Penelope J. Corfield

For further introduction and responses,
see P.J. Corfield, Timeframes website


Having always been fascinated by History over the long term, Penelope J. Corfield was disappointed at the paucity of books on the theme, so decided to write one herself. Entitled Time and the Shape of History, it was published in 2007 by Yale University Press. Lots of friends read it and remarked on its scope. Many appreciated the 29 specially chosen illustrations too. But reviews were slow to follow, the best coming from Bill Speck who commented that 'anyone interested in history will find it a riveting read' (History, 2009).
The text is packed with information and examples, which means that it takes quite a bit of digesting. To aid access, there are eight Chapterlinks that are possible starting points, so that the book can be read in any sequence.


Chapter 1 History in Time
Chapterlink 1-2: Shaping History - Time Travel
Chapter 2 Deep Continuities
Chapterlink 2-3: Shaping History - Time Cycles
Chapter 3 Micro-Change
Chapterlink 3-4: Shaping History - Time Lines
Chapter 4 Radical Discontinuity
Chapterlink 4-5 Shaping History - Time Ends
Chapter 5 Mutable Modernity
Chapterlink 5-6: Shaping History - Time Names
Chapter 6 Variable Stages
Chapterlink 6-7: Shaping History - Time Pieces
Chapter 7 Multiple Dimensions
Chapterlink 7-8: Shaping History - Time Power
Chapter 8 Past & Future
Coda: Timesframes and History


The book offers (1) a critical analysis of the different 'shapes' of History in Time, as it has been envisaged in various cultures around the world. Does it move in circles, always returning to where things started? Or does history travel along a straight line - and it so, to what destination? Or does it jump from stage to stage, through a series of discontinuous rather than continuous changes? Or does history simply exemplify a 'random walk', generated by the unexpected?
Or does it not change at all, as in the historian Fernand Braudel's model of 'l'histoire immobile'. The pros and cons of these various models are considered sympathetically. None fits all circumstances, but all have points of value, which are welded into the final synthesis (see section 3).
(2) The second big theme is the inadequacy of historians' traditional ways of dividing up the long-term. Old assumptions about periodisation have been sidestepped by so much new research, especially into long-term economic, demographic, urban, social, gender and cultural history. Yet no alternatives have emerged.
The book reviews various common sets of terminology, such as 'ancient, 'medieval, 'modern', and (recently) 'postmodern' - concluding that these terms have now become hollow and consequently almost void of meaning (as seen in their very variegated uses in application). Similar criticisms are also directed to separate stages of historical development, including the famous economic stages proposed by Marx and Engels. The answer to these problems, however, is not to substitute one set of labels by another; but to rethink.

(3) That conclusion leads to the third theme of the book, which proposes a different way of looking at the long term. Underlying the diversity in all periods, three great and intertwined dimensions become apparent. These are not simply the traditionally contrasting forces of 'continuity and change'. The latter of those is far too variegated to be treated as one phenomenon.
Instead, within unidirectional Time, there is a triad of continuity, micro-change, and macro-change, which can be redesignated as persistence, momentum and turbulence. These pertain throughout the cosmos, within the boundary terms of Time-space. Hence these are not only three dimensions of History, they are also the three dimensions within Time (of which History constitutes a record), on a par with the three dimensions of Space.
On the basis of such a trialectical or three-dimensional interpretation, historians can analyse within every period the elements of continuity, gradual change, and turbulence. Among other things, that allows discussion of the force of continuity (such as the power of custom), which is often under-appreciated. Moreover, the changing combination of these three dimensions will then demarcate one era from another.
Finally, understanding the power of continuity, micro-change, and macro-change means that humans can predict some but emphatically not all things about the future: there will be some elements of continuity and gradual change, which can form the basis of some common-sense predictions; but there will also be some elements of expected turbulence, which explains why predictions can never be entirely accurate. All this analysis confirmed the potency of great Time, in which History happens. So the final Coda ends with the pertinent reminder from the thirteenth-century mystic Johannes Eckhart: 'Once out of time and your chance is gone'.


See featured debate with Alun Munslow, 'Review' and P.J. Corfield, 'Reply', in Cultural & Social History: Journal of the Social History Society, 6/2 (2009), pp. 231-6

A detailed critique of Time & the Shape of History came from Alun Munslow. While welcoming the book as 'extremely well planned and executed', he expressed a postmodernist scepticism as to whether the past can be known at all to later generations. Hence his conclusion was that the book, like 'so much' else produced by historians, is ultimately unconvincing.
In reply, Corfield challenged the postmodernist view that everything is in permanent flux, so that nothing is knowable. There has to be some continuity within the cosmos, in order to be able to calibrate elements of change. For example, even in the heart of the utterly turbulent world of sub-atomic particles (often cited by postmodernists as evidence for universal flux), there is a tiny invariant element (h), which is calculated at c.4.2 thousand-trillionths of an electron-volt second. It is known as Planck's Constant, after Max Planck the physicist who discovered it; and, logically enough, Planck urged that it was erroneous to conclude that Einsteinian relativity had abolished all absolutes within the cosmos.
Not only can the past be studied - even if such studies are always open to further debate and discoveries - but the postmodernist theorists have also a standard, if trite, narrative of their own, which proposes a past stage of 'modernity' which they believe to have been superseded by a new and better 'postmodernity'. Hence their claim to be standing beyond and without history is nonsensical.
Corfield concluded that the postmodernist stance of an absolute capacity to judge, which theorists conceal under an ostensible scepticism and an inability to know, constitutes an unconvincing intellectual sleight of hand. Whatever the rights and wrongs of trialectical history, it needs to be debated and not just to be sidestepped. All further comments welcome!

For further discussion, see also P.J. Corfield, 'POST-Medievalism/Modernity/Postmodernity?' in special Time issue of Rethinking History, 14/3 (Sept. 2010), pp. 379-404.

Penelope J. Corfield is also happy to lecture and to contribute to seminars/Conferences on these themes, especially now that long-term history is returning onto the research agenda - invitations welcome.

To purchase Time and the Shape of History, click here for Amazon link.
Time - Random Walk, Diagram by Sunil Chhatralia Time Lines, Diagram by Sunil Chhatralia Time Jumps, Diagram by Sunil Chhatralia Time Cycle, Diagram by Sunil Chhatralia
Time - Random Walk
Time Lines
Time Revolutionary Jumps
Time Cycle