Periodization is the attempt to categorize or divide historical time into discrete named blocks. This is usually done in order to facilitate the study and analysis of history, understanding current and historical processes, and causality that might have linked those events. This results in descriptive abstractions 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, since it has changed over time over the course of history.
To the extent that history is continuous and not generalized, 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 schemes of temporal periodization.
Periodization is a complex problem in history. History is in fact continuous, and so all systems of periodization are to some extent arbitrary. Almost every dynamic age is an "age of transition" as the cliché has it. It is nevertheless necessary to divide up history in order to make sense of the past and to articulate changes over time. Furthermore, different nations and cultures experience different histories, and therefore require different models of periodization. Periodizing labels are being challenged and redefined all the time. Thus, an historian may claim that there was no such thing as the Renaissance, while others will defend the concept.
Why different epochs of human history have characteristics that seem to typify the mindset, ethos or worldview of an age, or what the Germans call an epoch's Zeitgest, remains a subject of study and of much speculation. Some even suggest that there might quite literally be something in the air, or in the "noosphere." Sometimes, a period of intellectual and technological growth is followed by one of stagnation, and vice versa. What raises up key individuals, sometimes from obscurity, who dominate each epoch, has been explained by such terms as kismet, destiny or even fate, yet the view that people are free agents mitigates against such a determinist view of history. On the other hand, many religions do believe that human individuals are "called" namely have a particular "mission in the world," for which they may be commissioned by God. What else allows for a Moses or an Ashoka appear when they did?
Eastern traditions also believe in karma, in the law of cause and effect that support an individual's progress towards eventual liberation. Any understanding of history as the arena in which God and humanity are meant to co-operate towards the realization of God's ultimate purpose for creation tends to incorporate into its historical philosophy the view that God participates in the unfolding of history.
Sometimes, an epoch moves humanity forwards but sometimes it reflects stagnation or reversion, perhaps for the sake of further cleansing the human spirit. Different periods, however assessed, thus represent the crucible of each moment in which the relationship between "God" and human beings gives rise to conditions upon which history proceeds.
At its simplest, periodization helps scholars to deal with history in manageable pieces but most systems assume that some common feature characterizes an era and therefore suggests a date for a 'beginning' and an 'end.' Periodizing blocks, though, inevitably overlap, or may even seem to contradict one another. Furthermore, certain periodizing concepts only apply under specific conditions, such as the Axial Age or the Renaissance. Others refer to historical events (such as the “Inter-War years”: 1918–1939), yet others are defined by decimal numbering systems (“the 1960s” or “seventeenth century”). Others are named from influential or talismanic individuals ('the Victorian Era,' 'the Edwardian Era,' 'the Napoleonic Era'). Some schemes may, as suggested above, be little more than convenient ways to handle the vast amount of historical data available, and are little more than naming a period after the ruling dynasty. Other schemes are informed by a philosophy of history that traces such developments as the rise and decline of civilizations, or the evolution of human technological achievement or, as with Marxism, the class clash between the owners of the means of production and those who labor that will lead to the creation of a utopian future.
Approaches to history that understand the story of human life as having a purpose, which believe that it is possible to judge progress towards the realization of that purpose by applying certain criteria to historical data find periodization especially useful. Different periods of history can be judged as representing progress or as representing regression in terms of achieving the goal of history. Religious or theological understandings of history, for example, that regard human history as moving towards a human-divine partnership, or towards human redemption or towards restoration of what was lost in an original Fall, will be interested in adjudicating whether any progress towards such a goal was made during a particular period of history. Criteria applied would include asking whether people lived fruitful lives, whether family life flourished, whether there was division or equality in society, whether the created order was treated with respect or exploited, whether disputes were settled peacefully or with violence. A Marxist view of history also posits progress, away from class struggle and the dominance of a capitalist elite, towards a classless, egalitarian society. The Marxist end of history has some similarity with religious views that history will culminate in a perfect society, in a unified world of peace under God.
Some of these usages also are 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 statements as “The 1960s never occurred in Spain.” This would mean that the sexual revolution, counterculture, youth rebellion—that occurred largely in response to the Vietnam War in the United States—never developed during that decade in Spain's conservative Roman Catholic culture and under Francisco Franco's fascist 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 ten-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 nineteenth 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. What today may chronologically be called 'modern' will be the 'middle ages' in another thousand years, when a new label would be needed for what is often now called the 'Middle Ages.'
