An Error of Era?

tags: Jacques Le Goff, Must We Divide History Into Periods

Scott McLemee is the Intellectual Affairs columnist for Inside Higher Ed. In 2008, he began a three-year term on the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle.

George Orwell opened one of his broadcasts on the BBC in the early 1940s by recounting how he’d learned history in his school days. The past, as his teachers depicted it, was “a sort of long scroll with thick black lines ruled across it at intervals,” he said. “Each of these lines marked the end of what was called a ‘period,’ and you were given to understand that what came afterwards was completely different from what had gone before.”

The thick black lines were like borders between countries that didn’t know one another’s languages. “For instance,” he explained, “in 1499 you were still in the Middle Ages, with knights in plate armour riding at one another with long lances, and then suddenly the clock struck 1500, and you were in something called the Renaissance, and everyone wore ruffs and doublets and was busy robbing treasure ships on the Spanish Main. There was another very thick black line drawn at the year 1700. After that it was the Eighteenth Century, and people suddenly stopped being Cavaliers and Roundheads and became extra-ordinarily elegant gentlemen in knee breeches and three-cornered hats … The whole of history was like that in my mind -- a series of completely different periods changing abruptly at the end of a century, or at any rate at some sharply defined date.”

His complaint was that chopping up history and simplistically labeling the pieces was a terrible way to teach the subject. It is a sentiment one can share now only up to a point. Orwell had been an average student; today it would be the mark of a successful American school district if the average student knew that the Renaissance came after the Middle Ages, much less that it started around 1500. (A thick black line separates his day and ours, drawn at 1950, when television sales started to boom.)

Besides, the disadvantages of possessing a schematic or clichéd notion of history are small by contrast to the pleasure that may come later, from learning that the past was richer (and the borders between periods more porous) than the scroll made it appear.

Must We Divide History Into Periods? asked Jacques Le Goff in the title of his last book, published in France shortly before his death in April 2014 and translated by M. B. DeBevoise for the European Perspectives series from Columbia University Press. A director of studies at L'École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, Le Goff was a prolific and influential historian with a particular interest in medieval European cities. He belonged to the Annales school of historians, which focused on social, economic and political developments over very long spans of time -- although his work also exhibits a close interest in medieval art, literature and philosophy (where changes were slow by modern standards, but faster than those in, say, agricultural technique).  ...

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