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Periodization is the attempt to categorize universal history or divide time into named blocks. The result is descriptive abstraction that provide convenient terms for periods of time with relatively stable characteristics. However, determining the precise beginning and ending to any "period" is often arbitrary.
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, but once established, a period "brand" is so convenient that many are very hard to shake off.
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 dynasties, 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" is largely meaningless outside the Western world 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 very often said, 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 Britain, and even within, does her reign of 1837-1901 usefully constitute a historical period? 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 often used for a period largely identical to the Elizabethan Period or reign of Elizabeth I, and begins some 200 years later than the Italian Renaissance. However the Carolingian Renaissance is said to have occurred during the reign of the Frankish king Charlemagne, and his immediate successors. Other examples, neither of which constituted a "rebirth" in the sense of revival, are 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 the Italian poet Petrarch, the father of Renaissance Humanism, 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 1500-1530. This concept applies dominantly to the visual arts, and the work of Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo da Vinci. Secondarily it is applied to other arts, but it is questionable whether it is useful to describe a phase in economic, social and political history. Many professional historians now refer to the historical periods commonly known as the Renaissance and the Reformation as the start of the Early Modern Period, which extends much later. 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 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.
The usual method for periodization of the distant prehistoric past, in archeology is to rely on changes in material culture and technology, such as the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age and their sub-divisions also based on different styles of material remains. Despite the development over recent decades of the ability through radiocarbon dating and other scientific methods to give actual dates for many sites or artefacts, these long-established schemes seem likely to remain in use. In many cases neighbouring cultures with writing have left some history of cultures without it, which may be used.
Some events or short periods of change have such a drastic effect on the cultures they affect that they form a natural break in history. These are often marked by the widespread use of both "pre-" and "post-" phrases centred on the event, as in "pre-Reformation" and "post-Reformation", or "pre-colonial" and "post-colonial". Both pre-war and post-war are still understood to refer to World War II, although at some future point the phrases will need to be altered to make that clear.
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 into 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.
- 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 978-5-484-01001-1.
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