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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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History—the life of mankind in time—is a continuum.
Subdivisions of historical time are a product of the
human mind; only in this way is the mind capable of
appraising the past and of assigning to the present its
place within the stream of history. The so-called
periodization of history in particular, which has been
a recurrent theme for discussion by historians, contains
of necessity an arbitrary element and often appears
dated: it bears the stamp of the time of its origin. The
best historians have warned against our becoming pris-
oners of a terminology of periodization, of “wrong
labels which eventually deceive us about the contents”
(Marc Bloch, Apologie pour l'histoire, Ch. IV, Part 3),
and against our “ending up by giving the signs author-
ity over their contents” (Fernand Braudel, Annales
[1953], p. 70). For the same reasons Huizinga (Task,
Part 5) has come to the conclusion that division of
historical time into periods is best served by colorless
or emotionally neutral terms.

Three main categories or types of division of histori-
cal time are distinguishable, although all three may
be applied simultaneously. The first of these types of
periodization is merely chronological, that is, the
enumeration of centuries and years (B.C., A.D., before
and after the Hegira, etc.). The starting point for this
kind of periodization—the beginning of an era (Judaic,
Christian, Muslim, etc.)—reveals the underlying theol-
ogy or philosophy of history. The second type of
periodization springs from one of the two basic notions
of historical thought, evolution. It regards a period as
a phase in a larger development, whether of a nation,
of a civilization, or of the history of mankind in gen-
eral. Concepts of growth and decay (or cycles of
progress and regress) are inherent in this type.

The third type of periodization bears characteristic
features of the other fundamental concept of historical
thought, historical individuality. It professes to sum-
marize the essence of an age, and it requires the period
to have a meaning in itself. This assumption pre-
supposes an approach to the past resembling the scho-
lastic “realism” of objective values. In using this kind
of periodization the historian must be especially alert
to the warnings mentioned above. Frequently terms
which had been adopted for external reasons have been
subsequently filled with contents originally alien to

In antiquity neither historical interpretation nor the
aggregation of years had led to any periodization.
Greek historiography was rational and pragmatic; it
concentrated on political analysis and leaned towards
a cyclical view of history which in modern times with
Machiavelli was again to become a tributary to the
stream of historical thinking. Time had been defined
for immediate and practical needs, not by counting
years over extended periods.

For Rome some scholars have found traces of an
official “era” from the founding of the Republic (510
B.C.); yet since the second century B.C. annalists and
in Imperial Rome historians such as Livy popularized
the chronology ab urbe condita, i.e., from the legendary
founding of Rome (753 B.C.), the effect was limited.
The humanist scholars revived this dating; historians
of ancient Rome retained it until the late nineteenth

With the Old Testament the theologians of the early
Christian Church adopted the cosmological concept
of the creation of the world; from the third century
they constructed a chronological sequence ab exordio
The aetates (“world periods”) prior to Christ,
initially assumed to number six of five hundred years


each, were regarded as merely preparatory to the
incarnation. This dating from the creation of the world
was replaced in the seventeenth and eighteenth centu-
ries by “B.C.” (before Christ).

Ab incarnatione Domini, anno Domini (A.D.) for the
era since Christ—the dating which was gradually
adopted in the early Middle Ages—represents the new
Christian world view. The Incarnation is the central
event of history, the end of this imperfect world will
be the Second Coming, the Day of the Last Judgment.
No subdivisions were made; the only date of signifi-
cance was the Millennium with its eschatological
meaning. On the secular, political side this belief was
complemented by the doctrine of the four empires
which had its base in the prophecy of the book of
Daniel, the Roman Empire being regarded as the last.
The permanence of Rome and the concept of the
Translatio Imperii (the transfer of the Empire from the
Romans to the Franks by the coronation of Charle-
magne, and later of Otto the Great) were integral parts
of the medieval world view. World chronicles were
based on these Christian and Empire concepts; histories
of nonuniversal scope as well as local annals rested
likewise on the Christian framework of time.

