If we can learn anything from history, it is that our story has always been acted out and subsequently recorded by people, not unlike us. Each successive generation has done their part to immortalise their greatest tales through stories, both oral and written, into the collective memory of society. As time has passed, each generation of historians has endeavoured to best tell these stories of their predecessors in a way which their own generation can well understand. To the historians of the Renaissance, the millennium immediately proceeding their own time quickly gained the pejorative name the Dark Ages, while its architecture was equally appallingly disparaged as Gothic.
To the Renaissance and subsequent Enlightenment historians, the time to hearken back to with all glory was that of Classical Antiquity, of Greece and Rome. The intervening millennium in between the Fall of Rome in 476 CE and the rebirth of classical learning in the Italian city-states in the late fifteenth century was merely a setback in the onward march of human progress. It was a setback defined by religious fervour and superstition, when science was equated to wizardry and the light of literacy confined to only a select class of clerics and aristocrats.
Each generation of historians has strived to understand the past both in the light of their own times and in the understanding of how those in the past understood themselves. Yet for the analytical nature of the study of history in our present scientifically-centred age to be properly propped up, contemporary historians must continue to classify and divide history into particular periods, places, and categories. Political history must remain distinct from cultural history and social history, while the aforementioned Renaissance must somehow be understood as different from the Medieval period that came before it.
What is most striking is the division of the discipline into broad spans of time, particularly concerning European history. One has a choice of diving deep into the past with Ancient history, a concentration primarily focused upon the Mediterranean world from the earliest communities to the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE. Or perhaps one would prefer to study Medieval History, focusing on Europe during the ten centuries between the aforementioned fall of the Western Roman Empire and the eventual fall of the Eastern Roman Empire in 1453.
Or, if that does not suit one’s fancy, one could try one’s hand at Early Modern History, covering the period of time between the turn of the sixteenth century to the French Revolution. While modern, this period still has its fair share of the medieval about it to make it more remote. Then there are the modernists, those whose focus is squarely on recent European history, the stuff that has happened since the fall of the Ancien Régime in 1792 and the rise of modern European liberal democracy through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
What this model of understanding European history is founded on is the old Renaissance understanding that Europe will always be dominated by the legacy of Rome; therefore all European history must be understood in relation to the glories of the Roman Empire. The medieval is a giant leap backwards in the ruins of the once great imperial edifice, while the rise of modernity marks the return of European society to its former Roman glory. The other thing that this model is focused on is we modern man. Since it was first devised in the seventeenth century, this understanding of history has always held modernity as the pinnacle of human achievement, at least to that point.
The term modern itself comes from the Late Latin modernus, an adjectival modification of the Classical Latin adverb modo, meaning “just now.” Modernus in turn developed into the Middle French moderne by the fourteenth century, indicating that something similar to our understanding of the present time as modern was in use as early as what we would now call the Late Middle Ages. True, to my generation devices like the digital tablet, electric car, or the ability to make videocalls are decidedly modern, our grandparents could equally have said the same fifty years ago for the television, jet airplane, and IBM 7080 computer were equally modern to their own time. Likewise for our great-grandparents the very idea of a subway, car, or airplane on its own was incredibly modern.
The way I see it, the term modern is the hour hand on the clock of time; it is the pointer that marks where we are on the cycle that is human history. Just as Edward III was a modern monarch for his own time so too Elizabeth II is for ours. Likewise, while Geoffrey Chaucer may well have been seen as a modern writer for his day and age, working into the late hours of the night in his rooms within the edifice of London’s Aldgate, so too someone like me is all too modern for my own time. Though I write so often about the past, and do my best to draw connections between what has been and what is present, I cannot help but understand the people, places, and things that have already come and gone through the lens of my own times, of my modernity.
Therefore to define ourselves as modern is not to make us anymore unique than our predecessors. Rather, to do so we not only continue on the legacies of their respective modernities, and write our own story, always utilising this most constant of chronological labels.