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 would include 'Victorian,' as an adjective which is often used negatively to suggest sexual repression, class conflict, heavy industry and so on. Other labels such as 'Renaissance' have strongly positive characteristics. As a result, these terms will sometimes be extended in meaning. Thus the 'English Renaissance' is virtually identical in meaning to the 'Elizabethan Period' associated with Queen Elizabeth I's reign (1558–1603). However the Carolingian Renaissance is said to have occurred during the reign of the Frankish king Charlemagne(768-814). There is a space of approximately seven hundred years between these two renaissances. Other examples include the 'American Renaissance' of the 1820s-1860s, referring mainly to literature, and the 'Harlem Renaissance' of the 1920s, referring mainly to African-American literature but also to music.
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 and scholar Petrarch (1304 - 1374), the father of the Renaissance, a term that was not coined until the nineteenth 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, and which culminated in the High Renaissance at 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 period commonly known as the Renaissance as 'the Early Modern Period.’ There has been no substantive change in the courses taught or books published to correspond to the change in period nomenclature, but this in part reflects differences between social history and cultural history. The time frame is also slightly different, in that 'Renaissance' tends to refer to events over a much longer and 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.
The Gothic and the Baroque were both named during subsequent stylistic periods when the preceding style was unpopular. The word 'Gothic', derived from the Germanic tribe of Goths that invaded the Roman Empire from the north, was applied as a pejorative term to all things Northern European and, hence, barbarian, probably first in the generation of Francois Rabelais (1493- 1553), the French writer who criticized established authority through his comic writing. The word 'baroque' (probably) was used first in late eighteenth-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 (1600 - 1750) (Händel, Bach). This reflects the difference between stylistic histories internal to an art form and the external chronological history beyond it.
While living through a period people are understandably 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 specific 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 recognize the difference between self-defined historical periods, and those that are later defined by historians. At the beginning of the twentieth 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 twenty-first century, though in a very different way. Other cultural and historical phases have only been described many years, or even centuries, later.
Many currently used periodization labels will need to be re-thought in the future—say in five hundred years, calling the twentieth and twenty-first centuries modern and the eleventh and twelfth 'the Middle Ages' will no longer make any sense.
Origins of Periodization
The origins of periodization are very old and first became part of the Western tradition in the myths of Ancient Greece and The Bible. Virgil (ca. 70 - 19 B.C.E.) spoke of a distant Golden Age and recurrent cycles of history. The Bible outlines a narrative of history from Creation in the Book of Genesis to the End of time in the Book of Revelation. 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). Perhaps the most widely discussed periodization scheme was the Six Ages of the World, first developed by Saint Augustine (354 - 430 C.E.), although he drew on earlier Jewish tradition. In this scheme, every age was a thousand years counting from Adam to the present. The first age spanned the period between Adam and the Flood of (Noah), the second between the Flood and Abraham's time, the third between Abraham and King David, the fourth between David and the captivity, the fifth between the Babylonian period and the time of Jesus, while the sixth period, for Augustine, was his present era. Significantly, these correspond to the six days of creation from Genesis. The seventh age, which will be inaugurated by the Day of Judgment, will be an era of rest, like the seventh day. By completing the journey, humankind will eventually achieve peace with the Creator.
Some Christian and Theological Periodizations
Several theological periodizations draw on Biblical use of numbers. Both Jews and Christians believe that numbers are significant, and that they aid an understanding of history from a providential point of view. For example, the number 40 is closely associated in the Bible with God testing or chastising a person or a people. Thus, the Flood lasted for 40 days (Genesis 7:4); the children of Israel spent 40 years wondering in the wilderness following the Exodus (14:33-34); Jesus fasted for 40 days and was tempted by Satan (Luke 4:2). Also, Jesus remained on earth for 40 days after the Resurrection (Acts 1:3). Many Christians have deduced possible dates for the End of the World (for the return, or second coming, of Christ) from various periodizations, usually based on the length of the six ages—or 6000 years (1 Peter 3:8 says that "one day for God is like a thousand for humankind"). In this scenario, Satan has leave to rule for 6000 years (equivalent to the first six days of creation). Then, there will be a time of tribulation (predicted by Jesus, Matthew 24:21-2), followed by a great final battle (Revelation 16:16) that will result in Christ's victory and the start of 1000 years of peace (the seventh day).
