Chronology & Periodization in History

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will learn about chronology and periodization in history. We will identify important periods of history, and learn how they are classified. We will analyze the centrality of chronology in the discipline of history.

Chronology in History

Wouldn't it be weird if history textbooks were not written chronologically? If, for example, you learned about the American Civil War, and after that the fall of the Berlin Wall, and then after that the Protestant Reformation? It would be pretty difficult to grasp context. It would be pretty difficult to trace cause and effect between various historical events.

History by nature happens in chronological order, and we normally study history within some degree of chronology. Chronology is simply the sequence of events ranging from first to last, or from beginning to end. For example, in American history, first we had the American Revolution, and after that the Federalist Era, and after that the War of 1812, and after that the Age of Jackson, and then that weird time between the 1830s-1840s that nobody cares about, and then we're moving into the Civil war, and after that Reconstruction, and then into the Gilded Age, and, well, you get the idea. Chronology is vital to the history!

Periodization in History

Because we study history in chronological order, we can identify certain historical periods or eras. A period of history is a specific time frame containing common characteristics. For example, the Progressive Era took place at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, and was marked by intense social reform. During this time, people were increasingly concerned with bettering society through reducing poverty, improving labor laws, caring for the ill, and other humanitarian endeavors.

Now look at the Great Depression. This period of history began with the Stock Market Crash of 1929, and lasted until the outbreak of World War II. In the United States this period was characterized by economic decline and unemployment. It was a profoundly dark chapter in American history.

It would be impossible for us to name every single period in world history in one lesson. There would be hundreds, possibly thousands. But let's quickly highlight some of the more prominent historical periods. The most well-known periodization scheme is probably B.C. and A.D. This scheme basically divides history into two periods based on the approximate birth of Jesus Christ. B.C. stands for 'Before Christ,' and A.D. stands for a Latin phrase 'Anno Domini,' which means 'In the year of our Lord.'

Another very popular scheme consists of the three periods: the Ancient Period (3600 B.C. - A.D. 500), the Middle Period, or Middle Ages (500-1500), and the Modern Period (1500-present). In this scheme the fall of Rome marks the transition from Ancient to Middle Period, while the Age of Discovery and Protestant Reformation help to usher in the Modern Period.

This 1765 timeline shows various historical periods.

So now that we have these broad periods established, let's look at some of the many shorter periods. We'll fly through these quickly, so hang on!

  • The Enlightenment (an 18th century period stressing reason, science, democracy, tolerance, and the erosion of traditional authority structures)
  • The Scientific Revolution (a 16th-18th century period in which tremendous scientific advances were made)
  • The Industrial Revolution (a 18th-19th century period marked by rapid technological and industrial change)
  • The Gilded Age (a late 19th century period marked by economic and industrial progress, but also social problems)
  • The Victorian Era (a 19th century British period coinciding with the reign of Queen Victoria)
  • The Progressive Era a late 19th/early 20th century American period marked by social reform)
  • World War I (1914-1918)
  • The Inter-war Period (the period between World War I and World War II)
  • World War II (1939-1945)
  • The Cold War Era (a period between 1945-1991 marked by intense tension between the U.S. and the Soviet Union)

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