Friday, September 02, 2005

Periodization Long and Punchy

Periodization -- the Long and Punch-drunk Version


It's a new quarter, and we're all going to be answering a lot of the same old questions. Since I started teaching, I've learned that we can't really assume much about our students or what they know coming in the door. There are some things that seem hugely, forehead-slappingly obvious, that just aren't. One of them is chronology. Some things happen before others. Time works that way, and it's really helpful. Another is geography. Some things happen in different places. Sometimes at the same time, and sometimes at different times. And then there is the problem of teaching that there are causes and effects, but that we cannot assume that correlation = similar causality. There are sources to be read, and questions we want our students to ask of the sources. Those questions seem obvious to us, but we did actually learn them once upon a time, although it's a strong bet that this really was by a kind of osmosis, since our teachers often assumed we knew how to question a source and most of us historians seem bent on asking those questions by nature. All of these subjects deserve their own essays. Instead, though, I'm going to talk about something else: Periodization. What follows is a bit glib and should be taken with a few well-placed grains of salt -- Remember, I stopped being an Early Modernist in 1985 and this week has made me a bit punchy!

It shouldn't be all that difficult, but I sometimes find Periodization one of the hardest things to articulate. As far as I can tell, this is for two reasons: the word 'period' sounds chronological -- that's the easier part, and; historians don't seem to agree on what makes a period a period-- a bit tougher. Add to that the fact that we tend to teach in a way that seems chronological, but often isn't, and sometimes students get confused. It's not surprising. I've discussed before my own confusion as to where Late Antiquity ends and Early Medieval begins -- Merovingianists are now Late Antiquarians, but we Carolingianists are still apparently Early MA -- despite the fact that it's damned hard to do Carolingian without taking into account the bloody Merovingians! But that's a question for a different version of Carnivalesque Button
Since Rebecca's hosting an Early Modern Carnival, I'm going to ask, "what the hell is Early Modern when it's at home?"

The answer is simply (perhaps too simply?) Early Modern is the slightly blurry chronological period that allows us to separate the Renaissance, Reformation, Reconquista, various dynastic struggles and amorphous creatures like the Voyages of Exploration/Discovery and the Price Revolution into a block of time that fits between the Medieval and the Modern. Early Modern is neither fish nor fowl. It isn't really modern until very late -- at least the 17th c. for a lot of things. But it's not very medieval, either -- at least not after about the middle of the 15th c. So how do we teach it? How about: Early Modern -- a period characterized by a whole bunch of different movements that happen all over Europe, sometimes overlapping each other and in no one order? Face it: the Early Modern period is great for showing that History has many different acceptable narratives!

The first question is, I suppose, "When did the Middle Ages end?" It's a classic question and one that the students don't like so much. Because, well, the answer is usually, "It depends." It used to be easier. The Middle Ages stopped when the Renaissance started. So ... the Renaissance is Early Modern, right? Any damned medievalist will stop you right there, bub. Because, you see, we must question the whole idea of "the" Renaissance, at least a little bit. It's not that the Renaissance didn't happen, but we'd like our students to realize that there was a Northumbrian Renaissance. And a Carolingian Renaissance. And, possibly, an Ottonian Renaissance. And a Renaissance of the 12th c. And only then, after those other Renaissances, crusades that had gone on since at least 1095 (although an Iberianist might certainly argue that point and put it earlier), amazing achievements in architecture, the rise of the first European universities -- things that happened well before Sr. Francesco Petrarch started talking about how his plague-infested world was so much more advanced than those bad ol' "Dark Ages" -- was there this amazing thing that started in Italy. Suddenly, the world and man's intellectual life were reborn in a new way that was still essentially Christian, but focused more on Man and his place in human society, so we generally call it Humanism. This was the result of some interesting rediscoveries of Greek and some Latin texts, made possible in part through the Crusades -- medieval -- and increased trade -- Renaissance? Medieval? Coupled with the fact that Italy didn't look so much like the rest of Europe in terms of political organization, since much of Italy was made up of city-states that were often run by rich people with no royal blood in their veins, Humanism in Italy was often more narowly focused on state-building and the running of states. So the Humanism of "The" Renaissance in Italy is often referred to as Civic Humanism. Please do not confuse this with that thing you may have heard of called Secular Humanism. Or just plain Humanism. God is still in his Heaven, and Darwin does not yet exist.