Famously, Archbishop James Usher (1581-1656) counted backward from known dates and used the length of the lives of Biblical characters to calculate that creation took place in the year 4004 B.C.E. This means that Satan's "6000-year reign" should have ended in the year 2004. Many Christians did expect Jesus' return at the start of the second millennium.
Usher's chronology was popularized by the influential American pastor and Bible commentator, Cyrus Ingersoll Scofield (1843-1921), whose Scofield Reference Bible was first published by Oxford University Press in 1909 and is now in the public domain. He provided a date for each page of the Bible (Genesis 1 is 4004 B.C.E., Genesis 12 is 2126 B.C.E.). Publication of his Bible successfully popularized what is known as a "dispensationalist history," developed originally by John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) of the Plymouth Brethren. In his Bible, Scofield wrote, “The dispensations are distinguished…exhibiting the majestic, progressive order of the divine dealings with humanity, ‘the increasing purpose’ which runs through and links together the ages, from the beginning of the life of man to the end in eternity.” Further, he states, “a dispensation is a period of time during which man is tested in respect of obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God.” Periods of history may thus represent times of punishment or of vindication: the Egyptian captivity was followed by the Exodus; the Babylonian captivity was followed by the Return.
Scofield's Seven Dispensations
Scofield identified seven dispensations:
- Innocence (Genesis 1:28)
- Conscience or Moral Responsibility (Genesis 3:7)
- Human Government (Genesis 8:15)
- Promise (Genesis 12:1)
- Law (Exodus 19:3)
- of grace (the age of the Church) (Acts 2:1)
- Kingdom of peace (Revelation 20:4)
Scofield's dispensations (which rightly divided 'the word of truth') did not merely divide history into convenient chronological periods but interpreted history, positing a cause and effect relationship between different dispensations. Loss of innocence required the second dispensation. Israel's failure to realize God's kingdom meant that Jesus had to enter the world. However, he had to postpone the Kingdom until his Second Return, establishing the Church as an interlude between his two advents. Scofield parted company from traditional Christian thought in regarding the church as 'something new' rather than as the New Israel (commenting on Ephesians 3:6). Instead, Israel will be restored when Jesus reigns for a thousand years, when he will sit on David's throne: “The king will restore the Davidic monarchy in his own person” and the kingdom that he establishes will be “political, spiritual, Israelitish, universal … the manifestation of the righteousness of God in human affairs,” restoring the lost ideal of Davidic kingship. This “constitutes the seventh dispensation.” The Jews are on an “earthly” track, and the Christians on a “spiritual” track, but God remains concerned for both people.
Predicting the Future
Many of Scofield's ideas influenced Hal Lindsey's and C. C. Carlson's best-selling 1970 book, The Late Great Planet Earth, including the need for Christians to support the State of Israel, as this has a critical role to play in the events of the end times. They saw a parallel between the then Common Market (now the European Union) and the Roman Empire, which would become the Beast of the Antichrist, fulfilling the prophecy of the beast with ten horns from Daniel 7:7-8 and Revelations 13:1. The Common Market was the start of the ten nation confederacy predicted by Daniel and the Book of Revelation. Lindsey and Carlson also predicted the demise or decline of the United States and that the End would occur during the 1990s. Russia would be 'Gog,' one of the final opponents of goodness. Previously, in his commentary on Ezekiel 38, Scofield had predicted that Russia would be Gog, on Satan's side in the final battle. Like Scofield, Lindsey and Carlson believe that true Christians will be taken up (in the 'rapture') before the End. The Jehovah Witnesses have predicted various (approximately 25) dates for Jesus' return, beginning with 1814, which Charles Taze Russell (1852-1916) worked out in Gentile Times: When Do They End (1876) based on the reference to “seven times” in Daniel 4:16, which he translated as “2,520 years … at the commencement of our Christian era, 606 years of this time had passed, (70 years captivity, and 536 from Cyrus to Christ) which deducted from 2520, would …end in A.D. 1914 when Jerusalem shall be delivered forever.”
William Miller (1782-1849), a Baptist who inspired the Seventh Day Adventist movement, had predicted Jesus' return for the year 1843. He derived from Daniel 8-9 that 2,300 years would pass between the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple by Nehemiah and Jesus' return. Dating Artaxerxe's decree to rebuild the Jerusalem Temple at 475 B.C.E., he added 2,300 years calculated from Daniel and dated Jesus' return as March 21, 1843.
