Texts in Context:
The Crocodile of Chronology

By Gabriel Blanchard

Time is sometimes depicted as an ouroboros, a serpent eating its tail, a symbol of cyclical recurrence. History is like a bask of crocodiles: they are related to snakes, but have extra features that may distract us, to our peril.

A Word About History and Prehistory

In our first post in this series, we discussed the question of whether it is even possible to study history in this day and age. Sorry for the spoiler, but yes, it is possible to study history in this age.

We also touched on the difference between history proper and the related, but distinct, subject of prehistory, which we should expand on a little. Both subjects are seeking to answer the standard questions about any event: what happened, where, when, who was involved and how, and why? These allow us to build up the story of the past. However, history and prehistory go about this task in different ways.

The study of history is based on written sources.* There are countless forms of these: most are practical (annals, contracts, legislation, etc.), while some are private literature like diaries and letters. However, being composed by people, these sources are not all equally reliable. Innocent mistakes or an inability to explain things clearly can be a problem—and that’s before we even raise the question of unfair distortions or barefaced lies. Moreover, a lot of things just don’t come up in records: they may be irrelevant, or generally unknown, or such common knowledge at the time that they don’t seem worth mentioning. The historian’s main task is like that of a judge, even a detective: deciding whom to trust, and why, and how much.

Decisions like these can often be informed by findings from other fields, like archæology, genetics, linguistics, and paleoclimatology.** Research in these fields can fill in gaps in our sources, or suggest new perspectives on things we knew already. Prehistory has no written sources to consult (by definition), so, because it is still trying to answer the same questions as history, its primary disciplines are history’s supplemental ones; this also means prehistorians have to be more tentative in their conclusions than historians do. This is why the first part of the human past, i.e. the Stone Age, is not widely considered a part of history per se. History in the strict sense picks up with the invention of writing. This is generally linked with the Bronze Age, and we’ll be starting with the Bronze Age ourselves.

However, there are two more questions we should touch on first. These are about not what history is, but how to study it.

Periods … and Ellipses.

First, what historians call periodization. This simply means how we divide history into separate chunks. Questions like “Does the Renaissance fit into the Middle Ages or the Modern era?” are questions of how to periodize. And this is trickier, and more controversial, than one might expect, because it means deciding what events are the most important for periodization, and not everyone agrees about the order on the Which Things Are Important hierarchy.

It would be nice, therefore, to be able to just say periodization doesn’t matter. There’s even a sense in which that’s quite true; nobody is going to be thrown to the crocodiles for thinking Plato’s Republic belongs to the end of his middle period rather than the beginning of his late period. But on another level, it does matter. Historical periods are a tool for understanding the context of people’s actions and ideas. The environmental, social, political, and technological conditions in which something is done or said tell you a lot about what that statement or action mean. To classify something by period is to place it in a context, and that affects how we understand it.

Now, periodization is still a little arbitrary; the thing is, within certain limits, that’s actually fine. Let’s take a concrete example.

Periods: A Test Case

We all know Rome fell in 476. Specifically, Odoacer the Ostrogoth invaded Italy and forced the last emperor in the West to abdicate—an act so decisive that no one even tried to reclaim the title in the West for over three hundred years. This year is therefore often used as the break between ancient history and medieval history.

This is all true enough. However, the Ostrogoths impacted surprisingly little. Most of the administrative machinery was untouched; though the Ostrogoths were Arian Christians, they did not impose their faith on the populace; for ordinary citizens, daily life was nearly unchanged. Few people at the time, maybe none, saw this as the end of the Roman Empire—in fact, technically and legally, the Roman Empire wasn’t abolished until 1806!† So, if neither the practical nor even the on-paper end of the Roman Empire happened in 476, should we extend what we call “the Roman period” forward another fourteen hundred years? Or should we pick some other event as the real ancient-medieval break? And there are candidates, like the unprecedented pro-Christian Edict of Milan in 313, or the Kingdom of the Lombards finally conquering Italy and permanently removing it from Byzantine control in 568.

LEPIDUS. What manner o' thing is your crocodile?
ANTONY. It is shap'd, sir, like itself, and is as broad as it hath breadth; it is just as high as it is, and it moves with its own organs. It lives by that which nourisheth it, and the elements once out of it, it transmigrates.
LEPIDUS. What color is it of?
ANTONY. Of its own color, too.
LEPIDUS. 'Tis a strange serpent.

The truth is, we can leave “the fall of Rome” comfily in the “events of 476” box if we want, and we can keep the big laminated label that says “Ancient-Medieval Transition” pinned there or move it if we want, because remember: these things are placeholders. Periodization is a tool to help us understand history; it isn’t the history that we are trying to understand. It might be weird or rude or confusing to abruptly start referring to roses by some alternate name, without explanation; but a rose by any other name really would smell the same.

There’s only one big way—so far as the present author knows!—that periodization can go from “debatable” to simply “wrong,” and that is when it’s used to try and impose a dishonest frame (or at least a seriously inaccurate one) on the history that’s under discussion. There used to be a great vogue among historians for viewing the Protestant Reformation as a great triumph of individual liberty against the collectivist authority of Catholicism, and it might be possible to reinforce that theory by some sort of bizarre periodization.‡ This is kind of like a famous example of misunderstanding statistics: the rate of ice cream consumption is closely related to the murder rate; however, this is because they both go up in summer—when the warm weather makes it easier to do most things and more appealing to eat ice cream. Periodizations that try to group irrelevant things together or treat relevant events as trivial to the timeline, in the dishonest service of some agenda, are malicious history.