There was no need for our customary numerical
subdivisions. Terms like Quattrocento or Cinquecento
seem not to be traceable back beyond the eighteenth
century. Centuria, alien to classical and medieval Latin,
was coined by the humanists; in the seventeenth and
eighteenth centuries it found its way into the vernacu-
lar as century and Jahrhundert. In a measure it replaced
the less precise saeculum. Saeculum—a sequence of
generations or even an infinite sequence of time—was
related to ages of the world and to eternity (e.g., in
saecula saeculorum
in the Mass). The very opposite
happens in siècle, which came to signify a precise
arithmetic measuring of time. Voltaire wrote Le Siècle
de Louis XIV;
now we have periodicals such as XVIIe
Division of history into centuries thus proves
to be a late product of “modern” scholarship.

The concept of modernity preceded this division into
centuries. Modernus as a term had not been absent in
the Middle Ages: it had been used particularly in
contrast to antiquus, which referred mostly, if not
exclusively, to antiquity, to the pre-Christian as well
as to the Fathers of the Church. Modernus related most
of all to the present, it could be merely descriptive
yet could also include a positive as well as negative
evaluation. Never did it indicate a division of time.

The first challenge to the Christian concept of the
continuity of history under God, in which the period
of antiquity was seen only as preliminary to the Chris-
tian era, came with the Renaissance. The humanists
regarded themselves as initiators of a new epoch. Their
concept of Rinascita, or rebirth of arts and letters,
presupposed and often definitely stated that a decline
had occurred in these fields since antiquity. The inter-
mediate time was referred to, in this respect, as a
period medii aevi, of neglect of letters, even of darkness
(Petrarch). For very different reasons Protestant inter-
preters of the mid-sixteenth century would refer to the
period of the medieval Church as an age of darkness.
More significantly even, the Italian humanists definitely
abandoned the concept of the continuity of the Roman
Empire; to them it had been destroyed by the barbarian
invasions. This interpretation eventually became inter-
related with the revival of the cyclical view of history.
In the following centuries the intensive concern with
empirical observation and with the analysis of the
background of states, law, and society, was bound
eventually to undermine the traditional view of history
with its eschatological outlook.

For almost two centuries the new insights were
gained without shattering the Christian periodization
of aetates and empires, much as the concepts of
Christendom and of Europe coexisted, with the latter
prevailing from the middle of the seventeenth century.
Until then the old sequence of universal history was
still retained in Protestant and Catholic textbooks alike;
within this framework, political history in the course
of time was allotted more space—the historia civilis
and sometimes the literary and artistic development
was also periodized.

Only one new concept of periodization of universal
history emerged in these times: the distinction between
antiquus and modernus, which in Petrarch had already
been related to the ancient and the post-ancient world,
was now generally adopted. This entirely secular
periodization, presented by the Leyden historian
Hornius (Arca Noae, 1666), by the turn of the century
was popularized in the textbooks of the German
Cellarius. The final break came only with the Enlight-
enment. When in the middle of the eighteenth century
Voltaire attempted to fill the gap left after Charle-
magne, in Bossuet's Discours sur l'histoire universelle
of 1681, he abandoned the Christian framework which
Bossuet had retained (W. Kaegi, I, 221-48). In the
original preface to his work Voltaire speaks expressly
of “Modern History, since the decay of the Roman
Empire.” Modern as well as neuer as late as the nine-
teenth century meant frequently the whole of
European history since the end of antiquity; profes-
sorships in different countries, such as Guizot's chair
of histoire moderne (1812) attest to this as much as
Ranke's Epochen der Neueren Geschichte (i.e., since the
late Roman Empire) of 1854. For the period from the
end of Rome to the revival of learning the Enlighten-
ment had no common denomination. It was the ro-


mantics who applied to these centuries their new idea
of historical individuality, and the medium aevum
became the “Middle Ages” (Mittelalter, Moyen Age).
In Latin textbooks of history the term medium aevum
had existed for more than a century; Hornius had made
it a subdivision of historia nova (moderna), and Cel-
larius had presented his Historia universalis as in
antiquam et medii aevi ac novam divisa
(Jena, 1696).
But only in the course of the nineteenth century was
“medieval” severed generally from “modern history.”

