing ourselves with what we think we know, and opening up possibilities to reconceive this knowledge. Thus, we might even allow differently formulated manners of thinking about certain periodisation schemes to become constituents of potentially generalizable reflections on their historical value in our own analytical structures—thinking of creative co-constructions rather than stifling en-forcements of certain periodisations schemes.[19]

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Obviously, this kind of approach does not deny the pervasion of European thought and the rise of the West over the last two and a half centuries. But it will affirm that European periodisation schemes and epochal divisions are as “local” and “timely” as any others, without for that reason dismissing the possibility of their wider applicability. Re-centering, through the kind of transregional dialogue that we are suggesting here, offers another kind of response to any kind of -centrism, offering up more inclusive renderings of knowledge production to counter the inequities and occlusions of what has clearly unmasked itself as a very local—European—“universalism” which is only a temporary one, too, as cultural flows and the ensuant asymmetries of power are constantly shifting.

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The transregional approach to periodisation which we are suggesting here is our second attempt to grapple with the question of chronologics from a perspective that is neither exclusively driven by History as the “master discipline” of periodisation, nor by Europe as the “center” of gravity and scale. When we met in Frankfurt to discuss Les usages de la temporalité dans les sciences sociales, our focus was on different disciplines and their particular ways of structuring and shaping the past.[20] We asked since when certain disciplines began to use periodisation schemes, and whether these schemes, and with them, the introduction of temporality as a key concept, had changed the discipline and its methods and sources of study. We then asked whether there were particular ways of (not) handling temporality in, say, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, geography, history and literary studies and how this had changed over time and in the history of the discipline. And we aimed to find out to what extent periodisation schemes were important elements in the self-perception of certain disciplines. Each of these different disciplines had each its own semantics, and accordingly, its own rules of narrative, discourse and practice—its own chronologics. This is limiting, of course: specific chronologics will always (only) be able to express specific contents, and as soon as these chronologics become naturalized in certain disciplines, they are no longer critically reflected. Here, too, we asked questions about transferability, translatability and reproducability of periodisation schemes, if this time, between disciplines and not regions.

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Comparison remains one of our aims. This time, we expand our perspective and engage in a global examination of systems of periodisation. The interdisciplinary perspective, taken in our first conference and volume and the transregional perspective taken here, allow for a reconsideration of the transferability and also the non-transferability of concrete historical periodisation schemes. It may help us work out categories of historical analysis that go beyond national or civilization-bound interpretative patterns. The essays in this volume which focus on travelling chronotypes, on morphologies and models of periodisation in different parts of the world and at different times, consider the relation between time and power and they teach us of how periodisation has been “sold” both in the official and in the popular realm. Throughout, we will attempt to answer some of the following questions: What shapes and forms the making of certain chronologics and not others, what are the ideological, cultural, religious, material, reasons behind them? How can we rethink established models of periodisation along the trajectories of time, space and material? And what does this mean for a reconsideration of World or Global History?

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Our hope is that readers of this volume will become a bit more conscious of those shortcomings that are unavoidable if we use set terminologies or periodisation schemes and if we engage a specific intellectual habitus coined by one particular discipline and regional expertise in using periodisation schemes to understand global change when they remain always already culturally limited.

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If periodisation schemes from all over the world are studied and understood not only on their own terms, but also in the comparative context of others at the same time, there is room for interaction and dialogue. An idea, an event, an epochal frame may thus be read from a variety of different angles as expressed by vastly different and often dissenting interlocutors, and this volume (as well as the conference and the open peer review that preceded its publication) is an attempt to make as many interlocutors from different disciplines and fields speak to each other as possible, in something we might call a productive process of “history-in-dialogue” which may, eventually, enable us to escape the dilemma of misunderstanding claims for uniqueness as claims for precedence or superiority. This will eventually allow for new ways of conceiving world or global history.

