Chronology And Periodization In History Research Paper

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1. General Remarks On Historical Time

Homo sapiens is the only species on earth equipped to look back on its past consciously. The past, however, is chaotic. Nevertheless, it is the peculiar ability of humankind, as homo historicus, to put some kind of order on this chaos, making it understandable. It is this conscious looking back to the past that identifies homo sapiens as human.

The most important element in bringing order to the chaos of the past is some concept of time. Time is a human invention rendering chaos intelligible, rather than something that exists in itself. Among the various notions of time, chronology and periodization are the most closely connected with the organization of our past. Without these conceptual inventions, there would be no way of organizing our past as history.

Chronology is a dating system, or a system of reckoning a series of years from a starting point (year), which gives an era a theoretical definition. In this respect, chronology should be distinguished from a calendar, which is defined as a system of fixing the year, month and date.

Periodization is a form of historiological cognition proposed by the human mind for making the past intelligible and meaningful by dividing the collective past into compartments along time.

On the one hand, chronology is different from periodization in that it is used by a group of people for practical purposes, mainly for counting years. Those who try to make sense of history through rendering the past retrospectively intelligible, on the other hand, mostly use periodization. It is of no practical use for counting time.

Chronology, therefore, is in these terms mainly for constructing time, and periodization for dividing time. However, further inquiry reveals the fact that chronology also acts to divide time by creating a starting point for a new era, for example, ‘regnal years,’ ‘Christian chronology,’ and ‘East Asian era names.’ On the other hand, the very act of the periodization of the past effectively constructs a new time by inventing an arbitrary starting point, though these times are not used by people in everyday life, as for example the ‘Victorian period’ or the ‘Middle Ages.’

2. Four Aspects Of Time In History

Time in history will be considered from the following four viewpoints: the three types of time, the relation between linear time and cyclical time, the relation between what I call the stream of time, and the stack of time, and finally, what governs time.

2.1 Three Types Of Time

Time will be classified into three categories: natural time, human time, and metaphysical time. Natural time is a reflection of such natural cycles as seasons, human life, etc. Human time is what homo sapiens invented to make the remembered past intelligible and comprehensible, and consists of such historical times as chronology and periodization. Metaphysical time is what homo sapiens created to make the remembered past meaningful beyond human experience, as has been proposed by philosophers of history.

2.2 Linear Time And Cyclical Time

Among Western historians time in history has been discussed in terms of the established dichotomy of linear and cyclical time. There is a consensus among them that a culture based on non-linear time would not be able to construct historical thinking (Needham 1966). This was based on the assumption that the rise of the historical mind is premised on linear time. The assumption is however contradicted by the historiographical accomplishments of East Asia, which led the pre-modern world in both the quality and quantity of historical production, despite the fact that linear conceptions of time were relatively weak in the historical cultures of the region.

Linear time has been almost universal in both the East and the West, despite variation in styles and manners, in the past and present. India has sometimes been described as being without the historical mind, because it was a culture that lacked linear time and lived in cyclical time. However, ancient Indian genealogies inscribed on tombstones and monuments show a richness of linear conceptions of time. Archeological remains discovered in ancient Mesoamerican civilizations also testify to the employment of linear time. The Mosi kingdom in West Africa still conducts the genealogical narrations and historical recitations of the dynasty through the sounding of a drum, and not by means of the spoken or written word.

2.3 Stream Of Time And Stack Of Time

The examination of what constitutes linear time will lead us to a comprehensive understanding of the nature of historical time.

Linear time proceeds from the viewpoint that time is ordered in a straight line like a stream of water in the river. This time is recorded by a sequence of numbers, as is characteristic in the Western (Christian) way of counting years, and it has given us a view of historical time as proceeding in a linear fashion.

Along with this idea, a frame of regnal years, or East Asian era names as a metamorphosis of regnal years has been used widely. This implies a view of time as being stacked like a pile of bricks, rather than flowing like water in the river. This image of time reflects a fundamental stratum of our consciousness, as when we look back into the past, and remember ‘my school days,’ ‘our Tokyo period’ or ‘between the wars.’