Both terms then lost their former meaning: modern
was no longer post-ancient history, medieval no longer
merely a time of decay of classical languages. In due
time professional historians became busy making sub-
divisions. “Modern” had to be followed by “recent”
and “contemporary” (in French historiography histoire
means history since the French Revolu-
tion, histoire moderne the period prior to it), the Middle
Ages were subdivided according to national inclination
(French: haut et bas Moyen Age, German: Früh-, Hoch-
und Spätmittelalter

Whatever the new meaning of the now completely
secularized history might be, it could not be derived
from these terms any better than from the division into
centuries. Thereafter, the two fundamental concepts
of mature historicism, evolution and historical individ-
uality, had a bearing on periodization. Since history
moves in time its consciousness cannot be separated
from the notion of change. When the Christian world
view was secularized by the Enlightenment, the idea
of progress came to the fore, perhaps to absorb even
the older cyclical concept of rise and decline, with new
growth emanating from the decline. From then on two
main currents of philosophy of history influenced
historical periodization: the positivist, which was
linear-progressive, and the dialectical, which incorpo-
rated conflict. The first, beginning with Saint-Simon,
was closely related both to the natural sciences and
to the emerging social sciences; it focussed as much
on changes in society as on the progress of thought.
It found its most influential expression in Comte's “law
of the three stages” of historical development—the
theological, the metaphysical, the positive or scientific
—and in Spencer's interpretation of universal history
as leading from integration of society in the militaris-
tic type to differentiation in the industrial type. The
dialectical philosophy of history had been conceived
by Hegel as the self-realization of the Universal Spirit,
but Marx's dialectical materialism provided even more
of an answer than positivism to the ever more absorb-
ing questions of the economic and social structure of
the nineteenth century.

The impact of these philosophies of history on the
notions of periods which professional historians formu
lated is closely related to the dominating concept of
civilization. In the Enlightenment the idea of a univer-
sal progress towards civilization had replaced the
earlier Christian view of history. By the twentieth
century, as scholars penetrated deeper into the struc-
ture and history of the non-Western world, the concept
of civilizations took its place along with civilization.
Finally, the ancient idea of necessary phases of political
development, an undercurrent of historical-political
thinking, was now, under the impact of the social
sciences, joined by the notion of necessary stages of
social-economic development. The willingness to
universalize terms which had emerged from the inter-
pretation of the history of Europe, was the result, and
this at the very time when the other constituent ele-
ment of historicism, the notion of individuality, took
deeper root, and when historians strove to endow with
content terms such as “Middle Ages,” which had pre-
viously had only a formal meaning.

As opposed to the identification of the Middle Ages
with “Dark Ages,” the romantics had exalted the Mid-
dle Ages as the age of hierarchy, chivalry, municipal
pride. On the other hand, from the latter part of the
nineteenth century some scholars regarded the Middle
Ages—in analogy to human life—as a general middle
phase in the development of civilizations; such terms
as the Greek Middle Ages, or the Russian Middle Ages,
were coined.

Similarly, the stages of the economic (or so-called
materialistic) theory of history which Marx and Engels
had culled from their analysis of the European devel-
opment have been universalized by contemporary
Marxian-Leninist historians. Successive changes in
control over the means of production are presented
as traceable, even if not uniformly, everywhere in the
development of mankind: from a primitive communal
system via slavery to feudalism and from there to
bourgeois capitalism, to be followed by socialism. In
this manner the Western model is made into a general
pattern of historical evolution. The two key terms in
the Marxian-Leninist terminology, “feudalism” and
“capitalism,” have sometimes been used independently
for the periodization of European history. Feudalism,
a very specific military and social-political system in
the Carolingian Empire and its successors, had become
by the eighteenth century a rather indistinct term to
denote legal relations between lord and peasant (O.
Brunner). As such it entered into the comparative
vocabulary. Eventually European historians defined the
ninth to the twelfth centuries as characterized by feu-
dalism, sometimes referring to them as “the feudal
age.” The concept of capitalism began its victorious
career with Marx. Sombart's Der Moderne Kapitalis-
(1902) described capitalism as an economic system


which was specifically Western and which, beginning
in the late Middle Ages, reached its climax in the late
nineteenth century. Other historians have distinguished
a period of predominantly commercial capitalism
(fifteenth to eighteenth century) and of industrial capi-
talism which can be equated with the “Machine Age.”