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All throughout, the question of time and power will be a major focus. How do different regions, cultures, times use periodization as a means and a figure of political and intellectual domination, both within and without certain regions/cultures/timespans. Our volume begins with a few papers theorizing periodisation as a method, itself: what are important motors, conditions, factors in creating certain periodisation schemes—chronologics. It will then turn to discussing different morphologies of periodization in a global context, chronotropes: how are they made, how are they performed, how can they be traced. In a third section, we turn to the question of how certain chronotypes move to other parts of the world and how they may be adopted and adapted as well as legitimized and turned into colligatory rather than imposing und oppressive concepts and regimes for periodisation. In its final section, the volume turns to rethinking periodization on different chronoscales, and from the micro- to the macro-levels of historical thinking, re-considering hierarchies and perspectives from the nation, to the region and, eventually, the world.[21]

*We would like to thank the Forum Transregionale Studien as well as our own institutions, the Heidelberg Center for Transregional Studies, the Deutsches Historisches Institut Paris and the Institut franco-allemand des sciences historiques et sociales Frankfurt and all participants in the Berlin conference and the open peer review process for their contribution to this volume.

[1] George Orwell, The Collected Non-Fiction, ed. Peter Davison (London: Penguin, 2017), 1014.

[2] C. H. Williams, ed., English Historical Documents 1485–1558 (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1967), 1.

[3] Janet L. Nelson, “The Dark Ages,” History Workshop Journal 63 (2007): 191–201, 191–92.

[4] François Hartog, Régimes d’historicité. Présentisme et expériences du temps (Paris: Seuil, 2002).

[5] Jack Goody, The Theft of History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[6] Sebastian Conrad, “Enlightenment in Global History: A Historiographical Critique,” The American Historical Review 117, no. 4 (2012): 999–1027, 1011.

[7] Stéphane Gibert, Jean Le Bihan, Florian Mazel, eds., Découper le temps. Acutalité de la périodisation en histoire (Rennes, 2014).

[8] For a recent critical approach see Henning Trüper, Dipesh Chakrabarty, and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, eds., Historical Teleologies in the Modern World (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), 3–24.

[9] Wilhelm Pinder, Das Problem der Generation in der Kunstgeschichte Europas (Frankfurt, Frankfurter Verlags-Anstalt, 1926).

[10] Dominique Kalifa, “Introduction,” Chrononymes. Dénommer le sècle = Revue de l’histoire XIXe siècle 52 (2016): 9–17, 9–10.

[11] This question is discussed in Thomas Maissen and Barbara Mittler, Why China did not have a renaissance—and why that matters: an interdisciplinary dialogue (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2018).

[12] Kurt Flasch, “Epoche,” in Philosophie hat Geschichte, vol. 1: Historische Philosophie. Beschreibung einer Denkart (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 2003), 134.

[13] Karl Löwith, Meaning in History. The Theological Implication of the Philosophy of History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949).

[14] Shmuel Eisenstadt, “Multiple Modernities,” Daedalus 129, no. 1 (2000): 1–29.

[15] Carol Gluck, “Modernity in Common: Japan and world history,” Internationalizing Japan Studies: Dialogues, Interactions, Dynamics (Tokyo, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, 2017), https://doi.org/10.15026/91239.

[16] François Hartog, Régimes d’historicité. Présentisme et expériences du temps (Paris: Seuil, 2002).

[17] See Gérard Noiriel, Sur la crise de l‘histoire (Paris: Gallimard, 2005).

[18] Patrick Boucheron, ed., Histoire mondiale de la France (Paris: Seuil, 2017); cf. also Patrick Boucheron, ed., Histoire du monde au XVe siècle (Paris: Fayard, 2009) and Patrick Boucheron and Nicolas Delalande, Pour une histoire-monde (Paris: PUF, 2013).

[19] Leigh K. Jenco, “Recentering Political Theory: The Promise of Mobile Locality,” Cultural Critique 79 (2011): 42.

[20] Pierre Monnet, Thomas Maissen, Jean-Louis Georget, and Barbara Mittler, eds., Les usages de la temporalité dans les sciences sociales. Vom Umgang mit der Temporalität in den Sozial- und Geisteswissenschaften (Bochum: Winkler Verlag, forthcoming 2019).

[21] This section will be significantly expanded and will contain a synthesis and summary of the papers in the volume, after Open Peer Review ends and we have received suggestions and criticisms.

This work is licensed under a Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0). 


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