Introduction. Periodisation in a Global Context*

Preprint Thomas Maissen, Barbara Mittler, and Pierre Monnet


When I was a small boy and was taught history … 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. … 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)


In C. H. Williams’ ironic description, German historians in particular “have an industry they call ‘Periodisierung’ and they take it very seriously.” He argues (in a manner that does sound familiar from Orwell, above) that “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 logics, or “regimes of historicity” (François Hartog).[4] Epochal divisions and terminologies such as “antiquity”, “baroque,” the “classical age,” the “renaissance,” or “postmodernity,” 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 civilizations, nations and communities. Indeed, many contemporary categories of periodisation have their roots in teleologies created in Europe, reflecting particular national, religious or historical traditions. Thus they are also  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, next to Europe.


Accordingly, periodisations are never inert or innocent. What one could call eurochronologies, that is, periodisation schemes modeled on European historical developments (such as the triad Antiquity, Middle Ages, Modernity, or the Renaissance) have been used and applied as models to the histories of other regions of the world, something which is part of what Jack Goody calls a “theft of history” which refers, in his words “to the take-over of history by the west. That is, the past is conceptualized and presented according to what happened on the provincial scale of Europe, often western Europe, and then imposed upon the rest of the world.”[5] Goody thus describes what he sees as a pervasive Eurocentric bias in western historical writing which does not give credit to (and thus “steals”) the possibility of highly divergent historical developments in different parts of the world.[6] In considering periodisation schemes from different parts of the world, then, the aim of this volume is to uncover some of the dynamics behind particular cultural and historical uses of these periodisation schemes, as concepts for ordering the past, and to understand the powers, the method, the logics behind them—their chronologics, as David Damrosch once put it[7]—and thus to reconsider these periodisation schemes as terminologies “devised to think the world” (Sebastian Conrad), and their possible uses in the writing of world of global history.[8] The transregional approach to periodisation suggested here is our second attempt to grapple with this 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. At a first conference in Frankfurt, in 2016, we met to discuss Les usages de la temporalité dans les sciences sociales.[9] Then, our focus was on the disciplines and their particular ways of structuring and shaping the past. We asked since when certain disciplines began to use specific 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 also questioned whether there were particular ways of (not) handling temporality in, say, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, geography, history, art history and literary studies and how this had changed over time and in the history of the respective discipline. And we aimed to find out to what extent periodisation schemes were important elements in the self-perception of certain disciplines. Each of the disciplines, so it appeared, had each its own semantics, and accordingly, its own rules of narrative, discourse and practice—its own chronologics. A   specific disciplinary chronologics, therefore, would always (only) be able to express specific disciplinary contents, but when these chronologics become naturalized, these limitations are often no longer critically reflected. Accordingly, we asked questions about transferability, translatability and reproducability of periodisation schemes, moving betwixt and comparing between the disciplines and their conceptions in the francophone and germanophone traditions. A comparative approach is  one of our aims in this volume, again. This time, we engage in a regionally expansive global examination of periodisation schemes. The interdisciplinary perspective, taken in our first conference and volume and the transregional perspective taken here, allow for a reconsideration of the transferability as well as the non-transferability of concrete historical periodisation schemes. This may help us work out categories of historical analysis that go beyond disciplinary as well as national or civilization-bound interpretative patterns. The essays in this volume therefore focus on travelling eurochronologies, as they will be called by some of our authors, or chronotypes, as they are called by othersperiodisation types, that is, which are usually modeled on European examples.[10] In the Enlightenment, Europeans started structuring what they considered the History, a global process in a collective singular (and no longer as histories in the plural)[11]. Along with that, particular chronotypes have been translated worldwide into universal, national or—scaling down even further—community or group models. This volume does not consider these European models, alone, however. It also considers alternative, complementary or silenced morphologies and models of periodisation and epoch-making—which have been termed chronotropes, building on and expanding the interpretation of tropes in Hayden White [12]—and thus presenting alternative styles, or patterns of discourse about time and historical periods as used by different actors in different parts of the world and at different times. Some of the essays in this volume will be reconsidering the relation of  a certain “space-time” with power in different regions (i.e. chronotopes, in the sense of Bakthin[13]: comparing the space-time as it is represented through certain periodisation schemes with the types of space-time experienced and described by those on the ground[14]. As different scales (from group to nation to region to world) may also determine the making of space-time, they are considered as chronoscales (from nation to region, to world) in this volume. Our collection thus considers the making of periodisation schemes through categories of diffusion and scope as these can teach us of how successfully certain periodisation schemes have been “sold” both in the official and in the popular realms, in certain groups, but also nationally, regionally and in the world. 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, and especially dominant eurochronologies and  chronotypes along new trajectories of time, space, material and power? And what does this mean for a reconsideration of World or Global History?