Marx's fundamental discovery of the global aspect
of industrialization which would destroy or revolu-
tionize all previous social relations has been increas-
ingly accepted by historians as a main component for
the further periodization of “modern history.” In the
present-day view, it is associated with the social-
political revolution (which partly preceded, partly
paralleled the industrial development), the first expres-
sion of which had been the French Revolution: the
direction towards legal equality and towards emanci-
pation of social groups from isolation and subservience,
leading to political democracy—the central theme of
Tocqueville (De la démocratie en Amérique, 1835-
1840). In the lively opposition which the paper on
“The Periodization of World History” by the Soviet
historian E. M. Zhukov provoked at the International
Historical Congress at Stockholm, 1960, there seemed
to be consensus only on one point: that industrialization
and technology had initiated a new age which could
not be subsumed under “modern history.” Whatever
terms might be chosen for this last period (histoire
contemporaine, neueste Geschichte
), it seems to have
come to an end in our own time, as titles like The
Political Collapse of Europe,
by H. Holborn (1951) or
The Passing of the European Age, by E. Fischer (1948)
suggest, and as G. Barraclough in An Introduction to
Contemporary History
(1964) points out. The entrance
of the United States into the First World War and the
establishment of the Soviet regime in Russia mark the
year 1917 as the turning point. Others regard the irra-
tionalism at the turn of the century as a break with the
intellectual traditions of the whole European past and
see these years as a pivotal period to usher in a new age.

The evolutionary aspect was less prevalent in other
concepts of periodization whose aim was rather to
show the distinctive character of a period. Frequently
the successors summarized the essence of a previous
age from which they had broken away or to which
they even stood in conscious contrast. Adam Smith
coined “mercantile system” (mercantilism) for the eco-
nomic policy of the seventeenth and eighteenth centu-
ries. “Absolutism” was an invention of the early nine-
teenth-century liberals who were critical of the
previous governmental system (S. Skalweit in Histo-
rische Zeitschrift
[1957], p. 65). Subsequently these
terms were used by historians to characterize an age,
overemphasizing by necessity specific features, and
thus rendering questionable the usefulness of the terms.

Somewhat less controversial is the term “Enlighten-
ment,” “age of reason,” for the intellectual charac-
teristics of the eighteenth century. Yet in this case, too,
the opposition of the following generation was instru-
mental in spreading, if not inventing, the term. The
French philosophes would speak of les lumières in
reference to their own age; they would even refer to
it as le siècle des lumières, but the term is not as much
in vogue as Illuminismo, Aufklärung, Enlightenment.
Of these terms only the Italian word, which came into
being in the early nineteenth century, appears to have
been free from any derogatory connotation. In “Was
ist Aufklärung?” (1784), Kant called his own age an
age in which, by way of religious tolerance, man could
acquire the ability to become enlightened, hence “Zeit-
alter der Aufklärung.” This notion, however, was
pushed back by the romantics' negative Aufklärerei
(“to explain the unexplainable”); only gradually the
more positive form of Aufklärung took root. A simi-
lar process seems to have been at work in English
when the German term was adopted and translated
as “Enlightenment.”

A somewhat parallel transformation can be traced
in the term “baroque.” Originally of derogatory nature
the word was used in the history of art by Wölfflin
(Renaissance und Barock, 1888) to define the period
following the Renaissance. At that time it was still a
generic term, Wölfflin originally planned to include
also a study of baroque in antiquity. Recently Carl
Joachim Friedrich has analyzed most of the seven-
teenth century in all its manifestations, from statecraft
to opera, as The Age of the Baroque: 1610-1660 (1952).

The most genuine product of historical realism, i.e.,
of an attempt to penetrate into the essence of an age,
is “Renaissance.” Nevertheless, hardly any term has
become more controversial. The Italian humanists were
conscious that they lived in an age where art and letters
had been restored. The road from this attitude via the
limited concepts of rinascita dell'arte (Vasari, 1550) and
renaissance des lettres (Pierre Bayle, 1695) to the mid-
nineteenth-century “Renaissance” as a period has been
traced by Wallace K. Ferguson. With Jacob Burck-
hardt's Kultur der Renaissance in Italien (1860), a
portrait of Italy from the fourteenth to the sixteenth
century was presented which thereafter determined
our view of the Renaissance as a period. At the same
time Burckhardt made “the discovery of the world and
of man” his central piece. He thereby seemed to assign
to the Italian Renaissance a place in the development
of the European mind, an assignment foreshadowed
in eighteenth-century interpretations of history and
formulated a few years earlier (1855) in exactly the
same way by Michelet for the French Renaissance.