The Unification movement sees parallels between historical periods, for example between the 2000 years between Abraham and Jesus and the 2000 years since the birth of Jesus, between the 400 years the Israelites suffered as slaves in Egypt and the approximately 400 years Christians suffered persecution in the Roman Empire, or between the 70 years the Israelites spent in exile and the 70 years of the Avignon captivity of the Papacy. Scofield also wrote of spiritual parallels, for example, between apostasy in the period of the Judges, and heresy and schism in the early church (285), but Unificationism identifies them with specific periods of fixed lengths. The existence of these parallels is understood to be the result of the providential requirement to make reparation, to "pay indemnity," for failures of a preceding epoch, originating from the Fall of Man. The length of the providential period, usually a multiple of 70 or 400, is determined by the nature of the "indemnity condition" to be restored.
The debate about whether history has any purpose, whether it is directed by a supra-human reality (as most religions believe) or not, or whether evolution or some form of dialectic (as in Marxist history) operates within history, is also relevant to a discussion of periodization. A secular historian attempting to identify for what, for example, caused a civilization to collapse may look for social, political or even climactic reasons, while a religious scholar may see this as divine punishment for sin. Similarly, a religious or providential understanding of history can interpret certain periods of time as retrogressive, others as progressive or as making restoration for earlier digressions. Martin Luther saw the rise of Islam as divine punishment while others see this as providential, as a means by which many diverse peoples have united in a common faith. Muslims use the rightly-guided period (Muhammad's life followed by the first four caliphs as a template to measure how well subsequent Muslim societies are living up to this ideal. The idealized period was God-centered with both the temporal and spiritual aspects of life in harmony. Periods of Islamic history that replicate this are judged to have been faithful to Islamic ideals.
Why Categorize at all?
The question why categorize periods of history at all is worth considering, given the inherent problems in terminology and interpretation of the evidence. Scholars use categories to help to make sense of their data —to aid analysis. Attempts to make sense of history often involve identifying major trends or characteristics of an age—what seems to typify or define the period? What was culture or lifestyle like at this time, in contrast to the previous era? For example, what was indicated by such terms as the "industrial revolution" or the much-earlier "agrarian revolution." Periodizations that indicate major trends in concrete changes such as building materials, tools, food production, and modes of transportation at a particular time are more helpful than use of subjective or pejorative terms, like the "Dark Ages."
One inherent problem is that historical periods, like seasons, may not have a clear beginning (a "crucial moment") or a single event that defines the "end." However, with an overview, we can detect the change of seasons and assign a moment when one ends and another begins. Thus, while we should avoid assuming that one period suddenly ends and another suddenly begins, they may still be very useful categories. It is also worth noting that the prime movers in any significant period may be very few, even a single individual, yet the decisions of a few can make a great difference in the following period for hundreds of years. There is often a ‘crucial’ moment at the change of a period when the new trend (for example, when hunting-gathering gave way to agriculture, or the nomadic lifestyle to settlement in cities, or when autocracies gave way to democracies) conflicts with the old trend. It is difficult to envision history without periodization, but historians will need to revise the categories they use as history itself progresses, or as time passes (whether history progresses is, as noted, a topic of debate).
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 in the introduction 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, a periodization that relies on written text, which are subtle and philosophically complex.
One tactic for Periodization of the distant past, as in anthropology and archaeology, is to rely on artifacts and fossil evidence, to identify "events," such as the invention of specific tools or the origins of language, which are known to exist, but about which little is known in detail.
- Teilhard's "Noosphere" MANAS XIX(32) (August 10, 1966):12-14. Retrieved December 26, 2020.
- Cyrus Ingersoll Scofield, Scofield Reference Notes (1917 Edition) Retrieved December 26, 2020.
- C.I. Scofield, The Old Scofield Study Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996, ISBN 019527257X).
- Hal Lindsey and C.C. Carlson, The Late Great Planet Earth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1970, ISBN 031027771X).
- Charles Taze Russell, Gentile Times: When Do They End? The Bible Examiner, October 1876. Retrieved December 26, 2020.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Lindsey, Hal, and C.C. Carlson. The Late Great Planet Earth. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1970. ISBN 031027771X
- Besserman, Lawrence (ed.). The Challenge of Periodization: Old Paradigms and New Perspectives. New York: Garland, 1996. ISBN 0815321031.
- Russel, Charles Taze. “Gentile Times: When do they End?” The Bible Examiner 11(1) (October 1976): 313.
- Scofield, C.I. The Old Scofield Study Bible. Oxford: Oxford University Press, reprinted 1996. ISBN 019527257X
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