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Are there alternatives to tripartite periodisation of history?

History Asked by cesaruliana on January 4, 2022

Human history is usually divided in three parts, ancient history, medieval (or post-classical) history and modern history (sometimes divided in early and late modern), as can be seen in the wikipedia entry for human history.

During school this division was explained to me in terms of accompanying modes of production; asiatic/ancient mode for ancient history, feudal mode for the middle ages and capitalist mode for modern age. But recently I’ve encountered criticisms to the concept of feudalism ad of the rupture brought by the renaissance, such as the medieval renaissances.

Given that, are there alternative proposals for the periodisation of history that span the duration covered by ancient, medieval and modern periods? At least the idea of medieval period seems contested, so I wondered if anyone proposed different schemes, at least for pedagogical purposes.

A partial example could be Jacques Le Goff’s work, in particular the book "Must we divide history in periods", where he argues that the medieval period only ended with the industrial revolution. It is partial because he does not break from three periods, only redraws borders, but if he got his way would have the 17th century part of medieval history courses. I’m searching for someone who did away with the entirety of ancient/medieval/modern division.

3 Answers

Too long for a comment :

Are there alternatives to tripartite periodisation of history?

Perhaps... but the Western world, as a whole, will, most likely, not eagerly embrace them anytime soon, if ever. And, as long as Western society will be virtually synonymous with the term civilized world, there is little hope of change in the aforementioned formalism.

Western history is meant to be relevant (primarily) to Westerners; as such, the stark contrast between the literary wealth of classical antiquity, when compared against the near lack of almost any written sources (hence the term Dark Ages) following the collapse of the (Western) Roman Empire around AD 500, which continued roughly until the continent witnessed the rise of yet another prosperous Empire, founded by Charlemagne around AD 800, will always be of practical relevance to Western historic narrative; as will the sociopolitical and religious schism of AD 1,054, which basically split the continent in two, marking the border between the Early and High Middle Ages; and its consolidation in the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade, starting off the Late Middle Ages; as well as the Protestant Reformation (about AD 1,500), which further divided Western Europe along ethnic Romance-Germanic lines, commencing the modern era; not to mention the political, scientific, religious, and technological shift brought on by the eighteenth century European Enlightenment.

Answered by Lucian on January 4, 2022

Most historians these days will tell you that those periodizations, if they are valid at all, are only valid for "Western History". This is an oddly-shifting window on World History that starts focused on the Near East (because that's where the writing was), moves to Ancient Greece, then to Rome, and then to (largely Western) Europe.1

The conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity and its fall, taken as the rough boundary between the Ancient and Middle Ages, of course had little to no affect on the course of events in China or India. Scholars studying their history tend to periodize things very differently, if they do at all.

Since you ask for alternatives, I'm going to copy one wholesale here from another answer I posted. I hope you'll forgive the laziness, but it was a post in search of a question at the time, and this one is actually more on topic than it was in the original.


Douglas S. Robertson took the idea of the Information Age and went even further. He classifies all societies based on the amount of information, in bits, that a typical member has access to. I believe this is called "Informationalist History".

Where h is the amount of info one mind can hold, and is probably in the vicinity of 5Mb (5*106 bits).

  • Level 0 - 107 bits (h) - Pre-Language
  • Level 1 - 109 bits - Language
  • Level 2 - 1011 bits - Writing
  • Level 3 - 1017 bits - Printing
  • Level 4 - 1025(?) bits - Computers

The exponent on that number of bits is the important thing. How far one society outclasses another can be gauged by the difference in those exponents. This is why Native Americans, the most advanced of whom barely had writing, had no hope of competing with Europeans with printing presses, but under the right conditions could actually replace a society of Europeans with no printing press a few years earlier. Being a couple of orders of magnitude back can perhaps be dealt with. However, be several back and you're lucky if they bother to treat you as the same species.

An Informationalist would say we are in the Computer Age, and that further human progress to any new level is going to require us to find ways around our current limitations on information access (particularly combing through massive amounts of it in new and more productive ways)


1 - One could argue the point of this bizzare shifting is propaganda: To convince the reader that Western Europe was in fact the natural inheritors of the oldest civilizations on earth, and not really the nouveau riche barbarians sweeping over the world plundering everything in sight that they appeared to be to the rest of the civilized world when the "Age of Exploration" dawned.

Answered by T.E.D. on January 4, 2022

Historiographers routinely deny the usefulness (ie: credibility) of large scale periodisations of history as “teleology” or claiming that being or history have a purpose or end goal. History necessarily has a post hoc teleological justification: “things could not have been otherwise;” but the limits of this claim are strictly about happenstance and not about structural or process change.

Structures or processes as social phenomena are summaries or metaphors for the actual complexity of the documentary record of the past. The vulgar historical materialist concept of “feudalism” is a provisional research finding limited only to modes of production and methods of social surplus production and extraction. And all of these are symbolic metaphors summarising the actuality of people working others fields and paying tithes off their own fields.

Summaries are useful but not true to the documentary record of the past. All history writing obscures the documentary record of the past. But simplifying human history to a couple of large summary periods is unacceptable teleology. Compare what you’ve been taught in school as “lies for children” to Engel’s actual history of the Peasants War in Germany. Look at the scope and depth of summary theoretical claims.

Answered by Samuel Russell on January 4, 2022

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