The Western cultures that now dominate the modern world extended their mode of historical thinking based on linear time, and imposed their sense of time as universal. However, recent studies show that linear time is comparatively artificial, while compartmentalized time is in many ways more ‘natural’ (Sato 1991).

The fact that periodization was so very important in the development of historical studies, therefore, is really a reflection of European circumstances and the primary role that linear time has in that culture. This very rarely happened in the East Asian tradition, where varied combinations of compartmentalized time developed their own historical culture.

It could be said that the idea of a stream of time is rather artificial, and the idea of a stack of time actually constitutes the basic sense of historical time.

2.4 Time Belongs To The Supreme Nominal Power

Throughout history human time belonged to the supreme power. Time was made and was controlled by this power.

Historically, the powers that governed human time can be divided into two different types: religious power and political power. Religious powers in the western hemisphere, in particular Christianity, Judaism, and Islam have controlled time, in broad terms. However, time in the eastern hemisphere has been governed by political power.

In China, time belonged to the emperor. A new dynasty and a new emperor declared the enthronement of a new power by proclaiming a new era name and a new calendar. The Chinese emperor confirmed the establishment of his power by the introduction of his time. In Japan, since the seventh century, time also belonged to the emperor. It was the emperor’s duty and prerogative to declare a new era’s name, a privilege retained even during military rule. Even the strong Tokugawa shogun ate could not deprive the Emperor of this privilege. After World War II, the Christian chronology-based time came into use in East Asia, along with Greenwich Mean Time. However, Japan and Taiwan still employ the era name system officially. North Korea introduced an era name system in 1997, and the new era name was ‘Juche’ (Autonomy), to commemorate the late Kim Il-Sung. The era started retroactively from his birth in 1921.

The Western time based on Christian chronology and universal time now occupies the role of common time in the world. The introduction of Christian chronology made the practice of a world historiography possible by giving a synchronicity to the history of the world. The time that now governs the world belongs to the supreme world power called ‘Globalization.’ The expansion of Internet communications necessitates a world common time. A similar situation was found in early modern Europe. Problems arose for merchants in setting contract dates between different countries that used various regnal years and dating systems. As a result merchants were among the first to promote the use of a common Christian chronology strongly.

3. Chronology

Chronology can be classified into the three types according to their features: linear chronology, stratified chronology, and cyclical chronology. The major issue of chronology focuses on the question of why, in spite of its defects, the Christian chronology was able to become a common system.

3.1 Linear Chronology

Linear chronology is a system of reckoning a series of years in a straight line from a starting point (year) of an era. Jewish chronology, Christian chronology, Islamic chronology, Buddhist chronology, etc. belong to this type of chronology.

Linear chronology consists of two types: one counts the years serially from the starting year towards the future, and the other counts years both backwards and forward from the starting year. The latter idea of reckoning years both to the future and to the past endlessly is only found in Christian chronology.

This idea of a single era system of counting years is found all over the world. In ancient times, Mesopotamian chronology began with the accession of Nabonassar in 747 BC, and Roman chronology reckoned years from the foundation of Rome in 753 BC Jews have counted years from the foundation of the world (Anno Mundi) since the third century.

Dionysius Exiguus, an abbot in Rome in 525, first introduced Christian chronology as we know it, on the grounds that years should be noted from the incarnation of Jesus Christ, instead of the era of Diocletian, the persecutor of Christians in ancient Rome. Dionysius calculated the birth of Christ as the 753rd year from the foundation of Rome, and made this year the first year of Anno Domini (AD). However, it was not until the eleventh century that this chronology began to circulate widely in Europe.

Islamic chronology (the era of the Hijra) was instituted by Caliph ‘Umar I in 638 by introducing the system of counting years from the Hijra, that is the flight of Mohammed from Mecca to Medina on July 16, 622, the first day of the lunar year. The Islamic chronology is unique among the other linear chronologies in that it is a purely lunar-based chronology, i.e., the year is counted as the cycle of twelve lunar months, not as the revolution of the earth around the sun.

