“I trust I have not lost sight of the broader question with which I began, namely, whether history is a unified, continuous whole or whether it is broken up instead into segments of greater or lesser length. To put the question another way: does history really need to be divided into periods?”—Jacques Le Goff
The following is the preface to Must We Divide History Into Periods? by Jacques Le Goff:
This essay is neither thesis nor synthesis. It is the culmination of many years of research and reflection about the periods of history, particularly Western history. The Middle Ages in Europe have been my companion since 1950, the year I obtained my teaching license. Fernand Braudel chaired the examination committee, alongside the medievalist Maurice Lombard.
I have carried this work inside me for a long time, then. It has been nourished and sustained by ideas that are dear to my heart and that I have tried to express in various ways in the years since.
History, like its subject, time, appears to be continuous. But it consists of changes as well. Historians have long been accustomed to identifying and defining these changes by dividing the continuous stream of events into segments that initially were called “ages” and then “periods.”
I wrote this book in 2013. The pace of globalization, as it is called, has now become so rapid that its effects are felt more directly with every passing day. I have looked back over more than six decades, the period of my career as a historian, but also, taking a longer view, over more than six centuries, in order to reconsider the various ways in which historians before me have thought about periodization, whether in terms of continuity or discontinuity, and the various ways in which they have interpreted historical memory.
Studying these different types of periodization makes it possible, I believe, to detect the existence of what may be called a “long” Middle Ages—and this all the more if we take a fresh look at the various ways in which historians have tried since the nineteenth century to make sense of the Renaissance and what they imagine to be its pivotal position in the history of the past thousand years.
In treating the general problem of how history passes from one period to another, in other words, I examine a particular case: the alleged novelty of the Renaissance in relation to the Middle Ages. The present work seeks to establish the major characteristics of a long Middle Ages in the Christian West that extends from late antiquity (between the third and the seventh century) to the middle of the eighteenth century.
But I do not therefore overlook the fact that the history of the Christian West is part of a global narrative. No one writing history today, or in the future, will be able to avoid the problems that arise in trying to carve up the past, only now on a larger scale. I have written this book in the hope, too, that it may make some preliminary contribution, however modest, to this necessary task.
If the “centrality” of the Renaissance is at the heart of my concerns, together with the obligation to reexamine a widely held conception of the Middle Ages that a lifetime devoted to scholarship has convinced me is too narrow to be useful, I trust I have not lost sight of the broader question with which I began, namely, whether history is a unified, continuous whole or whether it is broken up instead into segments of greater or lesser length. To put the question another way: does history really need to be divided into periods?