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understanding literary periods

Literary periods figure prominently in the treatment of literature by critics, scholars, teachers, publishers, readers, book sellers, and others. There is a great deal of misunderstanding, confusion, ambiguity, and disagreement about the way terms are used and works classified with respect to time. Here, The Muse attempts to clear up some of this confusion.

about literary Periods, sub-periods, and schemas

Literary periods have sub-periods which belong to them; literary periods and sub-periods can be arranged into literary schemas that display the relationships between them. The conceptual connections between literary periods, sub-periods, and schemas are implicit in their definitions:

Literary Period—A time and place characterized by an assemblage of interrelated cultural, societal, ideological, technological, historic, and other trends—in other words, a milieu—in which related groups of authors wrote.

To create Literary Periods is to divide groups of authors and works according to time, place, and milieu, to assign a name to each period, and to limit the availability or scope of information about each period according to its place, time, and milieu. A period starts and ends when significant and permanent changes occur in literary works because of significant and permanent changes changes in milieu.

Literary Sub-PeriodA Literary Period that falls within the time period spanned by a period of greater duration.

The groups of authors and works in a Literary Sub-period are based in the same place as the period they belong to. The milieu in which they write exhibits many of the same cultural, societal, ideological, technological, historic, and other trends. But the Sub-period differs from the Period to which it belongs by virtue of relatively minor changes that take place. The Literary Period to which a Sub-period belongs is a Literary Sub-period of another Literary Period of longer duration.

Schema—A conceptual framework or classification scheme for a number of Literary Periods and Sub-periods. Periods and Sub-periods are arranged hierarchically by place and time, showing the hierarchical relationships between them.

  • Classification schemes for Literary Period are similar in concept to classification schemes for Literary Genre. Get a sense of scholarly schemes for defining Literary Periods by exploring The Muse's classification of Literary Genre: click here

the unity of literary periods

In literature, a unity is a combination or ordering of parts in an artistic production that constitutes a whole or promotes an undivided total effect, and the resulting singleness in effect, symmetry, and consistency of style and character.

For example, in his Poetics, describing Greek tragedies such as Oedipus Rex, Aristotle requires a tragic play to have a single action represented as occurring in one place and within one day. Almost a thousand years later, his description became a literary guideline for French dramatists writing classical tragedies, who called Aristotle's dictum unity of action, unity of place, and unity of time.

A literary period is also a literary unity, but in a different sense, one that is analogous to Aristotle's idea. A literary period is not just a specific span of time; it is a combination of three unities—a unity of action, a unity of place, and a unity of time; together, these three unities describe an undivided total effect, symmetry, and consistency of style and character that applies to authors or groups of related authors and their works, and to the literary, cultural, and social milieus in which they work or in which they set their works.

This insight comes as second nature to those who are accustomed to literary theory; they find nothing wrong with the word period, even though it actually denotes a combined, integrated set of actions (milieus) and places as well as times. But the term period can be a source of misunderstanding to the uninitiated.

Since a single literary period is a combination of time, place, and milieu, wouldn't it be more accurate and less confusing to refer to it by a term other than period?

The short answer is yes, but terms like action and time and place or action-time-place lack that certain ring. Literary period is the customary term, one that has come to be recognized and accepted through much use. If period makes you balk, it may help to think of literary period as shorthand for literary action, literary time, and literary place. That may make the term a little easier to swallow.

Some fallacies encountered when trying to define literary periods

In the literary community, there is only partial agreement about the names to use for periods and places, the best start and stop times for demarking periods, and the conditions and circumstances that make up a milieu.

Reasons for fallacies

Defining literary periods isn't easy. Dissimilarity among the definitions of different literary periods is easy to understand when one considers that events in one part of the world tend to influence those in another, but only with a lead-lag effect. When we take into consideration the fact that history never quite repeats itself, it becomes evident that a literary period never quite repeats itself, even when it is coincidental or concurrent with another.

The definition of literary periods is also fraught with difficulty because the language and literary boundaries that separate periods can be obscure. For example, where British Literature is concerned, some editors lump both the Anglo-Saxon and Middle English periods together as the Medieval period. Others subdivide the Renaissance according to English rulershipthe Elizabethan Age, Jacobean Age, Caroline Age, and Commonwealth Period. Given the differences between literature in England and America, some further divide the modern period into English Modern and American Modern, or into Modern and Postmodern.

Views of history change with time as new scholarly evidence comes to light or because analysts and their perspectives change. The same is true of literary history. As time passes, different analysts see different evidence or they see the same evidence in a new light or from a different perspective. Add to all that the fact that literary periods are determined judgmentally, not objectively; literary periods are matters of opinion, albeit educated opinion.

For additional examples of fallacies, The Muse suggests that you compare the English literary periods defined at the About.com web page on Classic Literature with the English literary periods defined at the S. A. Gottlieb web site:

  • Explore the literary periods in England defined at About.com web site: click here.
  • Explore and compare the literary periods in England defined at the S. A. Gottlieb web site: click here.