Buddhist chronology is now used in some Southeast Asian countries. In Thailand and Cambodia years are counted from the putative date of the death of the Buddha in 543 BC, while Myanmar employs the date of the introduction of Buddhism in 638 as the first year of their chronology. In India, the government reformed the calendar in 1957 based on the Saka era (starting from 78), and it is now widely used.

At least ten other single-era linear chronologies have been proposed, including the era of the emperor Huang and the era of Confucius in China, and the era of Tangun in Korea.

3.2 Stratified Chronology

Stratified chronology is a system of reckoning years by successively piling eras (sets of years) upon one another in sequence, an idea that originated in the regnal year system. The method of counting years by royal succession has been used throughout the world since ancient times, and it was also used widely in Europe even after Christian chronology was circulated in the sixteenth century. The method of dating by regnal years, though troublesome, satisfies the theoretical requirements of specifying years, and this chronology finds its most significant expression in the era name system of East Asia. The era name system derives its origin from the idea of conferring a significant title to a certain series of years, instead of using simple regnal years. It was first introduced by the emperor Wu of the Han dynasty in China, in 114 BC. The years of his reign were named according to Heavenly good omens as ‘Founding the First Era,’ ‘The First Light,’ ‘The First Hunting,’ etc.

This idea of chronology later rippled out in all directions to the countries on China’s periphery. It was employed in Vietnam and Korea by the middle of the sixth century, and by the middle of the seventh century, at the latest, it had reached Japan. These East Asian countries on the Chinese periphery took the idea of the era name system but made little use of the Chinese names themselves. When used in tandem with the Chinese sexagesimal cyclical system, the era name system fulfilled its function as a method of reckoning years in East Asia.

East Asia was chronologically under the exclusive dominance of the era name and sexagesimal cycle systems. The era name system was premised on the very existence of Chinese letters as ideographic characters. Ideographic characters made possible the development of the East Asian philosophy of chronology, i.e., that the counting of years is not an act of assigning an ordinal number to a year, but rather that of giving to a year a meaningful name.

It originates in the Weltanschauung inherent in ideographic characters: that Chinese characters by their very nature assign a meaningful name to every aspect of the world and the era name system could be seen as an extension of this. It never crossed the minds of peoples outside East Asia to assign a meaningful name to a set of years.

For more than two thousand years, until the middle of the twentieth century, this era name system was employed in East Asia, to the virtual exclusion of all other modes of reckoning. The Christian era system was brought into East Asia during the latter half of the nineteenth century as part of Western culture. The system took the place of era names in the subsequent century. Japan, Taiwan, and North Korea still employ the era name system officially, though the Christian era system is widely used as well. It tells us that the idea of reckoning years within the context of meaningful names is deeply rooted and alive in the collective consciousness of East Asian people.

3.3 Cyclical Chronology

In addition to the above two types of chronology, cyclical chronologies have long been used all over the world. Well-known examples of these are the chronology by indiction (indictio) in early Medieval Europe, and the sexagesimal cycle in East Asia. In this type of chronology, years were given according to their place in the cycle of 15 years (indictio), or 60 years (the sexagesimal cycle), the number of the indictio or the sexagesimal cycle itself being ignored. They could be called chronologies in the sense that they turned into absolute chronology by giving ordinal numbers to the cycle, in the same way that the Olympic dating system operates. It was also possible to apply such an ordering to the sexagesimal cycle, but it was rarely used in practice. This method may also be called a relative chronology in the sense that it was not used to designate specified years in comparison with an absolute chronology.

The Hindu idea of chronology is cyclical, but it is unique in its philosophy of time in that cosmic cycles of creation and destruction continue indefinitely. In Hinduism, time belongs to the supreme God, and one chronological cycle ( yugas) is 4,320,000 years.

3.4 The Christian Era System As The Common World Chronology

The twenty-first century begins in 2001, not 2000. The Christian chronology starts from the 1st Anno Domini. The concept of zero was not yet known in the West when the Christian chronology was created in the sixth century. Zero came to Europe around the tenth century, from India, via the Islamic countries. In addition to this defect, it is now believed that there was an error in assigning the year of Jesus’s birth, and he was in fact born a few years before the year 1, Anno Domini.

