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Periodization is the attempt to categorize or divide time
Time is a part of the measuring system used to sequence events, to compare the durations of events and the intervals between them, and to quantify rates of change such as the motions of objects....

 into named blocks. The result is a descriptive abstraction that provides a useful handle on periods of time with relatively stable characteristics. However, determining the precise beginning and ending to any "period" is often a matter of debate.


Most disciplines that attempt to talk fruitfully about the past find it helpful to break up what has happened in various ways, and to give these smaller units names. The names are valuable to the extent that they aid analysis and description. Periodization from the sciences includes the geologic Cretaceous
The Cretaceous , derived from the Latin "creta" , usually abbreviated K for its German translation Kreide , is a geologic period and system from circa to million years ago. In the geologic timescale, the Cretaceous follows the Jurassic period and is followed by the Paleogene period of the...

 or Jurassic
The Jurassic is a geologic period and system that extends from about Mya to  Mya, that is, from the end of the Triassic to the beginning of the Cretaceous. The Jurassic constitutes the middle period of the Mesozoic era, also known as the age of reptiles. The start of the period is marked by...

 periods, while examples from human history include the Zhou Dynasty
Zhou Dynasty
The Zhou Dynasty was a Chinese dynasty that followed the Shang Dynasty and preceded the Qin Dynasty. Although the Zhou Dynasty lasted longer than any other dynasty in Chinese history, the actual political and military control of China by the Ji family lasted only until 771 BC, a period known as...

, the Baroque Period, and the Harlem Renaissance
Harlem Renaissance
The Harlem Renaissance was a cultural movement that spanned the 1920s and 1930s. At the time, it was known as the "New Negro Movement", named after the 1925 anthology by Alain Locke...


To the extent that history is continuous and ungeneralizable, all systems of periodization are more or less arbitrary. Yet without named periods, however clumsy or imprecise, past time would be nothing more than scattered events without a framework to help us understand them. Nations, cultures, families, and even individuals, each with their different remembered histories, are constantly engaged in imposing overlapping, often unsystematized, schemes of temporal periodization; periodizing labels are continually challenged and redefined. One historian may write a new history of the Renaissance in Europe; another may claim that there was no such thing as the European Renaissance.


Not only will periodizing blocks inevitably overlap, they will often seemingly conflict with or contradict one another. Some have a cultural usage ("the Gilded Age
Gilded Age
In United States history, the Gilded Age refers to the era of rapid economic and population growth in the United States during the post–Civil War and post-Reconstruction eras of the late 19th century. The term "Gilded Age" was coined by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner in their book The Gilded...

"), others refer to prominent historical events ("the Inter-War years: 1918–1939"), yet others are defined by decimal numbering systems ("the 1960s", "the 17th century"). Other periods are named from influential or talismanic individuals ("the Victorian Era
Victorian era
The Victorian era of British history was the period of Queen Victoria's reign from 20 June 1837 until her death on 22 January 1901. It was a long period of peace, prosperity, refined sensibilities and national self-confidence...

", "the Edwardian Era", "the Napoleonic Era").

Some of these usages will also be geographically specific. This is especially true of periodizing labels derived from individuals or ruling elites, such as the Jacksonian Era
Andrew Jackson
Andrew Jackson was the seventh President of the United States . Based in frontier Tennessee, Jackson was a politician and army general who defeated the Creek Indians at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend , and the British at the Battle of New Orleans...

 in America, the Meiji Era in Japan, or the Merovingian Period in France. Cultural terms may also have a limited reach. Thus the concept of the "Romantic period" may be meaningless outside of Europe and European-influenced cultures. Likewise, "the 1960s", though technically applicable to anywhere in the world according to Common Era
Common Era
Common Era ,abbreviated as CE, is an alternative designation for the calendar era originally introduced by Dionysius Exiguus in the 6th century, traditionally identified with Anno Domini .Dates before the year 1 CE are indicated by the usage of BCE, short for Before the Common Era Common Era...

 numbering, has a certain set of specific cultural connotations in certain countries. For this reason it may be possible to say such things as "The 1960s never occurred in Spain." This would mean that the sexual revolution
Sexual revolution
The sexual revolution was a social movement that challenged traditional codes of behavior related to sexuality and interpersonal relationships throughout the Western world from the 1960s into the 1980s...

, counterculture
Counterculture is a sociological term used to describe the values and norms of behavior of a cultural group, or subculture, that run counter to those of the social mainstream of the day, the cultural equivalent of political opposition. Counterculture can also be described as a group whose behavior...

, youth rebellion and so on never developed during that decade in Spain's conservative Roman Catholic culture and under Francisco Franco
Francisco Franco
Francisco Franco y Bahamonde was a Spanish general, dictator and head of state of Spain from October 1936 , and de facto regent of the nominally restored Kingdom of Spain from 1947 until his death in November, 1975...