Now, while "The" Renaissance was going on in Italy, and everything in art, music, and other intellectual pursuits was changing dramatically, the rest of Europe was still in the Middle Ages, right? The plague, which is generally considered a Late Medieval Thing, raged on. It didn't actually bypass Italy, mind you. But it happened in the Middle Ages there, too. Because "the" Renaissance was too shiny and new for nasty things that looked just a wee bit apocalyptic. In fact, lots of things needed to be shiny and new, like the Pope and papal (PAY-pul, an adjective meaning 'having to do with popes') palaces. There had been some problems with popes in the Middle Ages. They had become so ... secular. They acted like they were equal to kings. They even told kings what to do. The fact that bishops in general had a very long tradition of being the most stable secular authorities in a given area we must ignore for the time being -- it goes back to Late Antiquity. We can also ignore the fact that lot of bishops (don't forget, the pope is the Bishop of Rome) were for a very long time (again, going back to Late Antiquity) members of the most powerful families around. They were brothers and cousins and uncles of kings ... at least, they were till some folks in one of those little medieval renaissances started saying that maybe education was also a big factor, and some not-so-well-born, but smart and reasonably pious types started horning in on the good episcopal (that's 'having to do with bishops,' not in the sense of the Anglican or Episcopal Church -- you may need to explain this, too) offices. But by the last quarter of the 14th c. (that's the Middle Ages in Europe, excluding areas of Italy where people are being smart and artistic, and avoiding the plague like the plague), the Pope had been living in Avignon, which is in France.

Now, you might ask, "what does this have to do with Periodization? I thought you were going to explain Periodization, ADM!" I'm getting there. You see, people weren't too happy about the pope situation. Oddly enough, many people thought that a French pope living in France was probably not as effective as if the pope were actually a resident Bishop of Rome. Not to mention the fact that he just might have had French interests at heart. France was at the time at war with England and occasionally other states. Mostly England. For a Hundred Years' War. It's a Medieval thing. But "The" Renaissance was happening in Italy. And that's not Medieval. Add to that the fact that there were people who are genuinely concerned that popes should be good moral leaders, and also the fact that some of this Renaissance book learning had made its way slowly northwards, and you get the basis for our next important period that isn't Medieval. It's the Northern Renaissance.

The Northern Renaissance is in many ways related to "the" Renaissance that happened in Italy beginning about a hundred years earlier. Some historians lump them together, some don't. What they have in common is very important, though, in that Humanism is arguably the most important characteristic in terms of thought. But Humanism in the Low Countries and parts of the Holy Roman Empire that are mostly now in Germany (with luck, there will be maps at this point. And you can tell the Voltaire joke, if you must) wasn't based so much on man and the state. Northern Humanists used that rediscovery of learning, combined with some very sincere worries about the way the Church was heading, to try to get back to what it really meant to be a Christian. Because of this, the Humanists of the Northern Renaissance are often called Christian Humanists. They are very, very concerned with a reform of Christian thought and the Church. About the Church -- I know we're now in the Renaissance in Italy and a very different Renaissance in the Low Countries, but, just as in the Middle Ages, if you live in Western Europe (but not Spain), you are a Christian of the Roman Catholic variety. You just call yourself a Christian. Unless, of course, you are Jewish, in which case, it's best not to draw too much attention to yourself. It's not till we get to the next period -- the Reformation -- that we can start talking about varieties of Christianity in Western Europe.