In spite of these imperfections, we live with a Christian chronology that is now so dominant in worldwide usage that there is no possibility of it being replaced with a new or revised method at any time in the foreseeable future. Christian chronology now occupies the role of a common or neutral chronology in the world. This was theoretically brought into effect by introducing the concept of ‘BC’ and deciding on the first day of January as New Year’s Day; and it had been politically determined by the dominance of Western culture since the nineteenth century.

It is important to inquire here why the invention of ‘BC’ made the Christian era system the universal chronology. It is because it has the great advantage of locating every historical event on a single time base.

Venerable Bede, in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Analorum (731), first proposed the idea as anno igitur ante incarnationem Dominicam (in the year, therefore, before the incarnation of the Lord). The expression became widely used after the late sixteenth century in a period known as the dispute over Christian chronology. This dispute arose because of disagreements between scholars concerning the period between the Creation and the birth of Christ, and because of inconsistencies between Christian and non-Christian ancient histories, as for example in the differences between the Chinese records and the Bible. However, since the seventeenth century, the idea of BC has been used widely in Europe.

It should be remembered that BC was first used, not independently, but as an auxiliary chronology to Anno Mundi. The secularization of the Christian idea of history was necessary for the exclusive use of BC, which started in the eighteenth century. An early example of the transformation of the Biblical chronology into a secular chronology can be found in Voltaire’s Essai sur les moeurs et l’esprit des nations (1756), where the concept of BC became an indispensable part of modern chronology.

As a result of the developments in archaeology and geology in the scientific revolution of early modern Europe, the method of counting serially backwards from the birth of Christ proved extremely useful in dealing with the debate over ‘the creation of the world.’ It was, perhaps, accidental that BC came into such use, since it was originally conceived in order to describe the years between the Biblical Creation and the birth of Christ. It was beyond the imagination of its founders to think of a time ‘before the Creation.’

It is a curious irony that this Christian chronology was so suited to tackle the scientific revolution, and it spread itself beyond the boundaries of Christendom. The invention of BC transformed the Christian era system from being a specifically Christian chronology to being one with a universal potential. It is now widely used in non-Christian countries as the main chronology. For example, China officially introduced the Christian chronology as the common era (kungyuan) in 1949, in order to become synchronized with the rest of the world. Joseph Needham proposed the idea of chronological expression avoiding the writing of dates as ‘BC’ and ‘AD’ by the use of ‘ – ’ and ‘ + ’ respectively in his Science and Civilization in China, because, ‘such a convention seems also more suitable for civilizations which were never part of Christendom.’ In recent years, Jews started to use the notations ‘CE’ (common era) and ‘BCE’ (before the common era).

The idea of a common chronology is premised on the notion that all peoples, cultures, and nations have their own ‘year,’ which allows the common man to create a balanced sense of history, and acquire the possibility of a free and varied sense of time. Because the reckoning of years is not a mere assignment of numbers in order, but the creation of a cognitive framework for experience and memory, it is in itself an advanced intellectual exercise peculiar to the human species. It is also a political, social, and cultural act of human intelligence.

4. Periodization

Periodization has been practiced since ancient times. Well-known examples are the four metallic ages (gold, silver, bronze, and iron) as introduced by Hesiod in the seventh century BC, Daniel’s dream of the four kingdoms and its interpretation (Babylonian, MedoPersian, Macedonian, and Roman monarchies), the Buddhist idea of the threefold periods (the true law, the reflected law, and the end of the law), and Saint Augustine’s proposition of six periods (infantia, pueritia, adulescentia, iuventus, gravitas, and senectus, the last named corresponding to the period from the Christ to the end of time). Each had a fundamental influence on the pre-modern people in its respective civilization. In the East, it was a matter of primary concern to know when the period of the end of the law started. Similarly, in the West people were eager to know the advent of Doomsday.

An examination of these periodizations shows us that: (a) at a very fundamental historical level people employ compartmentalized time and not linear time for their historical thinking, and (b) characteristically a people acquire their historical raison d’etre using their past to place their present in history.