Are the period definitions at these two web sites in agreement?

to what extent do fallacies matter?

Of course, the literature of England (or anyplace else) is the same literature no matter who divides it into periods or how it's divided. In the last analysis, it's not a work's chronological context that determines what it is, it's the work itself that determines what it is; it stands on its own. What's said about a literary work can help us interpret and appreciate it, but at bottom each reader is its judge; it stands on its own and the reader decides.

Despite the problems with the concept of literary period, there are many benefits to be derived from attempting to organize literature into periods. Organization promotes insights and facilitates discovery; literature and authors can be better understood and appreciated when read in the context of the milieu that gave them birth; illuminating comparisons and contrasts can be made.

The benefits that devolve from the concept of periods far outweigh its problems so long as one bears in mind that periods are relative or approximate, not absolute demarcations.

Because of their benefits, no doubt experts will continue to define literary periods and to analyze literature according to the idea of period for the foreseeable future.

  • Explore some of the problems and benefits associated with the concept of literary period as expressed by L. Melani of the English Department at Brooklyn College. Visit the page called Literary Periods at Brooklyn College web site: click here.


the fallacy of sub-periods

Definitions for what to call literary sub-periods, how to define them, and where to set their starting and ending dates tend to be even more equivocal than for periods. This is because smaller changes usually (not always) define the starts and ends of sub-periods, and smaller changes are harder to pin down or get people to agree to.

Equivocation can occur even when the periods in which sub-periods occur have the same names (they often do not). For example, there was a literary Renaissance in England and one in Italy, but it's wrong to assume that the two Renaissance periods match each other in all respects, even in major ones.

When do periods start and end?

When does a period start? When does it end?

By now it should be apparent that a literary period usually starts with a watershed event or the start of a major new trend at a particular place, when a distinctive set of new historic, societal, or artistic characteristics emerges or comes into play, or when an old one dies. A period ends the same way. In other words, periods begin and end with key changes in a locale's milieu and with corresponding, induced changes in the works of local authors.

Scholars normally assign a precise start and end date to a period, if one is conveniently available. For example, it is common to link the start and end dates of a period to the birth and death of royalty, a major political event, or interregnum. Since most real-world changes take place gradually, precision in start and end dates is usually nominal and presumptive.

Often periods coincide with calendrical divisions, but sometimes they don't. For example, the Elizabethan Age, which is part of the Renaissance Period, begins with the ascendancy to the throne of Queen Elizabeth I in 1558; it ends with the queen's death in 1603. On the other hand, the term fin de siecle, which refers to the effete artistic climate and society that prevailed in Western Europe at the end of the 19th century, has no precise starting or ending date. It denotes roughly the period between 1880 and 1914.

Scholars and educators take pains to define the conditions which mark the start and end of each literary period. Usually their demarcations are well-advised; but sometimes they are questionable. Often scholars take different positions on what is most important or when a trend makes itself felt. Well-founded or not, scholars have demanded and exercised the license to devise periods for good reason; they have established conventional classifications for literary periods because of their need to organize, analyze, and teach their subject matter. The Muse has tried to follow these conventions wherever possible.

period Names

For convenience, the term period is commonly loosely substituted for sub-period in situations where context makes clear that sub-period is actually what's meant.

While there is considerable agreement among scholars over the names they assign to specific literary periods, there are also differences. Scholars usually name periods and sub-periods after places, towering literary figures, major political personalities, or sweeping new trends in thought that characterize a period. Period names are built out of words like Anglo Saxon, Renaissance, Classical Roman, British, Jacobean, Johnson, Romantic, and Modern.

The names actually chosen for a period are intended to reflect the most important environmental factors that define the literature in the period. As with the start and end times of a period, scholars and educators take different positions on what factors are most important, and, therefore, on what names to use.

Scholars do not even agree on the word to use for the most significant aspect of a period—time. In addition to period, era, movement, age, and epoch are other terms that are invoked.

  • For more information about literary terminology for describing time, visit The Muse's page called More About Literary Time Designations: click here.

why establish literary periods?

Why divide literary works, authors, and topics according to time, place, and milieu? Dividing literature into periods has many salubrious consequences, With periods, the connections between milieus and literature can be explored and analyzed in greater detail and with more precision. Once certain properties of literature are classified and organized by period, the authors and literatures that fall within a given period become easier to examine and understand; they may become more interesting and more fruitful to explore.

Contrasts and similarities between periods and sub-periods can be illuminating. The sub-periods of a period exhibit many of the characteristics and trends exhibited by the period they share in common; but the characteristics and trends of a sub-period can differ from those of its mates in interesting and illuminating ways. For example, the Renaissance Period is sometimes subdivided into the Tudor Period, in which Spenser wrote his poetry, and the Elizabethan Period, which saw the works of early Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Kydd. Comparative analysis reveals that although Protestantism was an important factor in both periods, but as time went on literature adapted to new historic events, changes in religion, culture, and new milieus.

