Organizing History with Calendars, Maps & Periodization

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

While historians may not have fancy labs to help make sense of their work, this does not mean that they are without specialized tools. This lesson discusses three of those tools, namely calendars, maps and periodization.

Tools for Historians

Imagine trying to be a mathematician or an engineer without having access to a good calculator. Sure, you could still do your job, but it would take much longer. Simply put, a good calculator is essential to your work. Historians also have tools that make their jobs much easier.

While a historian really only needs the facts and sources that she is analyzing, a number of implements exist that make their work much easier. While there are some obvious examples of this that apply to multiple professions, like computers or research journals, that's not what I'm talking about. In fact, the tools of historians have been around for ages, and the best part is that they never need batteries. In this lesson, we'll discuss three of the most important: calendars, maps and periodization.

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  • 0:02 Tools for Historians
  • 0:58 Calendars
  • 2:37 Maps
  • 3:51 Periodization
  • 5:14 Lesson Summary
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A calendar's use for a historian almost goes without saying. After all, it allows them to visualize the progression of events within a given historical narrative. In other words, it helps them to figure out which came first, but more importantly, how whatever came first had an impact on whatever followed. This is crucial to a historian because one of the jobs that they have to be prepared to do is to help people avoid making the same mistake twice. In fact, calendars actually make history possible as we know it. Imagine how hard it would be to talk about the events of the Roman Empire without a way of quantifying how long ago it existed.

However, calendars are most useful in helping put events in order so as to understand the progression of events. Granted, in many cases, the calendars in use differ from the type you would probably hang on your wall. In fact, some of the largest calendars are called timelines and can track changes over many years. This would be useful in looking at the development of an empire, for example.

In other cases, a wall calendar could be useful after all. In early September of 1939, Germany invaded Poland, and a few days later, Britain and France declared war on Germany. Much of history means making the past accessible to others, so presenting this information that way helps people understand it better. Finally, even minute-by-minute schedules can be useful for historians. For example, more recently, historians analyzed the events of September 11, 2001, down to the minute.


Calendars are perhaps an obvious way of making sense of a historical situation, but geography also matters. Maps help historians see if events that happened at the same time could have any sort of connection. For example, we can tell through maps that the expulsion of the Moors in 1492 and Columbus's voyage of 1492 have a connection because both involve Spain. In reality, the connections run much deeper, but the map helps spark the question.

Maps also help historians understand broader themes. Some of this could be as simple as how big a given country was at a given time or how a nation acquired new territories. You've probably seen a map like the one here that shows how the U.S. expanded throughout the 19th century.

A map that shows U.S. expansion in the 19th century
U.S. Territorial Growth Map

But that's not all maps can do for historians. This map shows the spread of the Black Death in the Middle Ages.

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