The interdisciplinary and transregional perspective that we have chosen in this collection allows for a reconsideration of the “pitfalls of terminology” as Justus Nipperdey puts it in his essay. We suggest to study the (non-)transferability of specific periodisation schemes (or chronotypes  in different historical and regional situations and offer thoughts on the possibility of coming up, in this process of dialogic negotiation, with new tools or categories of historical analysis, that may go beyond these conventional interpretative patterns.


This volume intends to show, then, specific cultural, social, religious and national leanings and predispositions of periodisation schemes. The authors discuss the making of discrete chronologics, and the variable systems (e. g. religious, spatial, political) and morphologies (e. g. linear, spiral, circular) they take. They focus on different agents and modes involved in the making of periodisation schemes, on institutions ranging from the university to the museum but also on manifold genres such as the documentary, the editorial, the religious tract, or the historical novel. By bringing together scholars with an expertise in different regions of the world, we hope to better understand the importance of temporality (often combined in a complicated relation with spatiality, as discussed above) in the making of global history.


Huang Yongping: La Carte du Monde.

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


A good example for this approach to the powerful rhetorics and realities of time-space is an art work by Huang Yongping (1954-2019), a Chinese-born artist who had long been resident in France. In his Map of the World—La carte du monde (2000), arranged in spiral form, he uses 400 copper needles, with little flags giving specific dates between the years 2000 and 2046, to pinpoint the beginning moments (chronos) and locations (topos) of a series of epoch-making catastrophes. According to the artist, this artwork is a mix of “the past, the present and the future” (Jérôme Badie “Huang Yong Ping: «Pour “Empires”, je mélange le passé, le présent et le futur»”,  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, followed by 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.”


The art work captures, in a creative way, what this volume hopes to achieve 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 thus to be rethinking its possible uses in the writing of world of global history.


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 their chronologics, they each follow teleological narratives, which lead, essentially, from archaism to modernity.[15] 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. In these “traditional models” as Rüsen calls them in his contribution to this volume, history has thus been interpreted as a sequence of political (e. g. monarchical, constitutional, democratic), socio-economic (e.g. nomads, farmers, burghers) 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.


These two processes, the development of mankind on the one hand and of individual nations on the other, were linked since the Enlightenment and along with its philosophy of history 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 the Middle East to the West as several powerful civilisations handed over the leader’s torch one to the next. Dividing history, literature, art or music at particular stages in history meant positioning particular nations 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 by a German art historian, Wilhelm Pinder, in his 1926 book The Problem of Generation in European Art History.[16]—an interpretation that Jörn Rüsen, in the typology introduced in this volume, calls “genetic.”


