histories of time

Poole, Kristen, and Owen Williams, eds. Early Modern Histories of Time: The Periodizations of Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019.

Early Modern Histories of Time, ed. Kristen Poole and Owen Williams

The University of Pennsylvania Press released this edited collection ten days ago. I’ve been reading through it since then in preparation to send off the final version of my second book (also to be published by Penn Press). I recognize that the book isn’t “for” me, someone who primarily studies medieval literature. Nonetheless, I think I’ve worked in and across these two fields and on this topic long enough to earn an opinion.

Early Modern Histories of Time should be seen as part of a periodization industry in English studies that began c. 2005 and is now on the downswing. All fifteen essays (except one, which could be summarized: “I am a very clever close reader”) have something to offer beyond the particular examples given. I’ll exercise the prerogative of a blog post and won’t mention all fifteen.

Naturally I paid special attention to the one medieval literature expert, James Simpson (“Trans-Reformation English Literary History”). In his characteristically clear and polemical prose, Simpson synthesizes one of the main planks of his research agenda, the analysis of literature, religion, and politics across the English Reformation. His critique of the resolutely synchronic frames of reference for medievalist and early modernist historicist scholarship, 1970-2000, is spot-on. I don’t agree with Simpson’s premise that religion and politics are more consequential for (English literary) history than other dimensions of human experience, but at least he feels the need to argue the point out loud. By prioritizing the same two domains that historically generated the medieval/modern break, Simpson leaves himself no choice but to accept the break on new terms. The inversion of the narrative of modernity, as opposed to its displacement or replacement, was both a feature and a limitation of Simpson’s Reform and Cultural Revolution. Here he concludes with an optimistically “synergetic” (100) vision of medievalist and early modernist collaboration.

The essay that most impressed me was the one by Mihoko Suzuki (“Did the English Seventeenth Century Really End at 1660? Subaltern Perspectives on the Continuing Impact of the English Civil Wars”). Opposing the division of the English seventeenth century at 1660, Suzuki weaves together comparative political history (English / Japanese); women’s studies / subaltern studies; ideology critique; and, again in a comparative mood, a takedown of “Renaissance.” Amazingly, or predictably, this is the volume’s only extended discussion of that all-consuming narrative category. Suzuki’s is an essay I will be glad to cite in my book, which ends c. 1650 but has no investment in halving the seventeenth century (or in renaissances).

Another standout essay is by Natasha Korda (“Much Ado about Ruffs: Laundry Time in the Feminist Counter-Archives”). I studied Shakespeare with Korda in college. Her essay identifies a dissenting form of periodization in the feminine labor behind Elizabethan ruffs. There was a (to me) surprising depth and breadth of evidence for this claim. The essay ends with a fantastic reading of the centrality of ruffs to Virginia Woolf’s literary imagination.

Ethan H. Shagan’s essay (“Periodization and the Secular”) is medievalist-friendly. Shagan argues that secularism is not the opposite of religion, as narratives of secularization maintain, but a development internal to the relationship between (Christian) religion and (Western) society. This argument neutralizes one of the most popular criteria for the dismissal of the medieval past, that it was an age of superstition, succeeded by an age of reason. Shagan’s ecclesiological history chimes with Simpson’s–as does an insightful postscript on Shakespeare as prophet of twenty-first-century “postsecularism” in the contribution by Julia Reinhard Lupton (“Periodic Shakespeare,” 210-12).

Despite what I interpret as good intentions, the collection has a problem of scope, of which the editors are aware. The book explores periodization concepts “indigenous” to early modernity, but structurally it takes early modernity for granted. This would be an issue in a book in any subfield; it’s particularly vexatious coming from early modernists, since “Renaissance” / “early modern” is the period of European history that habitually claims to have invented periodization. (The eighteenth century has a better claim, for it was then that periodization became standardized, totalized, and institutionalized, according to Davis.) The claim for a “birth of the past” in early modernity is a durable one, always made at the expense of a supposedly anachronistic Middle Ages.* While the editors and some of the contributors acknowledge what has been left out, most are content to imply that the Middle Ages had no “indigenous” periodizations, that the project of this volume is uniquely possible for post-1500 English literature and culture. But it isn’t.

Gordon Teskey (“The Period Concept and Seventeenth-Century Poetry”) gorgeously describes the experience of working in a period through the historically apt metaphor of the inner surface of a sphere. Yet Teskey betrays no sense that there might be anything wrong with being trapped inside a sphere. “We could not do research without periods. And of course we could not–at least until recently–organize a curriculum without periods” (150), he writes, repeating the most common defense of periodization, the defense from inevitability. But of course we could! Before the 1830s, we did (Underwood). There are too many moments in this volume in which the contributors treat periodization in the disciplinary present as a mere “mathematical convenience” before pivoting to the historical texts and topics that interest them. The result is a shortchanging of the ostensible payoff of this exercise. One gets the impression that early modernity possessed nuanced, multifarious, politically labile periodizations, while early modernists possess. . .the early modern, period. In this regard I’d contrast this book with Cole and Smith, a majority-medievalist effort that both explores the medieval period’s self-periodizations and challenges its retroactive construction as a period in the first place. An honorable exception is the essay by Heather Dubrow (“Space Travel: Spatiality and/or Temporality in the Study of Periodization”), which criticizes “early modern” both on historical grounds and “in terms of the professional domains we inhabit today” (258). Only Dubrow expresses the point that the intellectual content of literary periods depends on the social logic of disciplinary formation (cf. Underwood).

It’s axiomatic that any arbitrarily selected segment of history will both resemble the preceding centuries and resemble the subsequent ones. The choice of whether to bracket the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with what came before or with what came after is just that, a motivated choice. The overview essay by Tim Harris (“Periodizing the Early Modern: The Historian’s View”) clarifies this point. The problem with “early modernity” in literary studies is that its arbitrariness has been lost to consciousness, submerged in the distribution of professional labor. Neither medievalists nor early modernists are obliged to think about the boundary line in the normal course of their professional duties, except when teaching a survey of British literature or (this happened in my grad program) when a “Medieval and Renaissance” colloquium splits up. The situation is not as drastic in history departments, in which period and area are dueling organizational principles. Historians can pick up and put down periods with greater equanimity. It’s telling that the other two contributors with expertise in the Middle Ages, apart from Simpson, are a historian (Euan Cameron, “How Early Modern Church Historians Defined Periods in History”) and an archaeologist (Kate Giles, “Time and Place in Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon”). The problem with literary periodizations, and “early modern” above all, is that they are sticky.

This book won’t unstick them, much as it yearns to. But probably no book could do that. All in all, Early Modern Histories of Time has some uncommonly good thinking about literature and temporality.


*Zachary Sayre Schiffman, author of The Birth of the Past (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011), blurbed this book. There is a cottage industry in Renaissance studies of monographs dedicated to pursuing this same claim. Munro proves it’s possible to discuss early modern historicism without leaning on a cardboard replica of the Middle Ages. (Many medieval European authors were intensely interested in the alterity of the past! There were whole poems, narratives, sermons, and theological quandaries about it!)

further reading

Cole, Andrew, and D. Vance Smith, eds. The Legitimacy of the Middle Ages: On the Unwritten History of Theory. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.

Davis, Kathleen. Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.

Munro, Lucy. Archaic Style in English Literature, 1590-1674. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Simpson, James. Reform and Cultural Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Underwood, Ted. Why Literary Periods Mattered: Historical Contrast and the Prestige of English Studies. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013.

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