Saturday, July 10, 2004

Names and periods: notes on the 'early modern'

A small change of title here, with apologies if it causes any inconvenience. Giving the blog the same name as my original web site, given that the two are supposed to be in some way complementary, seemed like a good idea to begin with. But it was just confusing, for me at least (although I am easily confused...). And in some posts that referred to both sites, it occurred to me that it might be confusing for others too. So it seemed best to create a clear distinction. And after some thought, 'Notes' (akin to Kristine Brorson's Historiological Notes) seemed to convey better the sense of what this blog is about.

The subtitle also just got less concise in the hope of being more inclusive and intelligible beyond the ranks of 'early modernists'. As my next-door neighbour Brandon Watson has recently commented from the perspective of early modern philosophy, not everyone knows what 'early modern' means. Even amongst those who would recognise it, it covers a pretty varied timespan; it can, I think, start as early as the mid-fifteenth century, even if c.1500 is regarded as more usual. As for endpoints: some would not allow it to extend beyond about 1750 (in fact, many books of 'early modern history', in British history at least, stop at 1640...); for others it can clearly go to 1800 and even beyond. Americanists, of course, have another (more commonly used?) name for it, with a very clear terminal date: 'the colonial period'. Or, if we are discussing the 'early early modern', up to the early seventeenth century, others - especially those focused on literature - may use the term 'Renaissance'; and the 'late early modern' might go under the headings 'Enlightenment', 'Industrial Revolution', 'Romanticism'...

And then there are nationally/regionally specific, often dynastic, titles covering various parts of the period: Tudor, Stuart, Ancien Regime, Tokugawa, Mughal, Ottoman. Those non-European ones, in their non-conformity to European periodisation, also pose some questions about spatial varieties (or even limits?) to the concept of 'early modern'. A Japanese historian may seem on the surface fairly comfortable with the idea of early modern Japan (with the dates 1600-1868) - or is that just a pragmatic way of giving Euroamerican students a label that they can recognise, to make them more comfortable?

The cultural historian Peter Burke discussed the problems with 'early modern' at some length in an interview (and he was also sceptical of the applicability of 'early modern' to Asian and African contexts).

What I am afraid of is the reification of the period, and because of division of labour we want to divide ourselves off from the mediaevalists on one side, the modernists on the other. But if we started to believe that our period is homogenous, then that would be the end. So I treat it just as a flag of convenience... the dates that matter vary according to the problem you are interested in. And so if political history need not have, probably should not have the same dates as economic history, and the history of high culture probably should not have the same dates as the history of popular culture. And yet we want to do total history, so what are we doing? I think the only thing is we use this term, but we don't pretend it's more than convenience.

I agree. (Though might a philosopher like Brandon argue that this is a typical bit of historians' fudging?) But I'd still be curious to know what historians of Asia and Africa in (roughly) the half-millennium to 1900 think about this.

And if you know of good online resources (in English) for the world beyond Europe and north America during that period, do let me know. I'm conscious that Early Modern Resources is rather Eurocentric, and will be trying to do something about it this summer.


  1. I wouldn't worry about eurocentrism so much. Incidentally, if we want to trace the roots of that in our culture, Early Modern period is a good place to start with. :-)

  2. Indeed it is. And I do have quite a lot of resources on colonialism and related themes, of course. But there are some unjustifiably neglected areas on the site, for which I'm sure there's plenty of online material waiting to be found - especially Asian studies. And this is for my own education as much as anybody else!

  3. I always believe that early modern is a periodical term, which was used to devide the long period of the modern history by historians. It has nothing to do with the modernity or any alike concepts, which made the term an awful meaning, like the discussion about the early modern Chinese history. I attached an article about that. In my opinion, such a discussion didn't make any sense to the history study, at least in the field of Chinese history.


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