Periodization and Globalization — Jacques Le Goff

In the following conclusion to Must We Divide History Into Periods?, Jacques Le Goff examines the relationship between globalization and the way we understand history:

By now it will be plain that I dissent from the view of most modern historians in seeing the Renaissance, not as a separate period, but only as the last subperiod of a long Middle Ages.

Periodization in the Western tradition goes back to the earli­est Greek thinking about history (Herodotus, fifth century BCE) and, still further, to the Hebrew Bible (Daniel, sixth century BCE). Even so, it did not become a matter of broad agreement among historians until quite recently, the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, when the writing of history itself underwent a transfor­mation: what had been a purely literary genre was now considered a branch of knowledge worthy of being taught to the young. As a subject of instruction it responded to a desire, as well as a need, to make sense of the great spans of time over which human soci­eties have developed. Calendars made it possible to organize the moments of daily life. Periodization satisfied the same purpose, but over a longer term. The question arises whether this human invention, if it is to have lasting value, has to correspond to some objective reality. It seems to me that it must. In saying this, I do not refer to the world as a physical system. By “reality,” I mean human reality—the lives actually lived by people, particularly in the West. The history of these people’s lives, so far as we are able to reconstruct them on the basis of the various materials available to us, constitutes a distinguishable chapter of human experience having its own characteristic features. One of these is a distinctive rhythm of events that causes the history of people in the West to coincide with a particular succession of periods.

The act of periodizing is justified by all those things that make history a science—not an exact science, of course, but neverthe­less a social science that rests on an objective foundation built up from documentary and other sources. Now, the events that these sources describe unavoidably follow a certain course: as Marc Bloch used to say, the history of societies unfolds over time. Since history, by its very nature, evolves, it is inseparable from time. Historians have no choice but to try to bend chronology to their own will. At the same time, they cannot help but find themselves under its sway. To the extent that the conditions of life undergo change, all the more indispensable does periodization become for the historian.

The idea of a longue durée, a term due to Fernand Braudel and widely used by historians since, has been objected to on the ground that it has the effect of blurring periods, if not actually erasing them. To my mind there is no contradiction. Not only is there room for periods in the long term, they are a necessity—for the attempt to explain events that have both a mental and a physical dimen­sion, as historical events inescapably do, requires a combination of continuity and discontinuity. It is just this advantage that the idea of a longue durée offers the historian when it is supplemented by the freedom to divide the course of history into periods.

The question of the rate of historical change—or, to put it another way, how quickly one period gives way to another—I have left to one side because it seems not to have really interested any­one until the modern era. People during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, unlike historians of the recent past and the present day, were more impressed by how slowly history changes. There have been few, if any, genuine revolutions. François Furet was fond of saying that the French Revolution lasted for almost the whole of the nineteenth century. This, by the way, is why many histori­ans, including ones who subscribe to the notion of a specific period called the Renaissance, have resorted to the expression “Middle Ages and Renaissance.” If one century falls under this head more naturally than any of its neighbors (and for just this reason displays unrivaled richness and creativity), it is surely the fifteenth.

My own view is that we will come nearer to the truth, and with greater hope of thinking about periodization in a way that stands to make the study of history both feasible and rewarding, if we consider that periods are typically long and typically marked by phases of significant, though not epochal, change. In the case of the Middle Ages these subperiods are usefully called renaissances, a term that joins a sense of novelty (naissance) to the idea of a return to a golden age (the prefix re- pointing backward in time while sug­gesting a resemblance between past and present).

There is another reason to suppose that dividing history into periods is not only possible but necessary. Of the two perspec­tives that arouse the greatest enthusiasm among historians today, the long term and world history (the latter a consequence of the largely American interest in developing the idea of a global past), neither one seems to me incompatible with periodization; quite the contrary. I repeat: unmeasured and measured time coex­ist. Periodization, however, can apply only to limited domains, or areas, of human civilization. The task of a world history is to discover the relations among these domains. Periodization and globalization are therefore complementary, not contradictory.

But historians must be careful not to confuse, as they have too often done until now, it seems to me, the idea of globalization with that of standardization (or homogenization, as it is sometimes called). There are two stages in globalization: the first consists in communication, the coming into direct contact of regions and civilizations that previously were unfamiliar with one another; the second is a phenomenon of absorption, a fusing of cultures. Until now humanity has passed through only the first of these stages.
Periodization presents historians today with splendid oppor­tunities for fresh research and analysis. Thanks to periodiza­tion, both the manner in which human history is organized and the manner in which it changes over time, over the long term, is becoming clearer.

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