Human history is usually divided in three parts, ancient history, medieval (or post-classical) history and modern history (sometimes divided in early and late modern), as can be seen in the wikipedia entry for human history.

During school this division was explained to me in terms of accompanying modes of production; asiatic/ancient mode for ancient history, feudal mode for the middle ages and capitalist mode for modern age. But recently I've encountered criticisms to the concept of feudalism ad of the rupture brought by the renaissance, such as the medieval renaissances.

Given that, are there alternative proposals for the periodisation of history that span the duration covered by ancient, medieval and modern periods? At least the idea of medieval period seems contested, so I wondered if anyone proposed different schemes, at least for pedagogical purposes.

A partial example could be Jacques Le Goff's work, in particular the book "Must we divide history in periods", where he argues that the medieval period only ended with the industrial revolution. It is partial because he does not break from three periods, only redraws borders, but if he got his way would have the 17th century part of medieval history courses. I'm searching for someone who did away with the entirety of ancient/medieval/modern division.

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    @MarkC.Wallace, thank your for the comment. I have tried to provide basic wikipedia links for the contesting of the notion of middle ages, from where the question sprung. I don't know of similar discussions for the notion of antiquity or modernity though Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 22:53
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    Do Wikipedia's articles Periodization and Three-age system answer your question?
    – Mark
    Commented Jul 25, 2020 at 0:46
  • Not really, the three age system is restricted mainly to pre-historical times , and the periodization article only mentions that specific timespans are given names, but does not question the ancient/medieval/modern division. Hobsbawn's long 19th century is not an alternative to the modern period. It does not include a claim that modern period is not useful and something different should be used. I've trided further edits to make it clear. I apologize if the question is not clear, but thank you for your help. Commented Jul 25, 2020 at 1:41
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    @a_donda: Yes... but if you start talking about the Faiyum A culture, for instance, and someone looks at you and asks you when that roughly was, you'll probably be forced to provide some vague but helpful pointers, such as prehistory, or neolithic, or nth millennium BCE, etc.
    – Lucian
    Commented Jul 25, 2020 at 19:39
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    @Lucian, just to clarify on Le Goff's view about using the industrial revolution as demarcation, it is not because by the 20th century religion became secondary. He, and other Annales School fellows, were trying to argue that the renaissance was no rupture, that society had no major changes during the 16th century, but a smooth continuity from high medieval period until the 18th century. He would say that there was no paradigm shift, in the cultural sense, during the renaissance and that this is an artifact of a certain historiographical viewpoint Commented Jul 25, 2020 at 21:22

3 Answers 3


Most historians these days will tell you that those periodizations, if they are valid at all, are only valid for "Western History". This is an oddly-shifting window on World History that starts focused on the Near East (because that's where the writing was), moves to Ancient Greece, then to Rome, and then to (largely Western) Europe.1

The conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity and its fall, taken as the rough boundary between the Ancient and Middle Ages, of course had little to no affect on the course of events in China or India. Scholars studying their history tend to periodize things very differently, if they do at all.

Since you ask for alternatives, I'm going to copy one wholesale here from another answer I posted. I hope you'll forgive the laziness, but it was a post in search of a question at the time, and this one is actually more on topic than it was in the original.

Douglas S. Robertson took the idea of the Information Age and went even further. He classifies all societies based on the amount of information, in bits, that a typical member has access to. I believe this is called "Informationalist History".

Where h is the amount of info one mind can hold, and is probably in the vicinity of 5Mb (5*106 bits).

  • Level 0 - 107 bits (h) - Pre-Language
  • Level 1 - 109 bits - Language
  • Level 2 - 1011 bits - Writing
  • Level 3 - 1017 bits - Printing
  • Level 4 - 1025(?) bits - Computers

The exponent on that number of bits is the important thing. How far one society outclasses another can be gauged by the difference in those exponents. This is why Native Americans, the most advanced of whom barely had writing, had no hope of competing with Europeans with printing presses, but under the right conditions could actually replace a society of Europeans with no printing press a few years earlier. Being a couple of orders of magnitude back can perhaps be dealt with. However, be several back and you're lucky if they bother to treat you as the same species.

An Informationalist would say we are in the Computer Age, and that further human progress to any new level is going to require us to find ways around our current limitations on information access (particularly combing through massive amounts of it in new and more productive ways)

1 - One could argue the point of this bizzare shifting is propaganda: To convince the reader that Western Europe was in fact the natural inheritors of the oldest civilizations on earth, and not really the nouveau riche barbarians sweeping over the world plundering everything in sight that they appeared to be to the rest of the civilized world when the "Age of Exploration" dawned.