So to recap -- There's the Middle Ages, which can claim several renaissances. Then one day, after the Middle Ages in things intellectual and artistic, 'the' Renaissance happens in Italy. It spreads over about a hundred years and changes form dramatically and hits the Low Countries and Germany, with occasional side trips to England. We haven't talked about the Renaissance in England and France. That's because England is having a Reformation when everybody else is still having a Renaissance, and then England has a Renaissance AND a Reformation when other places are having a Counter- or Catholic Reformation. But we talk about these things one after another, so that students will think of them as periods. This is, if you hadn't noticed, akin to teaching Greece and then Rome, so that our students often forget that Alexander came to power well after the foundation of Rome and even a good few years after those nasty Gauls gave the Romans a walloping. Because, you know, Greece comes before Rome.

But I digress. So, people were unhappy with the Church. Christian Humanists called for Reform. Some were willing to break from the Church run by the Pope and take Christianity back to its roots. Others, like Henry VIII of England (or more likely his Humanist advisor, Sir Thomas More) defended the Church -- at least until Renaissance politics got in the way. Or were they just politics? I hope by now that the students are starting to understand that 'the' Renaissance is best seen as something other than a chronological period. But to the politics. And now, we have to go back to the late Middle Ages. While Italy was developing strong (and not so strong) city-states, and France and England were fighting each other for years, other people were also slowly amassing what power and territory they could. The Dukes of Burgundy were doing so, for example. And in Spain, the Muslims who had been pretty much in charge since the 8th c. were losing hold, and various Spanish Christian petty rulers were starting to take back land from the Muslims (and occasionally, each other). And in the late 15th c., while England was in the middle of the Wars of the Roses, a civil war due in part to the Hundred Years' War (Here is where you might want to demonstrate which rose is which by pointing to the crests of Blackburn Rovers and Leeds United -- also good for English geography -- end with a picture of the Tudor rose), Spain was in the middle of the Reconquista. Ferdinand and Isabella had joined their kingdoms together, while maintaining their own independent rules and, under the banner of Santiago Matamoros (St James the Muslim-killer, whose name was recently invoked during the discussion of the European Constitution), with the help of the Spanish Inquisition set about kicking out all Muslims and Jews who were not actually killed. Or converted. Or converted then executed, just to make sure. This is a good place to mention the Ladino-speaking Jewish population of Turkey, which was at the time of the Reconquista and the ensuing diaspora, ruled by the Ottoman Empire.

Given that Spain never underwent the crisis of conscience and rejection of Church corruption that much of the rest of Europe experienced, there is no Reformation in Spain. In fact, we might even argue that Spain is where this whole Renaissance-Reformation thing breaks down. But Spain also helps to explain the Reformation everywhere else, and so we must discuss Spain. And Portugal, actually. Because Early Modern is Portugal at its peak. Portugal (and you may in fact have to point it out on a map, unless you have a bunch of Luis Figo fans in class) is, in fact, a World Power. No, really. Stop laughing, you in the back.

You see, while 'the' Renaissance was this (arguably) huge break from the past in terms of art and intellectual endeavors, it (and the Reformation) was also going on at a time of Discovery. Or exploration by Europeans. Because the places they discovered were all pretty much inhabited. Often they were inhabited by people with fairly extensive empires, complex social systems and governments, and access to some fairly major trade networks. The trade networks aren't all that new, either, although the people controlling them have changed over the years. But to Spain and Portugal ... Portugal, then Spain, start sending out boats to see what they can see, partially to bypass existing trade routes and get more stuff. The Portuguese started to try to head east via Africa, which they found to be far bigger than they thought. They knew it was there and all. It's not really that surprising, as Africa is ginormous and, well, um ... Gibralter is in pretty close proximity to Spain, and pretty much everybody in Europe has known it was there since people in Europe started to write about such things. But mostly, people did not know that Africa was ginormous and full of stuff people wanted. Some of the stuff was slaves, but early on, slaves aren't that important. Nowhere to use them. By hugging the coast of Africa, the Portuguese thought they could end up in the Indies. They were right. You should not have to explain anything about the Spanish search for the Indies. Columbus is something people know about. It may be the only thing your students know walking in the door. What they don't know is that the Pope divided all of these new-found places between Portugal and Spain. What they also don't know is that the question of whether the already-resident peoples of the Americas had souls was debated at a church council. It's also a good idea to discuss what exactly was discovered -- those complex societies and all? Yeah. Oh -- and precious metals, which were brought back in impressive amounts. And like that, we've moved from Discovery/Exploration to ... the Price Revolution -- a period of massive inflation and the rise of mercantile economies that, as it happens, had very little to do with the influx of gold and silver from the new world! Go figure.