Prominent scholars such as Jacques Le Goff or Reinhart Koselleck, have questioned the arbitrary choices of particular periodisation schemes. Kurt Flasch even went so far as to state: “The concept ‘epoch’ had its time, and its time is over.”[17] Others, such as Johan Huizinga, however, have shown how much we were to lose were we to discard them all together. Indeed, the use of periodisation schemes is not only comfortable, it may even be unavoidable. Both Aleida Assmann and Jacques Revel argued, in their conclusions to our Frankfurt conference on temporalities in the disciplines, that the most important question was not whether certain groups, societies, nations or regions should cut and slice their past into pieces according to typified patterns (the thick black lines ruled across the long scroll of history in the words of George Orwell), but rather what the reasons were why specific groups, societies, nations or regions, or the world at large, would choose to go back to its own past with and create its specific chronologics, a question which is, to some extent, at least, quite “universal,” and thus need (and must) not be burdened by European prioritism.[18] Indeed, it is to be questioned whether in fact the practice of periodisation and the use of specific chronotypes, i. e. the European or rather occidental  form of interpreting very particular pasts as universal processes leading, inevitably, towards modernity, is really tantamount to a “theft of history”, as Jack Goody put it, 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 process imposed on mankind? The alternative rhetorics and styles of these chronotropes offered in this volume, taken as possible ways of styling and describing historical development, and, coming from different directions, both within certain groups or regions, suggest that we are in fact dealing with a very common, if culturally shaped enterprise, which many different groups, no matter whether from the East or the West, can in fact engage with.


Is the all-encompassing modernity in which we appear to live, the product of a few occidental societies or should we follow Shmuel Eisenstadt in speaking of “multiple modernities” all over the world and consequently of different ways of coming to and shaping such modernities?[19] Or is there such a thing as a “modernity-in- common,” as Carol Gluck calls it, and what does that entail then?[20] In using European periodisation schemes—or eurochronologies—would it make a difference to modify these “traditional” terminologies, by adding, for example “Chinese” or “Italian” to Renaissance ?  Or should we look for new terms and create new periods altogether?[21] Not only when it comes to periodisation, one might 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—as established approaches in world or global history do not seem to offer an easy way out.


In the Histoire mondiale de la France, Patrick Boucheron proposes the globalisation of both the national and the regional as categories.[22] Without following a continuous narrative, he has chosen a series of sometimes surprising and even provokingly unconventional dates to structure his book. This kind of de-centering of an established temporal perspective, or chronologics, facilitates new manners of thinking national or regional histories.[23] It is certainly much more difficult to find convincing temporal perspectives of historical change on the level of the global. If one were to hope that global or world history could be more than just adding up specific local or national events in a collage, how can and how should such histories be written and structured—and which terminologies of periodisation should they use?


This is one question explored further in this volume: once one has acquired a better understanding of different terminologies, different practices and different processes of periodisation, and thus, the making of epochs in different parts of the world, one may be able to conceive several plausible narratives 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 oneself with what one thinks one knows, and opening up possibilities to reconceive this knowledge. Thus, one might even allow differently formulated manners of thinking about certain “alternative” periodisation schemes (chronotropes) to become constituents of potentially generalizable reflections on their historical value in one’s own analytical structures—thinking of creative co-creations rather than stifling en-forcements of certain model chronotypes.


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. It highlights, however, 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 completely. Re-centering  through the kind of transregional dialogue suggested in this volume, offers another kind of response to any kind of-centrism, presenting 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 ensuing asymmetries of power are constantly shifting direction.


All throughout this volume, therefore, questions of space-time and power will be a major focus. How do different regions, cultures, and times use periodisation as a means and a figure of political and intellectual domination, both within and without certain regions/cultures/timespans? The volume begins with a few papers theorizing periodisation as a method, itself: what are important motors, conditions, factors in creating certain periodisation schemes—chronologics. We then turn to discussing different morphologies of periodisation in a global context, European and not, chronotypes and chronotropes: how are they made, how are they performed, how can they be traced? In our second section, we then turn to the question of how both chronotypes and chronotropes are constantly contested as they are getting legitimized, and how they are turned into co-creative rather than imposing und oppressive concepts and regimes for periodisation. In its second section, then, the volume offers to rethink periodisation on different chronoscales, and from different chronotopes, considering micro- and macro-levels of historical thinking, re-considering hierarchies and perspectives on a chronoscale from the community to the nation, to the region and, eventually, the world.


