Modern (history)

03/08/2012

Modern history is not actually that easy to define. At Oxford, traditionally modern means “not ancient” – so anything after the Romans buggered off home in the fifth century CE.

This would encompass mediaeval history (roughly from about the fifth or sixth century to the end of the fifteenth): which isn’t very modern at all.

Then there’s early modern history – which takes in the Tudors, the Stuarts and so on – and modern history which is generally seen to begin somewhere around the “Industrial Revolution”. Although many historians now doubt that anything that could be called the “Industrial Revolution” actually ever existed.

Then there’s contemporary history (generally anything post-World War II), and even post-modern history (depending on your definition, stuff that happened after the fall of the Berlin Wall).

Confusing, eh?

What makes it even more confusing is that “modern history” usually refers to the study of a certain time period of history, but it is not the same as modernity. This requires a separate glossary entry. In short, however, there is a difference between studying, say, the nineteenth century (modern history) and studying the systems of politics and thought which allowed the growth of Victorian capitalism (the study of modernity).

In this blog, I will tend to use “modern history” in the sense of the study of history after roughly 1750. Anything from 1492 to 1750 can roughly be called “early modern” – and anything before that is either mediaeval or ancient.

Though we open up a whole can of worms if we try to apply these terms to the non-European world. I asked early modern historian Matthew Jackson what he felt “early modern” meant:

All periodisations are murky and unstable for the ‘early modern’, and completely depends upon which country you are talking about. But for England, at least, I’d be comfortable with 1480s to 1640s. Ascendancy of Tudor house, to the lopped head of Charles I.

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