To re-cap again: while 'the' Renaissance was happening, Reformation had also broken out. Spain had been reconquered and everybody left was serenely Catholic. There are also wars here and there on the continent. The civil war in England was over, but the king, who was a member of a fairly new dynasty, didn't want another one. He therefore thought it a good idea to defend the pope, who had granted a dispensation for him to marry his older brother's widow, who happened to be a Spanish princess. Yes, she was a princess from that same Spain where the Reformation didn't need to happen because of the Reconquista, that same Spain that was carving out a ton of territory in the not-really-very-new world and bringing home lots of silver and gold, which tended to make everybody pretty jealous, although even then people made rude jokes about the Spanish, who were not so much ruled by Spaniards any more, ever since the Habsburgs, who were originally German by way of the Dukes of Burgundy, married into the Spanish royal house (you must now tell them about Juana la Loca; jokes about pop-eyes and huge jaws optional, as Velasquez pretty much says it all; you can try to tell them there are still Habsburgs, but the whole 'Otto von Habsburg forcibly ejects that dangerous and hateful lunatic Ian Paisley from the European Parliament' episode? Forget it. Lead balloon.). BUT THEN ...those same Habsburgs bought ... er ...bribed ...er ...were elected Holy Roman Emperors. As such, they were very interested in Reformation -- except when it was to their advantage not to be.

What does this have to do with England? Everything. It especially has to do with the English Reformation, which is a bit later than the ones in Germany and Switzerland, because if you remember, the King of England is a defender of the Church. And he's married to a Spanish princess. And not long before England's civil war, England had spent about a hundred years fighting with France. They were still not very good friends. But here is where a map becomes your best friend. Look at who has what on the map. Students can see why England would prize a Spanish alliance. Almost as much as they would a healthy male heir who would continue the dynasty and keep England from being plunged into another bloody war. It's a matter of some concern, because while the queen is a Spanish princess and all, she isn't a great breeder. (please do not show the most recent version of Henry VIII and his wives with Ray Winstone as Henry. Just don't go there. Not even for Sean Bean). The English King, Henry VIII, who is a composer of Renaissance music, by the way, broke off the English Church from Rome in order to divorce his Spanish wife and marry a nice English girl who would give him babies. Mark my words, it'll all end in tears. Some people would say that this was the start of the English Reformation. It is true, there was Reform under Henry. Kind of. The Church stopped being the biggest single landowner in England after the monasteries are dissolved, frequently in blood. And there were a few small doctrinal changes. But it would take at least four changes of ruler and as many purges before England really settled into its Anglicanism. More or less. Not counting Puritans and Dissenters and Crypto-Catholics. And the Civil War, which was very different from the Wars of the Roses, because it was about Principles, like whether rulers should be Absolute and have the right to dissolve Parliament on a whim, not dynastic change. Mostly. I say mostly because it didn't entirely work. That happens (arguably) with the Glorious Revolution in 1688, a time really close to the end of Early Modern. So, basically, the Early Modern period in England is characterised by constant struggles over religion and government which leave England with a constitution that looks surprisingly ... Modern. The rest of Europe gets there about a hundred years later.