The unending discussion about the character of the


Renaissance amongst later historians, particularly con-
temporary scholars, centered around three problems:
(1) Did the Italian Renaissance imply a break with the
Middle Ages? (2) Is the Renaissance a period in
European history; especially, was there a “northern
Renaissance” and what was its relation to the Middle
Ages? (the latter question became very acute with
Huizinga's Waning of the Middle Ages, 1919); (3) Was
the Renaissance, to use Hans Baron's paraphrase of a
formulation of Burckhardt's, the “prototype” of the
modern world?

It is apparent that any interpretation of the Renais-
sance is inextricably connected with each scholar's
evaluation of that other term of periodization, the
Middle Ages. Indeed, the content and limits of this
rather accidental creation of Cellarius have been for
a long time the crux of the periodization of European
history. Within the so-called modern period most
historians are willing to accept two dividing lines: one
at the end of the nineteenth or beginning of the
twentieth century when global history is the new entity
emerging out of European history, the earlier one at
the turn from the seventeenth to the eighteenth cen-
tury (Paul Hazard's Crise de la Conscience Européenne,
1935), or else at the time of the French Revolution.
But what of the preceding period and its relation to
the so-called Middle Ages? If the concept of a medieval
period can be made plausible, both its beginning and
its end pose a problem.

The transition from antiquity to “European” civili-
zation, involving a shift from the Mediterranean to
Western and Central Europe, took on a new aspect
after Henri Pirenne, in his Mahomet et Charlemagne
(1922; 1937), claimed that the breakup of Mediter-
ranean civilization occurred late as a result of the
advance of Islam about 700. His thesis, which was
based mainly on controversial evidence about the
disruption of commerce, was in general not accepted,
but it contributed to the growing realization that in
the so-called “early Middle Ages” (sometimes referred
to specifically as the “Dark Ages”), Byzantium and
later on the Islamic World by far outstripped the
Occident in strength and attraction, even at the time
of the Carolingian Empire. The Making of Europe
(Christopher Dawson [1932], up to about 1000), and
The Awakening of Europe (Philippe Wolff [1968],
dealing with the time from Charlemagne to Abélard,
i.e., from the late eighth to the early twelfth century)
are representative titles of recent scholarship. They are
indicative of the realization that a long process of
gestation preceded the emergence of Europe. On the
other hand, it is illustrative that R. W. Southern, who
analyzes the formative period of the eleventh and
twelfth centuries in the most penetrating way, calls his
book The Making of the Middle Ages (1953). He equates
the Middle Ages with the social-political order of Eu-
rope and its underlying religious and legal thought both
of which crystallized in the eleventh and twelfth cen-
turies. The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century (C. H.
Haskins, 1927) played a decisive part in this crystal-
lization. Institutions and the structure of society in their
basic features persisted well into the period of the
ancien régime (eighteenth century). For this reason
some scholars, including the author of this article, have
argued that, if we emphasize continuity over a long
period of time—the longue durée whose problematic
character has been stressed by Fernand Braudel
(Annales, 1958)—we should at least replace the
accidental term “Middle Ages” by the concept of the
“Old European Order.” The end of this period would
be identical with the first division within the so-called
“modern” period, the turn from the seventeenth to the
eighteenth century. Such an interpretation would be
based on the assumption that institutions, including
educational curricula (including in this case the teach-
ing of Aristotelian philosophy) and the structure of
society are the very backbone of a civilization. This
interpretation presupposes a “realistic” approach, a
concern with historical individuality more than with
evolution, with the “what” more than with the “why.”