's authoritarian regime. Likewise it is possible to claim, as the historian Arthur Marwick
Arthur Marwick
Arthur John Brereton Marwick was a professor in history. Born in Edinburgh, he was a graduate of Edinburgh University and Balliol College, Oxford. - Career :...

 has, that "the 1960s" began in the late 1950s and ended in the early 1970s. His reason for saying this is that the cultural and economic conditions that define the meaning of the period covers more than the accidental fact of a 10 year block beginning with the number 6. This extended usage is termed the "long 1960s". This usage derives from other historians who have adopted labels such as "the long 19th century
The long 19th century
The long nineteenth century, defined by Eric Hobsbawm , a British Marxist historian and author, refers to the period between the years 1789 and 1914...

" (1789–1914) to reconcile arbitrary decimal chronology with meaningful cultural and social phases. Similarly, an Eighteenth Century may run 1714–1789. Eric Hobsbawm
Eric Hobsbawm
Eric John Ernest Hobsbawm , CH, FBA, is a British Marxist historian, public intellectual, and author...

 has also argued for what he calls "the short twentieth century", encompassing the period from the First World War
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

 through to the end of the Cold War
Cold War
The Cold War was the continuing state from roughly 1946 to 1991 of political conflict, military tension, proxy wars, and economic competition between the Communist World—primarily the Soviet Union and its satellite states and allies—and the powers of the Western world, primarily the United States...


Similar problems attend other labels. Is it possible to use the term "Victorian" outside of Britain? It sometimes is used when it is thought that its connotations usefully describe the politics, culture and economic conditions characteristic of the last two-thirds of the nineteenth century. Nevertheless periodizing terms often have negative or positive connotations that may affect their usage. This includes Victorian, which often negatively suggests sexual repression and class conflict. Other labels such as Renaissance have strongly positive characteristics. As a result, these terms sometimes extend in meaning. Thus the English Renaissance is virtually identical in meaning to the Elizabethan Period. However the Carolingian Renaissance
Carolingian Renaissance
In the history of ideas the Carolingian Renaissance stands out as a period of intellectual and cultural revival in Europe occurring from the late eighth century, in the generation of Alcuin, to the 9th century, and the generation of Heiric of Auxerre, with the peak of the activities coordinated...

is said to have occurred during the reign of the Frankish
The Franks were a confederation of Germanic tribes first attested in the third century AD as living north and east of the Lower Rhine River. From the third to fifth centuries some Franks raided Roman territory while other Franks joined the Roman troops in Gaul. Only the Salian Franks formed a...

 king Charlemagne
Charlemagne was King of the Franks from 768 and Emperor of the Romans from 800 to his death in 814. He expanded the Frankish kingdom into an empire that incorporated much of Western and Central Europe. During his reign, he conquered Italy and was crowned by Pope Leo III on 25 December 800...

. There is a space of approximately seven hundred years between these two renaissances. Other examples include the American Renaissance
American Renaissance
In the history of American architecture and the arts, the American Renaissance was the period in 1835-1880 characterized by renewed national self-confidence and a feeling that the United States was the heir to Greek democracy, Roman law, and Renaissance humanism...

of the 1820s-60s, referring mainly to literature, and the Harlem Renaissance
Harlem Renaissance
The Harlem Renaissance was a cultural movement that spanned the 1920s and 1930s. At the time, it was known as the "New Negro Movement", named after the 1925 anthology by Alain Locke...

of the 1920s, referring mainly to literature but also to music and the visual arts.

Because of these various positive and negative connotations, some periods are luckier than others regarding their names, although this can lead to problems such as the ones outlined above. The conception of a "rebirth" of Classical Latin learning is first credited to an Italian
Italy , officially the Italian Republic languages]] under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In each of these, Italy's official name is as follows:;;;;;;;;), is a unitary parliamentary republic in South-Central Europe. To the north it borders France, Switzerland, Austria and...

 poet Petrarch
Francesco Petrarca , known in English as Petrarch, was an Italian scholar, poet and one of the earliest humanists. Petrarch is often called the "Father of Humanism"...

, the father of Humanism, a term that was not coined until the 19th century, but the conception of a rebirth has been in common use since Petrarch's time. The dominant usage of the word Renaissance refers to the cultural changes that occurred in Italy that culminated in the High Renaissance around 1500. This concept applies dominantly to the visual arts, referring to the work of Michelangelo
Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni , commonly known as Michelangelo, was an Italian Renaissance painter, sculptor, architect, poet, and engineer who exerted an unparalleled influence on the development of Western art...

, Raphael, and Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci was an Italian Renaissance polymath: painter, sculptor, architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist and writer whose genius, perhaps more than that of any other figure, epitomized the Renaissance...