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


One would expect that since periodisation schemes from all over the world are studied and understood in this volume 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. This volume (as well as the conference and the open peer review that preceded its publication) is an attempt to make interlocutors from different disciplines and fields engage with each other in something one might call a productive process of “history-in-dialogue.” While this process is necessarily one where none of the protagonists naturally agrees as they do not share certain disciplinarily or regionally informed presumptions and terminologies, a dialogue like this may still, enable  these  protagonists to escape the dilemma of misunderstanding claims for uniqueness as claims for precedence or superiority. One day, perhaps this will allow for new ways of conceiving world or global history.


*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 at the Berlin conference and in the open peer review process, namely Renate Dürr and Eva Maria Stolberg, for their intellectual input to this volume.


[1] George Orwell, The Collected Non-Fiction, ed. Peter Davison (London: Penguin, 2017), 1014. The quote reoccurs and is discussed in Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s Conclusion to this collection.

[2] Charles 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). See also Reinhart Herzog, Reinhart Koselleck (Hg.), Epochenschwelle und Epochenbewusstsein (München: De Gruyter, 1987) and Stéphane Gibert, Jean Le Bihan, Florian Mazel (dir.), Découper le temps. Acutalité de la périodisation en histoire, ATALA Cultures et sciences humaines no. 17 .

[5] Jack Goody, The Theft of History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 1.

[6] For a longish description which puts Goody into the broader context of other writings Re-Orienting historical thinking, see Riva Berleant, 2011/01/01 ”Review of Jack Goody, The Theft of History”, Anthropology Review Database,

[7] David Damrosch, “Chronologicsin Theo D’haen, ed., A World History of Literature (Brussels: Koninklijke Vlaamse Academie van Belgie, 2012), 35-46.

[8] Sebastian Conrad, “Enlightenment in Global History: A Historiographical Critique,” The American Historical Review 117, no. 4 (2012): 999–1027, 1011, for example, considers the enlightenment in such a manner.

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

[10] See, most recently, the work done in a collaborative research project “East Asian Uses of the Past: Tracing Braided Chronotypes” (EAU-TBC)

[11] Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past. On the Semantics of Historical Time. Translated and with an introduction by Keith Tribe (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 33-37.

[12] Cf. Hayden White, Metahistory. The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press), 1973.

[13] Mikhail M. Bakhtin, The dialogic Imagination: four Essays (Austin and London: The University of Texas Press), 1988.

[14] For the question of power-relations when it comes to chronotopes or space-time, consider especially Christian Grataloup “Les périodes sont des regions du monde,” Géohistoire de la mondialisation. Le temps long du monde, ATALA Cultures et sciences humaines no. 17, 2014, 65-81. See also the “Erfurter RaumZeit-Forschung”, a project running since 2011 which specifically deals with aspects of space-time:

[15] Stéphane Gibert, Jean Le Bihan, Florian Mazel, eds., Découper le temps. Acutalité de la périodisation en histoire, ATALA Cultures et sciences humaines no. 17 .

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

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

[18] See the concluding contributions by Aleida Assmann and Jacques Revel in Pierre Monnet, Thomas Maissen, Barbara Mittler, eds., Les usages de la temporalité dans les sciences sociales. Vom Umgang mit Temporalität in den Sozial- und Geisteswissenschaften (Bochum: Winkler Verlag, 2019).

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

[20] Carol Gluck, “Modernity in Common: Japan and world history,” in: Internationalizing Japan Studies: Dialogues, Interactions, Dynamics (Tokyo: Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, 2017),

[21] 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).

[22] Patrick Boucheron, 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).

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


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3 Responses

  1. Barbara Mittler says:

    RESPONSE BY AUTHORS: The comments have, in this version of the introduction, been responded to in the following way: (3) “theft of History” is now provided with an explanation by Goody himself, who coined the term. The phrasing “national and communitarian models” from previous section (5) has now moved to (3) where it has been specified as different scales from which to approach the question of chronotypes: “worldwide into universal, national or—scaling down even further—community or group models.”

  2. emstolberg says:

    In section 5: ….national and communitarian models.” Could you provide an explanation of the differences/nuances between national and communitarian models?

  3. emstolberg says:

    In section 3: ….they have been interpreted as a “theft of History”. This metaphor sounds intriguing. Could you elaborate on this imagery?

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