On periodisation: unanswerable questions, questionable answers

Links to the other posts in the ‘On Periodisation’ series:

Laura Sangha

The many-headed monster’s mini-series ‘On Periodisation’ really struck a chord with our readers, prompting an outpouring of comments both below the line and on twitter. I have captured many of these in this Storify – thanks so much to everyone who took the time to offer their thoughts, and my apologies to anyone whose comments I missed, but it was hard to keep up!

Picture2The digested version is that comments tended to fall into three categories: those who were prompted to reflect on periodisation in relation to their own research; those who offered a transnational perspective; and those who added an interdisciplinary slant to the discussion. Whilst debates on this topic are a constant of historical research, social media has the benefit of creating a more diverse conversation which encourages broader perspectives and raises new complications. If the debate continues I intend to add to the story in due course, so please do join the conversation.

My original intention was to try to summarise these contributions in another post, but when it came to it I struggled because the responses were both (a) too various, and (b) too contingent. Thus this post instead focuses on the shared responses to periodisation, in the form of a series of questions people ask about it.

The Big Question:

  • Which label works best for which context?

How to Answer It:  

  • Do you look forward or backward (early, late, pre-, post-, or ‘front loaded’, ‘the long back end’)?
  • Is your century long or short?
  • Do you defiantly straddle conventional historical divides (and run the risk of falling in the cracks)?
  • If your work compares different geographical regions, what periodisation can cover both?
  • What else has/is everyone else doing?
  • Will your audience understand or recognise the label?
  • Does your period start or end with a bang?
  • Will you prioritise continuity or change?
  • Do you want your label to be precise or flexible?

Final thoughts:

  • Where are we now? (Post-modern? Late modern? Post-capitalist? Contemporary?)

One thing that I found particularly useful was an exchange between Jonathan Willis and Dave Postles, which raised the notions of ‘coherent incoherence’, ‘coherence without homogeneity’ and William H. Sewell’s ‘thin coherence’ – the latter is now the first thing on my own further reading list.


The great thing about a monster mini-series is that they are designed to be open ended, so we might yet have more to say. Watch this space…

11 thoughts on “On periodisation: unanswerable questions, questionable answers

  1. Ah. Your “original intention.” (Your Tweet re “original” struck a chord.) English Lit used to (probably still does) make the overlapping divisions Renaissance, Augustan, Romantic. One of our professors said, “If, in the late 17th century, you called your spouse original, natural, and enthusiastic, s/he might have thrown something at you. If, in the late 18th century, you said they weren’t any of those things, they’d have thrown something.”

    Definitely a head shift there, but only among the fashionably arty. Everyone else probably just threw things regardless.

    • Thanks, that’s really helpful. So we should add to our list of questions: Do the people you study look backwards or forwards? And do you need your model to apply across the social hierarchy?

      • Those are shrewd questions, but I’ll leave it to you to decide whether or not they’d add anything to what’s already a good list. I’m looking forward to reading more on this topic. No surprise that it got such a lively response!

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