  • thank you, this is the sort of think I'm looking for. Even though I don't particularly like this division, it is indeed an alternative and easy to grasp what the autor intends. Commented Jul 25, 2020 at 21:15

Historiographers routinely deny the usefulness (ie: credibility) of large scale periodisations of history as “teleology” or claiming that being or history have a purpose or end goal. History necessarily has a post hoc teleological justification: “things could not have been otherwise;” but the limits of this claim are strictly about happenstance and not about structural or process change.

Structures or processes as social phenomena are summaries or metaphors for the actual complexity of the documentary record of the past. The vulgar historical materialist concept of “feudalism” is a provisional research finding limited only to modes of production and methods of social surplus production and extraction. And all of these are symbolic metaphors summarising the actuality of people working others fields and paying tithes off their own fields.

Summaries are useful but not true to the documentary record of the past. All history writing obscures the documentary record of the past. But simplifying human history to a couple of large summary periods is unacceptable teleology. Compare what you’ve been taught in school as “lies for children” to Engel’s actual history of the Peasants War in Germany. Look at the scope and depth of summary theoretical claims.

  • While I share your viewpoint, being a high school teacher I wonder how should I structure my classes. If historians deny the usefulness of such division, why would undergrad courses stick to this labels? History is divided mainly for pedagogical purposes, and I'm trying to stir this dicussion in the classroom. It would be interesting to find different periodizations that make more concrete the arbitrariness of such division. Commented Jul 25, 2020 at 3:34
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    From a pedagogical perspective as a teacher of children you need to weight up the value of “lies for children” like “electrons exist in orbitals” or “capitalism is industrial” versus the fight club of “least worst interpretations of the documentary record”. For instance I’d consider Bloch or Annales on feudalism Commented Jul 25, 2020 at 7:31
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    @cesaruliana: Personally, I feel that the most important thing to take away from history classes would be "be very skeptical about easy answers"...
    – DevSolar
    Commented Jul 25, 2020 at 16:15
  • @SamuelRussell, Annales is indeed my main reference here, thats why I pointed to Le Goff in the question. The issue is that Annales focused on medieval and early modern history. What prompted the question was a search for similar criticism of the standar vision of antiquity and late modernity. Commented Jul 25, 2020 at 21:06
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    @cesaruliana: Tell you kids that on the internet they are likely to fall for simplifications and made up information. One never knows if something's made up if one hasn't studied it oneself. Even in this thread here, the tripartition's uniformaty has been advertised so much now that people start to believe it's "true" or take it for granted. It is not. Things are more complicated, and the answer is: dive in and study things. That takes time and effort, as opposed to the internet's simplicity.
    – user43870
    Commented Jul 26, 2020 at 10:52

Too long for a comment :

Are there alternatives to tripartite periodisation of history?

Perhaps... but the Western world, as a whole, will, most likely, not eagerly embrace them anytime soon, if ever. And, as long as Western society will be virtually synonymous with the term civilized world, there is little hope of change in the aforementioned formalism.

Western history is meant to be relevant (primarily) to Westerners; as such, the stark contrast between the literary wealth of classical antiquity, when compared against the near lack of almost any written sources (hence the term Dark Ages) following the collapse of the (Western) Roman Empire around AD 500, which continued roughly until the continent witnessed the rise of yet another prosperous Empire, founded by Charlemagne around AD 800, will always be of practical relevance to Western historic narrative; as will the sociopolitical and religious schism of AD 1,054, which basically split the continent in two, marking the border between the Early and High Middle Ages; and its consolidation in the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade, starting off the Late Middle Ages; as well as the Protestant Reformation (about AD 1,500), which further divided Western Europe along ethnic Romance-Germanic lines, commencing the modern era; not to mention the political, scientific, religious, and technological shift brought on by the eighteenth century European Enlightenment.

  • Wondering if this is a comment on my footnote. I do think traditional "Western History" has some general value in explaining how we got to the western-dominated world of today. But if I were an Indian, Middle Easterner, Chinese, or even Russian, I'd want my own history taught some as well.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jul 25, 2020 at 14:42
  • @T.E.D.: Not technically, since I began typing it long before you've posted your answer.
    – Lucian
    Commented Jul 25, 2020 at 14:45
  • @T.E.D.: The Chinese (since you've mentioned them) do indeed have their own periodization of (Chinese) history; but, as far as I personally am aware of, they don't (really) use it for dating events outside their sphere of influence (e.g., it would be relatively uncommon, even for them, to [explicitly] date, say, Akhenaten's reign, for instance, to the Shang dynasty).
    – Lucian
    Commented Jul 25, 2020 at 15:01

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