This research paper, however, focuses on the periodization that appeared with the rise of modern historical scholarship in the seventeenth century, and has become a major historiographical asset.

4.1 Two Types Of Periodizing Terms

Time has been worked with in two ways, using both continuous time and compartmentalized time.

It is natural and inherent for us to employ compartmentalized time when we look back into the past. In the same way historians in their research invent compartmentalized time in order to give the past a certain unity. Thus compartmentalized time is a natural and indispensable historiographical tool.

Historians have employed compartmentalized time in two fundamentally different ways; one was to use the historically existing compartments, and the other was to invent and retrospectively apply a structure. Dynastic periodizations widely used in the East and the West are typical of the former; however, the latter represented, for example, by Christophus Cellarius, Karl Marx, Fernand Braudel have almost always been created in the West.

4.2 Periodization As A Historiological Tool

Periodization is a form of historical understanding, designed as a historiological tool for making the past understandable, intelligible, and meaningful by dividing it into compartments. It was developed largely in the West in the early modern period under the dominance of Christian chronology. More generally speaking, it was to be found in civilizations where linear chronology played a central role, for example Ibn Khaldun’s distinction between the umran badawi (rural culture ) and the umran hahari (urban culture).

Periodization became a key feature of Western historiography, which developed into a cognitive discipline by proposing new perspectives and varied interpretations. This contrasts strongly with the East Asian experience. Even though a rich historiographical culture flourished in East Asia for more than two thousand years as a major field of learning, it did not develop the type of terminologies used by Western historians, except some periodizations proposed by Japanese historians because East Asian countries used the combination of many different types of periodization in their written history, such as dynasties, era names, sexagesimal cycles, and periods based on changes in the site of the capital. Modern European history, on the other hand, drew on a long and deeprooted tradition of annals and chronicles, whose style depended solely on a concept of continuous time. The various periodizations were essential for their establishing history. Even now, a list of titles of recent works by Western historians reads like an inventory of variously compartmentalized time.

The Christian era system had been in use in the West long before the birth of historiography in modern Europe, at which time the historians took an interest in compartmentalizing the past in order to analyze history. In one sense, it could be viewed as a declaration of independence by modern historiography from such traditional forms as annals and chronicles.

In the 1700s, the word ‘century’ came into use, signifying that the modern Western mind needed compartmentalized time for thinking about history. In Western historiography such statements as ‘the first half of a century,’ ‘the first quarter of a century,’ or ‘1930s,’ are used quite freely and this is a sign that compartmentalized time has become indispensable for looking back upon the past, which cannot be grasped simply by employing absolute years.

To summarize in simple terms, in the West the idea of a single era count formed the basis of chronology, i.e., the Christian era system. Given this basis historians employed many different kinds of periodization to compartmentalize time to think about history. By contrast, in East Asia only the compartmentalized time could be found in historiography. Their historiographical style was developed on a stratified or stack-shaped chronology and various other types of compartmentalized time. The expansion of modern European historiography, paralleling the global reach of Euro-American military and economic power in the late nineteenth century meant that historians everywhere are now using the technique of using periodization to understand history. ‘Pensare la storiave certamente periodizzarla’ (to think history is certainly to periodize, B. Croce) is a view now shared by all world historians.

Later development of periodization to incorporate such concepts as the ‘feudal period,’ the ‘medieval period,’ etc., has given rise to the reinterpretation of human history on an international scale. The idea of dividing history into three periods was the first success of the method.

4.3 Universality Of The Tripartite Periodization

The universal acceptance of a tripartite periodization: ancient, medieval, and modern has had a fundamental influence on the development of world historiographies.

This threefold periodization was first employed by Georg Hornius, a Dutch historian in his Arca Noae (1666), and became widely known later through Christophorus Cellarius, a German historian, in his Historia no a, hoc est XVI et XVII saeculorum (1696). With the transmission of modern German historical scholarship it spread across the world two centuries later and has been taken for granted as a global standard since then.

