Inflections and revolutions

History is full of ages, revolutions, rebirths, periods, cuttings. Not history as time elapsed, but the history as mise en récit, the narrativised sense-making of the graspable, knowable, documented past.

There is no teaching of history these days that doesn’t involve the conscription of demarcations for describing the past. The ancient world is not the medieval world which is different from the early modern period, itself quite unlike the modern age.

Historians like cutting more than pasting, separating more than patching.

But time never stops, as we all know. An age never comes to an end. Never does another age begin, or is reborn, or takes over. The truth is that time is both graspable and completely elusive, like the wind.

It may be convenient to call a revolution thus, or to take a year, a decade, a century, as the membrane between two cells, the space between two atoms. But the deeper we look, the quicker this mirage dissipates into the thin air of cognition. As we dig deeper and peek further in, what we see are inflections, turns and twists, crisscrossing lines like those on a portolan map. History moves in unseizable ways, time flows and things change all the time. What may look like a new age is not new at all. When does the medieval period start? Is there a medieval period? Is the Renaissance the first renaissance, the true renaissance? What about the power of medieval culture acting on the agents of the Renaissance? Where does one end and the other begin?

These are insurmountable problems because they are the problems we’ve set up for ourselves. The French historian Jacques Le Goff saw the medieval period extending well into the 19th century. Others see the Renaissance truly starting in the 12 century, or the 9th, or the 5th, or, hold on, maybe it’s always been there, perhaps there’s a different way to seize this beautiful movement which is humanity’s endless coming home to itself.

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