. Secondarily it is applied to other arts, but it is disputed whether it is useful to describe a phase in economic, social and political history. Most professional historians (defined as paying members of organizations devoted to the propagation of history in higher education, like the American Historical Association
American Historical Association
The American Historical Association is the oldest and largest society of historians and professors of history in the United States. Founded in 1884, the association promotes historical studies, the teaching of history, and the preservation of and access to historical materials...

) now refer to the historical periods commonly known as the Renaissance
The Renaissance was a cultural movement that spanned roughly the 14th to the 17th century, beginning in Italy in the Late Middle Ages and later spreading to the rest of Europe. The term is also used more loosely to refer to the historical era, but since the changes of the Renaissance were not...

 and the Reformation
Protestant Reformation
The Protestant Reformation was a 16th-century split within Western Christianity initiated by Martin Luther, John Calvin and other early Protestants. The efforts of the self-described "reformers", who objected to the doctrines, rituals and ecclesiastical structure of the Roman Catholic Church, led...

 as "the Early Modern Period
Early modern period
In history, the early modern period of modern history follows the late Middle Ages. Although the chronological limits of the period are open to debate, the timeframe spans the period after the late portion of the Middle Ages through the beginning of the Age of Revolutions...

". There is a gradual change in the courses taught and books published to correspond to the change in period nomenclature, which in part reflects differences between social history and cultural history. The new nomenclature suggests a broader geographical coverage and a growing attention to the relationships between Europe and the wider world. The timeframe is also slightly different, in that "Renaissance" tends to refer to events over a generally earlier period than "Early Modern".

Notable periods

The term Middle Ages
Middle Ages
The Middle Ages is a periodization of European history from the 5th century to the 15th century. The Middle Ages follows the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 and precedes the Early Modern Era. It is the middle period of a three-period division of Western history: Classic, Medieval and Modern...

 also derives from Petrarch. He was comparing his own period to the Ancient or Classical world
Classics is the branch of the Humanities comprising the languages, literature, philosophy, history, art, archaeology and other culture of the ancient Mediterranean world ; especially Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome during Classical Antiquity Classics (sometimes encompassing Classical Studies or...

, seeing his time as a time of rebirth after a dark intermediate period, the Middle Ages. The idea that the Middle Ages was a "middle" phase between two other large scale periodizing concepts, Ancient and Modern, still persists. It can be sub-divided into the Early
Early Middle Ages
The Early Middle Ages was the period of European history lasting from the 5th century to approximately 1000. The Early Middle Ages followed the decline of the Western Roman Empire and preceded the High Middle Ages...

, High
High Middle Ages
The High Middle Ages was the period of European history around the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries . The High Middle Ages were preceded by the Early Middle Ages and followed by the Late Middle Ages, which by convention end around 1500....

 and Late Middle Ages
Late Middle Ages
The Late Middle Ages was the period of European history generally comprising the 14th to the 16th century . The Late Middle Ages followed the High Middle Ages and preceded the onset of the early modern era ....

. The term Dark Ages is no longer in common use among modern scholars because of the difficulty of using it neutrally, though some writers have attempted to retain it and divest it of its negative connotations. The term "Middle Ages" and especially the adjective medieval can also have a negative ring in colloquial use ("the barbaric treatment of prisoners in such-and-such a prison is almost medieval") but this does not carry over into academic terminology. However, other terms, such as Gothic architecture
Gothic architecture
Gothic architecture is a style of architecture that flourished during the high and late medieval period. It evolved from Romanesque architecture and was succeeded by Renaissance architecture....

, used to refer to a style typical of the High Middle Ages have largely lost the negative connotations they initially had, acquiring new meanings over time (see Gothic architecture
Gothic architecture
Gothic architecture is a style of architecture that flourished during the high and late medieval period. It evolved from Romanesque architecture and was succeeded by Renaissance architecture....

 and Goth subculture
Goth subculture
The goth subculture is a contemporary subculture found in many countries. It began in England during the early 1980s in the gothic rock scene, an offshoot of the post-punk genre. The goth subculture has survived much longer than others of the same era, and has continued to diversify...


The Gothic
The Goths were an East Germanic tribe of Scandinavian origin whose two branches, the Visigoths and the Ostrogoths, played an important role in the fall of the Roman Empire and the emergence of Medieval Europe....

 and the Baroque
The Baroque is a period and the style that used exaggerated motion and clear, easily interpreted detail to produce drama, tension, exuberance, and grandeur in sculpture, painting, literature, dance, and music...

 were both named during subsequent stylistic periods when the preceding style was unpopular. The word "Gothic" was applied as a pejorative term to all things Northern European and, hence, barbarian, probably first by Giorgio Vasari
Giorgio Vasari
Giorgio Vasari was an Italian painter, writer, historian, and architect, who is famous today for his biographies of Italian artists, considered the ideological foundation of art-historical writing.-Biography:...