More often, a system of periodization is bad because it simply fails to apply its own principles consistently. For instance, 1492 is a hugely important date in world history, yet it might not appear at all in a history of technology; or, its presence might be a hint that its author was writing about the history on the surface, but really wanted to make a point about something else.

So, all that is one of two important things to understand about how we study history. The next will also need a post unto itself; but first, please enjoy …

Our Historiograph

Given what we’ve laid before you, it only seems like fair play to show in advance the system of periods we plan to use. We may need to spend extra time now and then, or even introduce further subdivisions, but every period that will receive at least one post to itself is underlined below.

The Stone Age: ?-ca. 4000 BC

We won’t be saying much about this period, as it really belongs to prehistory. However, it will make a cameo.

Antiquity: ca. 4000 BC-ca. 500 AD

This was the period in which the foundations of civilization were laid. It saw the invention of writing, the discoveries and widespread use first of bronze and then of iron, the growth of centralized societies (up to and including transcontinental empires), and more than a thousand years of development in philosophy, art, literature, and religion.

I. The Bronze Age, ca. 4000 BC-ca. 1050 BC
AA. The Early Bronze Age, ca. 4000 BC-ca. 2100 BC
BB. The Late Bronze Age, ca. 2100 BC-ca. 1050 BC
II. The Early Iron Age (a.k.a. the Greek Dark Age), ca. 1050 BC-753 BC
III. High Antiquity, 753 BC-284 AD
AA. The Archaic Period, 753-499 BC
BB. The Classical Period, 499-323 BC
CC. The Hellenistic Period, 323-31 BC
DD. The Roman Principate, 31 BC-284 AD
IV. Late Antiquity, 284-476

The Mediævum: ca. 500-ca. 1500

This name comes from the Latin medium ævum, “middle period” or “intermediate time,” or as we say in English “the Middle Ages.” This was characterized by the cultural dominance of Catholic Christianity in Western Europe (with immense political power in the hands of Catholic clergy), extensive philosophic and scientific advances, and the rise of the youngest major world religion, Islam.

I. The Early Middle Ages, 476-1054
AA. The Late Migration Period, 476-732
BB. The Carolingian Renaissance, 732-843
CC. The Sæculum Obscurum (“Dark Age”), 843-1054
II. The High Middle Ages, 1054-1353
AA. The Twelfth-Century Renaissance, 1054-1216
BB. High Scholasticism, 1216-1353
III. The Late Middle Ages (a.k.a. “the” Renaissance), 1353-1492

Modernity: ca. 1500-present

Modernity emerged under two pressures: the intellectual synthesis of the Mediævum being strained to breaking point, and regular traffic being established between the Old and New Worlds. It has seen radical changes in the organization and cultural status of Christianity in the West, the colonization of most of the rest of the world by various European powers, and vast advances in technology. (We do not plan to attempt any history more recent than the year 2001, which seems to form something of a breaking point; the reason why not, and also the reason we don’t feel quite sure whether 2001 is a breaking point, is that it just seems too soon to tell!)

I. Early Modernity, 1492-1775
AA. The Reformation Period, 1492-1648
BB. The Enlightenment, 1648-1775
II. Late Modernity, 1775-present
AA. The “Long Nineteenth Century,” 1775-1914
BB. The “Short Twentieth Century,” 1914-2001

*This raises a question: is a period historic if it had writing but we can’t read it? Some scripts have never been deciphered, like the Linear A of Minoan Crete (ca. 3100-1100 BC). The present author would lean toward the view that as long as Linear A remains unreadable, the Minoans remain prehistoric, though they can become history at some future date.
**Paleoclimatology is the study of the history of earth’s climate. This can be discerned by many methods, such as examining tree rings, sedimentary deposits, corals, and ice sheets (these all have a predictable annual growth).
†This of course refers to the Holy Roman Empire (which the Byzantine emperors did eventually recognize as their Western counterpart). Few historians consider its claims of continuity as more than a legal fiction; still, in that sense, the Holy Roman Empire did survive until the year 1806, and was dissolved by its last emperor to prevent the danger of Napoléon claiming its throne.
‡E.g., treating the rise of the Waldensian sect, ca. 1170, as the “real” beginning of the Protestant Reformation, and the end of the American Revolution in 1783 as its “real” end. It distorts history to classify these as part of some single “movement”: on the one hand the Waldenses shared only a few of the doctrinal concerns of the Protestant Reformers, while on the other, the period of theological reform and retrenchment in most Protestant churches had been over for a century or more when the American Revolution began in 1775.

To historians, Gabriel Blanchard (1987-2024 or later) will have been a freelance author and CLT’s editor at large; he will have lived principally in Baltimore, MD.

If you enjoyed this piece, take a look at some our posts from the Great Conversation series on the history of ideas: we have a series on the kinds and nature of authority, another on signs and symbols, individual essays on the concepts of honor, prudence, science, and wealth.

Published on 14th February, 2024. Page image of “The Chapel Perilous,” an illustration created by Thomas Mackenzie in 1920, for the book Arthur and His Knights by Christine Chaundler.

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