I would like to venture a provocative thesis: the century makes possible–or at least it facilitates–modern history, “structural” history [as in the Annales school of Febvre, Braudel et al]. The paradox is obvious. How, that is, can one reconcile the two functions that we just attributed to the century: how does thinking about discontinuity [and combatting it] make possible the longue durée, the very long duration?

The signposts of the strategic alliance between century and longue durée show up again in the 1800s. Before History was divided into centuries, the most prevalent unit of periodisation was the reign. Voltaire thus distinguished four grand ‘centuries’: of Pericles, of Alexander, of the Medicis, and of Louis XIV. The history of France was a succession of royal races; English history, a succession of dynasties; ecclesastical history, a series of sovereign pontiffs and concils. After 1789, and a fortiori after 1793, it became difficult to continue in this tradition. As I’ve already said, this decade was seen as the end of a longer period, which remained to be delimitted and named. By effect of contagion, as it were, and for verisimilitude as well, this period could not be marked by one Louis or another–even anti-revolutionary historians, more or less nostalgic for the Bourbons, such as Bonald or Maistre, hardly dreamt of speaking of the ‘Century of Louis XV’ or the ‘Century of the two Louis.’ The eighteenth century, arrived at by arithmetic, and thus not marked by reality, offered the ideal choice.

[O]ne of the major characteristics of the century [is] its neutrality. The constitutive aberration of the century, meaning its a-referentiality, then becomes its principal strength. Of all the systems of periodization, the secular system [le système séculaire (the ‘centuried’ system] is the least marked–by reality, by historiography. By this, it has become the most open to what one had studied little or not at all within history: economics, demographics, mentalities. There are innumerable reevaluations of it made by “structual” historians like Febvre, Braudel, Labrousse, Chaunu, Wallerstein… (Milo 59-61)

Those of us who are Victorianists, of course, might wonder what Milo would have to say about our period. Is the Victorian Age a return to a reign-based periodization? Is the Victorian Age an aberration, not in history, but in historiography? Or is the Victorian Age a neutral period arbitrarily marked by 1837 and 1901, a neutral timespan amenable to experiments in history? And if we define ourselves as nineteenth-centuryists, is it similar to how those at the beginning of the nineteenth century saw the eighteenth century or the century that they were embarking upon?

What drew me to Milo was that you don’t have to be that far out of Victorianist kindergarten to have heard numerous apologies for the arbitrary boundaries on historical periods, justifications for their existence, and calls for their reevaluation. But if we think of this arbitrariness as the very condition-of-possibility of History, of secular history, does that change the way we do our work? Can it encourage us toward further experiments, further betrayals of time?

 

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