Recently the question of “modernity” has been posed
anew with regard to a central problem in the
emergence of the “new” society since the eighteenth
century: the famous Weber thesis about the relation
of Protestantism and capitalism has been under re-
newed scrutiny, with the result that the Counter-
Reformation has been largely held responsible for the
halt in the advance of capitalism (H. Luethy, In
Gegenwart der Geschichte,
Cologne, 1967; H. Trevor-
Roper, Religion, The Reformation and Social Change,
London, 1967). Whatever the merits of this thesis may
be, it seems that along with the evolutionary question
“Why not yet?”—a question which has dominated also
the lively discussion about the origins of the Industrial
Revolution—an analysis of the persisting attitudes and
institutions is a necessity. Such an analysis reveals
conceptual and structural features in the seventeenth
century which date back to the so-called Middle Ages.
If we cannot dispose of the traditional main terms of
periodization in European history, “medieval” and
“modern,” we should remember that originally they
were devoid of content and we should keep them, to
use Huizinga's formulation, as colorless or neutral as


A. G. Barraclough, “Medium Aevum: Some Reflections
on Mediaeval History and on the Term 'The Middle Ages',”
in History in a Changing World (Oxford, 1956). O. Brunner,


Neue Wege der Verfassungs—und Sozialgeschichte, 2nd
enlarged ed. (Göttingen, 1968); review article of the 1st ed.
by F. Braudel in Annales (1959). A. Dove, “Der Streit um
das Mittelalter,” Historische Zeitschrift, 116 (1916), 209-30.
W. Freund, Modernus und andere Zeitbegriffe des Mittel-
(Münster, 1957). D. Gerhard, “Periodization in
European History,” American Historical Review, 61 (1956),
900-13; idem, “Regionalismus und ständisches Wesen als
ein Grundthema Europäischer Geschichte,” Alte und Neue
Welt in Vergleichender Geschichtsbetrachtung
1962); idem, “Regionalism,” Studies in Diplomatic History
in Memory of D. B. Horn
(London, 1970). O. Halecki, The
Limits and Divisions of European History
(New York, 1950).
H. Heimpel, “Ueber die Epochen der mittelalterlichen
Geschichte,” Der Mensch in seiner Gegenwart (Göttingen,
1957). J. Huizinga, “De Taak der Cultuurgeschiedenis,”
Verzamelde Werken, Vol. 7 (Haarlem, 1950); trans. as “The
Task of Cultural History,” in Men and Ideas (New York,
1959). W. Kaegi, Historische Meditationen, Vol. I (Zurich,
1942), “Voltaire und der Zerfall des Christlichen Ges-
chichtsbildes.” A. Klempt, Die Säkularisierung der Uni-
versalhistorischen Auffassung. Zum Wandel des Geschichts-
denkens im 16. und 17. Jahrhundert
(Göttingen, 1960), with
extensive bibliography. W. Rehm, Der Untergang Roms im
abendländischen Denken
(Leipzig, 1930; reprint Darmstadt,
1966). E. Troeltsch, Der Historismus und seine Probleme
(Tübingen, 1922), esp. Ch. IV, “Ueber den Aufbau der
Europaeischen Kulturgeschichte.” L. Varga, Das Schlagwort
vom Finsteren Mittelalter
(Vienna, 1932). E. Walder, “Zur
Geschichte und Problematik des Epochenbegriffs Neuzeit
und zum Problem der Periodisierung der Europäischen
Geschichte,” Festgabe Hans von Greyerz (Bern, 1967). E. M.
Zhukov, The Periodization of World History, XIe Congrès
International des Sciences Historiques (1960), Rapports, Vol.
I, and Actes du Congrès (discussion); cf. E. Werner, in
Annales (1962), pp. 930-39.

For the relation of antiquity to the Middle Ages, the
following collections are helpful. F. Havighurst, ed., The
Pirenne Thesis. Analysis, Criticism, and Revision,
of European Civilization (Boston, 1958). P. E. Hübinger, ed.
(Wege der Forschung, Darmstadt): Kulturbruch oder
Kulturkontinuität im Übergang von der Antike zum Mittel-
Vol. 201 (1967); Zur Frage der Periodengrenze zwischen
Altertum und Mittelalter,
Vol. 51 (1969); Zur Bedeutung und
Rolle des Islam für den Übergang vom Altertum zum Mittel-
Vol. 202 (1969).

Especially for the Renaissance, see the following discus-
sions and collections. D. Cantimori and E. F. Jacob, “La
Periodizzazione dell'Età del Rinascimento nella Storia
d'Italia e in quella d'Europa,” Comitato Internazionale di
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[See also Classification of the Sciences; Cycles; Evolution-
ism; Historicism; Historiography; Historiography, Influence
of Ideas on Ancient Greek; Periodization in Literary
History; Positivism; Progress; Renaissance Literature;