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Daily-current-affairs / 08 Dec 2023

Reevaluating Historical Periodisation: Origins and the Notion of Modernity : Daily News Analysis


Date : 9/12/2023

Relevance: GS Paper 1- History

Keywords: Periodisation, Eurocentrism, Modernity, Intellectual colonization, Archaeology


Historical periodisation, a practice deeply ingrained in the study of the past, is not an objective, universal reality but a human construct with specific origins and implications. In this exploration, we delve into the problems inherent in traditional periodisation, its Eurocentric roots, and the evolving understanding of the concept, questioning its applicability in a global context.

The Eurocentric Triad and Its Imposition

Specific Provincial and Temporal Origins:

  • The conventional triad of ancient, medieval, and modern history, now ubiquitous, emerged from Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries.
  • However, it is crucial to recognize that other societies had their distinctive ways of dividing history, such as dynastic and regnal periods in India, Iran, and Turko-Mongol regions.

The European Triad's Imposition:

  • The European triad, rooted in the Enlightenment era, gained prominence as Europe sought to shape its self-image of rationality, science, and progress.
  • As Europe expanded its influence globally, the triad was imposed on colonies, replacing indigenous notions of historical time and space.
  • This intellectual colonization, as termed by Jack Goody, reinforced the Eurocentric narrative, framing the medieval period as a "Dark Age" to be overcome through Enlightenment.

Distortions in Indian Periodisation

  • In the Indian context, James Mill introduced a further distortion by framing history as Hindu, Muslim, and British periods.
  • This formulation not only reflected a biased perspective but also served to legitimize British rule as a rescue from the perceived dark age of medieval Muslim rule.
  • James Mill's characterization of Indian history into Hindu, Muslim, and British periods based on the rulers of the Delhi throne is flawed for several reasons.
  • Firstly, it is inaccurate to categorize Indian history solely through the lens of the religion of rulers, as multiple religions coexisted simultaneously.
  • Furthermore, Mill's assertion that the pre-British era in Indian history was uncivilized and plagued by social evils reflects an uninformed assumption. Such a viewpoint overlooks the rich and complex societal structures that existed before British colonization.
  • Moreover, Mill's periodization neglects the diverse timelines of various independent regions within the Indian subcontinent. India was not always governed as a single political unit from Delhi, and this oversight fails to capture the nuanced historical developments in different parts of the Indian empire over time.

Challenges and Transience in Periodisation

Periodisation as a Human Construct

  • Periodisation, as a human construct, is inherently transient rather than a ground reality.
  • The triad of ancient, medieval, and modern periods is facing challenges, with qualifiers like Late Antiquity, Early Medieval, and Early Modern gaining prominence.
  • The concept of stages of development, once central to periodisation, has given way to an acknowledgment of continuity within apparent change and vice versa.

Regional Variance in Periodisation

  • The application of the triad exhibits significant regional variance worldwide.
  • China, for instance, extends its "medieval" into several centuries BCE, while India incorporates the 18th century CE into its framework.
  • Jacques Le Goff and other scholars have questioned the very notion of dividing history into distinct tranches, emphasizing the need for a more nuanced approach.

The Notion of Modernity and Its Evolution

Eurocentric Origins of Modernity

  • The heart of historical periodisation lies in the notion of modernity, originating in Europe's 17th-18th-century developments.
  • The triad constructs history as a journey from the present to the past, emphasizing Europe's perceived progress.
  • This Eurocentric perspective, portraying the modern world as the West's creation, held sway unquestioned for centuries.

Pluralities of Modernity

  • In recent decades, the notion of modernity has come under scrutiny, leading to the acknowledgment of "modernities" in academic discourse.
  • Modernity is no longer considered a singular, objective reality "out there." Instead, it is subjective, contextual, and shaped by diverse contributions from various societies and civilizations throughout history.

History as a Universal Entity

  • The evolving understanding of modernity calls for a paradigm shift in how we perceive history.
  • Rather than compartmentalizing it into disparate tranches, history should be treated as a universal entity with regions forming constituents.
  • This perspective aligns with the idea that all civilizations have contributed to humanity's diverse capital, shaping the world we inhabit today.

Challenging the Norms: Transience in Periodisation

The Call for a Universal Approach

  • Historians have repeatedly called for treating history as a universal entity with regions as constituents.
  • This approach emphasizes history as a continuous process, challenging the norm of dividing it into separate periods.
  • The notion of periodisation's transience becomes increasingly apparent as history expands into new research areas, such as climate, planetary history, and the reconsideration of pre-history and archaeology.

Exploring Climate and Planetary History

  • As historians look into climate and planetary history, traditional temporal boxes become less relevant.
  • The interconnectedness of events across time and space challenges the rigid structures imposed by periodisation.
  • This shift prompts a reevaluation of how we conceptualize and teach history

Rethinking Pre-History and Archaeology

  • The questioning of prehistory and archaeology further underscores the limitations of traditional periodisation.
  • As interdisciplinary research expands our understanding of the past, the temporal constraints imposed by periodisation may prove inadequate in capturing the complexity of historical processes.


The all-encompassing triad of ancient, medieval, and modern history, born out of European intellectual evolution, faces increasing scrutiny and challenges. The transience of periodisation becomes evident as historians explore new frontiers, recognizing the limitations of dividing history into neat segments.

Embracing history as a universal entity, shaped by the contributions of diverse civilizations, calls for a more nuanced and interconnected approach, acknowledging the continuity that underlies apparent changes across time and space.

As we navigate the evolving landscape of historical scholarship, the traditional triad confronts a growing imperative for reevaluation and adaptation.

Probable Questions for UPSC mains Exam-

  1. How did the imposition of the Eurocentric triad of ancient, medieval, and modern history impact non-European societies, particularly in the context of colonialism and intellectual colonization? (10 Marks, 150 Words)
  2. In what ways does the evolving understanding of modernity challenge the traditional Eurocentric narrative and prompt a shift towards recognizing diverse "modernities"? (15 Marks, 250 Words)

Source- The Hindu