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Conceptualising Early Modernity

In this session, we shall cover debates about periodization and the concepts of modernity and early modernity. We shall also discuss a recent neo-Marxist way of conceptualising those periods – one that emphasises patterns of exchange rather than novelties in production and consumption. Students should be prepared to discuss the following questions.


1. Is the concept of modernity useful? If so, how?

2. Does it make sense to separate out the ‘early modern’ from the 'modern'?

3. Are the costs and benefits of using ‘early modernity’ the same as would be incurred by any periodization scheme or does ‘early modernity’ carry specific freight?

4. Does Karatani’s structural approach to periodization in world history avoid or manifest some of the problems with the concept of modernity?

Core readings

  • K. Karatani, The Structure of World History (2013), author’s preface, chps. 7-9.
  • A. Shryock and D. L. Smail, ‘History and the Pre’, American Historical Review 118: 3 (2013), 709-737.
  • R. Starn, ‘The Early Modern Muddle’, Journal of Early Modern History, 6: 3 (2002), 296-307.
  • J. Goldstone, ‘The Problem of the Early Modern World’, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 41 (1998), 249-84, accessible at

Further reading

  • Phil Withington, Society in Early Modern England: The Vernacular Origins of Some Powerful Ideas (2010)
  • Wolfgang Reinhard, ‘The Idea of Early Modern History’ in Michael Bentley (ed) Companion to Historiography (1997)
  • ‘Early Modernities’ special issue of Daedalus 127 no 3 (1998) – available online
  • Merry Wiesner-Hanks, ‘Do Women need the Renaissance?’, Gender and History (2008), 539-557
  • Jerry Bentley, ‘Early Modern Europe and the Early Modern World’ in Charles Parker and Jerry Bentley (eds), Between the Middle Ages and Modernity (2007)
  • Asa Briggs and Daniel Snowman (eds) Fins de Siècles: how centuries end, 1400-2000 (1996)
  • Ludmilla Jordanova, History in Practice (2006), chapter 5, ‘periodisation’.