Meanwhile, the Reformation has left people on the wrong side of Christianity all over Europe. Just because the Reformation resulted in different interpretations of Christianity did not mean people had a choice. Well, they did. It's just that the choice was often, "believe in the kind of Christianity we believe in, or die (or move, if you are lucky)." Not surprisingly, some people wanted to leave. Also, remember that Spain and Portugal had started bringing back all kinds of good stuff from their new possessions? Well, other European countries wanted stuff, too. It was easy for the Reformed countries that had navies, e.g., England and the Netherlands. If you weren't Catholic, that papal decree that divided the rest of the world between Spain and Portugal could be ignored. If you were French, you were just not going to be left out. Also, there were pesky Protestants (the people who protested the problems in the church and wanted reform) whom you could send away to new places where they would be your subjects but not cause so many problems. So while people are reforming Christianity in Europe, the voyages of exploration had become voyages of taking over new places. In some cases, like the Americas, this worked. In others, it didn't work so well. Japan and China, for example, didn't really think foreign occupation was a good idea. So the Spanish and Portuguese did their next best -- they converted as many people as they could. It had worked reasonably well in the Americas. It didn't work as well in China or Japan. But then, the tactics and audience were different. In the Americas, there were great empires with complex bureaucracies. But those empires were relatively new and the military technology was not nearly of the kind one might need to combat the Europeans. Also, European diseases wreaked havoc on non-resistant populations. In Asia, well, people were ... civilized. That is, the Europeans saw the residents of the Americas and Africa (although not much is going on in Africa at this time, except for a few outposts) as savages. Since savages don't know better, it's theoretically acceptable to enslave them and force them to become Christians. The Japanese and Chinese? Big armies and stuff people wanted. And they wrote. And they'd been around a long time. And they really didn't much care for what the Europeans had to offer, except in the case of certain daimyo who took advantage of the fact that conversion meant access to guns. This is where, if your students learned all about the 'F-word', you can boggle their minds by showing that it kinda does exist in Tokugawa Japan.

But back to converting people. Most of this conversion is being done by one religious order, the Jesuits (aka the Society of Jesus), although there are occasionally Dominicans involved. Why are people being converted? To save their souls. This happened everywhere that the Spanish and Portuguese went. But as the Reformation took hold in much of Northern Europe, Catholic efforts to make up for lost souls redoubled. Not only were there attempts to reform Catholicism within Europe, but it made sense to try to make sure that non-Christians would become the right kind of Christians. Whether one sees these efforts as a reaction to the Reformation or a genuine attempt at reform from within the Church determines the name -- Counterreformation or Catholic Reformation. There's no good reason it can't be both, depending on the circumstances.

So where does this all end? That's a tough question. Because while England was getting rid of its Absolute Monarchs and ending the Catholic threat forever, the rest of Europe saw its rulers becoming more absolute, although some were benign in their despotism. In fact, in much of central and eastern Europe, serfdom, a labour system generally considered to be "Medieval," was making a comeback. The serfs aren't freed in Russia till 1861, which really begs the question of Modernity. Is the Scientific Revolution modern? or Early Modern? The jury's out on that one. But I think we can safely say that the Early modern period ended on the morning of the first day of the Enlightenment.

Alternatively, Early Modern is a state of mind.

An afterthought: Why is it that I heard someone refer to the situation in New Orleans as medieval. I though sure that such disasters were more common in the literature of the Ancient Near East ...

7 comments:

Deeni said...

Ok. My head is spinning now. The problem is that this stuff sometimes runs through my head when I teach and I'm afraid to open my mouth and further confuse my students.

Jonathan Dresner said...

This is like what I do when my students ask a question in class. At the end of an answer, I always try to come back to the student and say "Does that answer your question?" (I had really bad experiences in college with instructors who would answer the question they thought you should have asked) and "Was that way more information than you wanted?".... usually the answer is yes. But the point that they take from it, I think, is that the history (as narrative) is in flux and there is still work to be done and insteresting questions.

Ancarett said...