. Vasari is also credited with first using the term "Renaissance" (rinascita), the period during which he was art historian, artist, and architect. Giorgio Vasari
Giorgio Vasari
Giorgio Vasari was an Italian painter, writer, historian, and architect, who is famous today for his biographies of Italian artists, considered the ideological foundation of art-historical writing.-Biography:...

 coined the term "Gothic" in an effort to describe, particularly architecture, that he found objectionable, supposedly saying "it is as if the Goths built it". The word "baroque" (probably) was used first in late 18th century French about the irregular natural pearl shape and later about an architectural style perceived to be "irregular" in comparison to the highly regular Neoclassical architecture of that time. Subsequently these terms have become purely descriptive, and have largely lost negative connotations. However, the term "Baroque" as applied to art (for example Rubens) refers to a much earlier historical period than when applied to music (Händel
HANDEL was the code-name for the UK's National Attack Warning System in the Cold War. It consisted of a small console consisting of two microphones, lights and gauges. The reason behind this was to provide a back-up if anything failed....

, Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach was a German composer, organist, harpsichordist, violist, and violinist whose sacred and secular works for choir, orchestra, and solo instruments drew together the strands of the Baroque period and brought it to its ultimate maturity...

). This reflects the difference between stylistic histories internal to an art form and the external chronological history beyond it.

In many cases people living through a period are unable to identify themselves as belonging to the period that historians may later assign to them. This is partly because they are unable to predict the future, and so will not be able to tell whether they are at the beginning, middle or end of a period. Another reason may be that their own sense of historical development may be determined by religions or ideologies that differ from those used by later historians.

It is important to recognise the difference between self-defined historical periods, and those that historians defined later. At the beginning of the 20th century there was a general belief that culture, politics and history were entering a new era—that the new century would also be a new era in human experience. This belief was repeated at the beginning of the 21st century, though in a very different way. Other cultural and historical phases have only been described many years, or even centuries, later.

Origins of periodization

The origins of periodization is very old and first became part of the Western tradition in the myths of Ancient Greece and The Bible. Virgil
Publius Vergilius Maro, usually called Virgil or Vergil in English , was an ancient Roman poet of the Augustan period. He is known for three major works of Latin literature, the Eclogues , the Georgics, and the epic Aeneid...

 spoke of a distant Golden Age
Golden Age
The term Golden Age comes from Greek mythology and legend and refers to the first in a sequence of four or five Ages of Man, in which the Golden Age is first, followed in sequence, by the Silver, Bronze, and Iron Ages, and then the present, a period of decline...

 and recurrent cycles of history. The Bible outlines a narrative of history from Creation to the End of time. One Biblical periodization scheme commonly used in the Middle Ages was Saint Paul
Paul of Tarsus
Paul the Apostle , also known as Saul of Tarsus, is described in the Christian New Testament as one of the most influential early Christian missionaries, with the writings ascribed to him by the church forming a considerable portion of the New Testament...

's theological division of history in to three ages: the first before the age of Moses
Moses was, according to the Hebrew Bible and Qur'an, a religious leader, lawgiver and prophet, to whom the authorship of the Torah is traditionally attributed...

 (under nature); the second under Mosaic law (under law); the third in the age of Christ (under grace). But perhaps the most widely discussed periodization scheme of the Middle Ages was the Six Ages of the World
Six Ages of the World
The Six Ages of the World is a Christian historical periodization first written about by Saint Augustine circa 400 AD. It is based upon Christian religious events, from the creation of Adam to the events of Revelation...

, where every age was a thousand years counting from Adam
Adam and Eve
Adam and Eve were, according to the Genesis creation narratives, the first human couple to inhabit Earth, created by YHWH, the God of the ancient Hebrews...

 to the present, with the present time (in the Middle Ages) being the sixth and final stage.

Periodization of origins

It is easy to confuse the origins of periodization with the periodization of origins. The periodization of origins is an attempt to classify time periods in the distant past for which there is no direct record. As stated above, any sort of periodization is subject to qualifications and contentions that should not be taken lightly. Periodization of origins has its own challenges apart from, say, periodizations that rely on text, which are subtle and philosophically complex.

One tactic for periodization of the distant past, as in Anthropology
Anthropology is the study of humanity. It has origins in the humanities, the natural sciences, and the social sciences. The term "anthropology" is from the Greek anthrōpos , "man", understood to mean mankind or humanity, and -logia , "discourse" or "study", and was first used in 1501 by German...

, is to rely on events, such as the invention of some tool or the origins of language, which are known to exist, but about which little is known in detail.