This threefold periodization found universal acceptance for two reasons: (a) the terminologies were almost free from religious connotations and EuroChristian signs, even though ‘medium Ae um’ was originally a theological notion, and (b) it included a universal attitude towards the past by instituting a negative period between the glorious past and the contemporary period.

There is still no agreement in deciding on the exact border years among the ancient, the medieval, and the modern. Professional historians have concentrated later on subdivisions of the three periods. This lack of consensus encouraged disputes among the historians of the world. As a result of this debate and the development of social and economic histories it became apparent that the very idea of border years was out-of-date.

Periodization as a way of historical thinking was developed still further by new proposals for dividing the human past. The most influential of these ideas of periodization were the ‘feudal period,’ pioneered by Henri Pirenne, and ‘historical materialism,’ as introduced by Marxist historians. This periodization was discussed in the historical contexts not only of Europe, but also of the non-Western world, especially China, India, and Japan.

After World War II, Fernand Braudel published a new idea of periodization in 1949, by proposing the notion of three different rhythms of history. The long duree (the long duration) became the main concern of postwar historians. This structural periodization spread over the world on the wind of social history, and became the shared perspective of the historians of the world.

5. Visualization Of Historical Time, Chronology, And Periodization

History is the science of making our chaotic past intelligible and meaningful through a variety of interpretive and structural techniques; among these, the imposition of a systematic notion of time has proved to be one of the most important. The construction of time lines, royal lines, genealogies, chronicles, annals, and historical tables, which have developed since ancient times, helps to form our historical knowledge and mind. The further necessity of knowing the synchronicity of the plural lines was the first step towards reaching a historical consciousness. Peoples have proposed a variety of ideas to synchronize the different times of human history.

The synchronizing of historical events that happened in different places and times can be viewed as the singular most distinguished achievement in the historical consciousness of the human mind. This is reflected in the construction of chronological tables or historical tables.

It is necessary here to distinguish chronological tables from annals and chronicles; they have very different purposes. Annals and chronicles attach importance to the content they record; on the other hand, chronological tables stress the date or sequence of historical events.

The chronological table gives us a visualized temporal image of our past, in the same way that a world atlas shows us a visualized spatial image of the world. It has two important functions. One is to give a bird’s eye view of the stream of time in history, the other is to make certain of the synchronicity of historical events in various parts of the world.

In East Asia, the use of chronological tables as a reference for comprehending history was first proposed by Sima Qiam (BC135–93) in his Shiji (Records of the Historian). They can be viewed as the beginning of a consciousness of historical time. He arranged ‘the chronological table of the twelve dukes’ by separating lines for the events of each of the twelve states. Reading down the columns, one sees what happened in each state in any given year by using the sexagesimal cycle and regnal years of that state. Reading across the columns, one can see the sequence of historical events for any given state. We could say that he made the table to show us history in both its temporal and spatial contexts.

The development of the chronological table in Europe was effected by choosing Anno Mundi, or Christian chronology, as the key time scale, around which the various historical events were listed.

The historical time-based Christian chronology was already established in Europe by the sixteenth century. However, at that time it was primarily employed in the field of ecclesiastical history. It was not until the eighteenth century that these two chronological methods were unified into Christian chronology. At that time historical events were rewritten in terms of the Christian chronology and thus were synchronized with events in the rest of the world. This synchronicity laid the foundations of a time consciousness capable of giving birth to the modern method of historical thinking. Benjamin Marchall’s Chronological Tables (1713) is one of the earliest works of this genre. John Blair published The Chronology and History (London, 1754), in which he proposed a table of various regnal years in Europe, which was constructed around a time line of years since the birth of Christ. James Bell established the earliest style of modern historical tables in his A View of Universal History (London, 1842). Historical tables were disseminated throughout the world through the works of Karl Ploets (1819–81), a German historian.

Since the latter half of the nineteenth century, Christian chronology as the historiographical ‘standard time’ has spread throughout the non-Christian world. This chronology has been established as the pivotal time by which the world creates and maintains the possibility of a synchronicity of the various local historical times. It is only with this temporal foundation that it is possible to write a history of the world.


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