|For further introduction and
see P.J. Corfield, Timeframes
INTRODUCTION TO TIME & THE SHAPE OF HISTORY:
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.
LIST OF CHAPTERS:
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
CORE THEMES WITHIN TIME & THE SHAPE OF 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
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
(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'.
A POSTMODERNIST CRITIQUE OF TIME & THE SHAPE
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
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
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
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,
here for Amazon link.