What an excellent ramble! Back at my doctoral institution, there were definitions for our comps fields and early modern continental European history was officially 1453-1648 while for Britain it was 1485-1714. Go figure!

When I taught a year long early modern survey, I ran it from the 1390s (Milanese wars, troublesome reign of Richard II) through to the latter part of the 17th century. Even then, I'm not exactly happy with the "periodization" but I tried to get through in the class that you could call the same event or social trend "medieval" or "early modern" with equal felicity.

The difficulty with the phrase is the progressive sense of "modern" inherent in "early modern." I still prefer it to the alternatives that have been employed for describing parts of the period. (As you've run down the list, you've seen the problems, as well.)

Of course, just as "early modern" is a pejorative appendage of modern history, we shouldn't forget that medieval is the same. The middle age between the vaunted classical past and the so-called Renaissance wasn't seen as anything but a gap to be flown over or delved into only to explain the inevitable corruptions and rare survivals of the classical past.

Like you, I feel that using the term "medieval" to describe the horrors and continuing deprivation happening on the Gulf Coast is a disservice to the European past we study. Similarly, calling the federal government bureaucracy "Byzantine" seems an insult to the old empire, even at its worst.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Yeah, absence of Eunuchs is definitely a problem!

Anonymous said...

We don't like the word feudal in studying Japan either. Us pre-modernists (another nasty word) anyway. (Modernists tend to throw it around with abandon, but they're buying too much into Meiji agit-prop, I think.) Not even for Tokugawa.

But there were issues with Japanese slaves, actually. Nothing to the degree of what you saw in Africa or the Americas, but since we have Jesuit letters (and some Japanese sources too) deploring the practice of kidnapping Japanese to send to Portugal etc.... (Not to say that Japan and China didn't have their own slavers either, of course. But it was a bit of a surprise to learn about the more global issue.)

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Yeah, I'm with y'all on the "defining everything in terms of modern" bit. Did not know that about Japan, but I should also clarify, I suppose. I do think it's fair to say that the so-called F model only comes close to reality, and that's in two places: Early Norman England and Tokugawa Japan, because those are the only places (I can think of) where it is a top-down creation. And I'd still take both of those with a whopping helping of salt.

Although I am now wondering ... in either case, is there still allodial land, or is it all fiscal?

Anonymous said...

Allodial land in Japanese history... very good question, because I don't know that I usually look at it that way. In theory, in the ritsuryo period (ancient) all land is taxed, and so are the people, and land is distributed and redistributed among the people. But salaries for the administrators and funding for temples came from assigned lands, which while (in theory again) were to be circulated around and redistributed, ended up as the basis for the estate system. Which estate system, with many revolutions, lasted until the 1600s (pre-Tokugawa)--while technically (legally) there was still "public" land, subject to a nationwide tax, in practice there probably wasn't any. (No one's yet really studied the local branches of the centralized bureaucracy once samurai governing organizations kick in, which is something we're working on now.) Then under Tokugawa you have a reorginization of the system, and the tax definitely goes national again and is based on land, not head. Not useful when you have a burgeoning urban and merchantile economy (which is why a lot of us put Tokugawa as early modern, I think), so monopolies in goods--like sugar, which was one of the basis of wealth for Satsuma, which was a major player in the Meiji Restoration--become economically more important. Authority in the Tokugawa is still Shogun to han to samurai "employees" of the han(with a separate, cultural sphere of authority where the court still had some power and the strict social separation legally imposed by the Tokugawa breaks down--there's a great recent book on this theme in Edo-period Japan, but I forget the title exactly--reminds me of the somewhat recent Masonic scandals in Britain). Technically. In theory anyway.

Feudal or not? I'm not sure, and the debate for the medieval side isn't really helping me decide yea or nay. (Since I look at periodization on the other side of things, from "ancient" to "medieval," it's rather of interest to me. Some people have even suggested putting the early modern in Japan around the late 14th century, because of urban and cultural factors--but then, China's "early modern" kind of begins in the Song, which begins in the 10th century, so.)