Dividing literature into periods helps people:

  • Compare and contrast writing, poetry, drama, and other kinds of literature produced in different ages and cultures.
  • Trace chains of influence from one writer or group of writers to another.
  • Appreciate more readily the connection between literature and historical events, intellectual and cultural and societal trends.


how literary periods are established

Scholars identify and establish a literary period by examining the culture, society, history, and literature of a nation, region, or other cultural or geopolitical unit for a protracted period. theydefine and describe a place by examining a locale's culture, society, history, and literature. They determine its major and distinguishing cultural, societal, historic, economic, and other trends. they analyze the content, style, themes, genres, forms, and other literary aspects of the works produced by indigenous authors and assess how and to what degree these characteristics are typical. Do they reflect or influence the locale's distinguishing characteristics? They look for authors and works that seem to be organic to the place, that is, to be derived from or inherent to it. These organic works are a place's national or regional literature and their authors are a place's national or regional authors.

Scholars consider how the characteristics of these components change over the course of time, usually years or decades. They analyze the place's prominent people and institutions, the ones that have shaped the nature of life and literature throughout the passing years—the movers and shakers—and key actions and events of historic significance. they look for major, distinguishing cultural, societal, and literary trends that, in the aggregate, seem to mark the place as unique. Minutia are not overlooked when they have large consequences.

A consensus gradually develops.

deciding british and american literary periods

Once American authors began to create characteristically American literature, it was inevitable that American scholars would apply the British notion of a literary period to New World developments. Today, British and American scholars read each other's research publications and interact. Now each group has an opportunity to address issues concerning the other's literature. Where current literary theory is concerned, decision-making is a subtle but mutual process.

The Age of Communication has also facilitated ever-closer interchanges between cultures and authors of the two nations. Consequently, the milieu and literature of each country has influenced the other. The result in the 20th and 21st Centuries has been literary periods for the two nations that are alike. For example, it is possible to identify a modern period and a postmodern period in each nation, each with unique characteristics, but both sharing overwhelmingly similar dates and other characteristics. These kinds of outcomes demonstrate how and why, in the modern era, literary periods in different places resemble each other.

As a result of these developments, by and large there is considerable agreement among scholars about what name to give each of the periods that subdivides British and American literature, their distinguishing characteristics, and the date at which each one starts and ends. Perhaps agreement stems from the fact that the two national languages resemble each other to such and extent that the literature of each nation is extensively read by the other. Scholars of the two nations cooperate with each other because they are familiar with each other's literature and teach it to the same reading public.

about literary periods

All the exchanges among scholars not withstanding, the period names, characteristics, and dates that a reader runs across depend on what reference or text book is accessed or who is consulted.

Fortunately, although the precise classification of literary periods can be critical to scholars, the rest of us only use literary periods to improve reading comprehension and for orientation; precision is not a requisite. Unless you want to become expert in this field, The Muse advises you to approach period schema the way you would a survey course. For this reason, The Muse offers you a selection of lists of literary periods you can easily access on the internet and compare.

Explore a cross section of literary period schemes composed by different experts and sources; use them to compare what different experts have to say about literary periods:

  • Explore the Literary Explorer web site's list of Literary Periods of British and American Literature. It contains a long list of periods and ages with dates. The predominant characteristics, personalities, and works of each period are described in a few sentences each: click here.
  • Explore a concise list of literary periods called Literature in Time—Literary Periods at the About.com web site pages on classical literature: click here.
  • Explore a list of literary periods, movements, and topics at the About.com web site page on Classical Literature. Note that many of the items on the list are in fact literary movements, while others are literary periods. Note the differences between these movements and periods. Click on each movement or period on the list to learn more about it: click here.

Other designations for literary periods

The notion of literary periods helps scholars describe, analyze, and characterize literature by chronologically dividing it. But a literary period is not the only chronological unit that is useful for characterizing literary authors and works. The terms era, movement, age, and epoch are also employed.

The meanings of these terms are nuanced; but for practical purposes, there is little difference between any of these words when it comes to designating a literary period; each may be used for this purpose—to designate a unit of time created to classify literature.

For some reason, English and American scholars and tradition incline to the term period when classifying English Literature, although scholars have no qualms about using era or movement when it suits. Age and epoch are also employed.

The Muse encourages you to remain alert to the fact that these terms have overlapping but sometimes subtly different meanings. At once they can mean the same thing or they can mean something different.

What meanings do these terms have in common?


understanding the role of place in literature

In literature, the idea of place is more than a pushpin pressed into a spot on a map. The notion of place involves factors such as literary style, genre, and form, culture, society, history, a sense of belonging, and a number of other geopolitical, economic, and psychological factors. Most of all, it involves spirita set of attitudes or principles inspired by a locale that animates or pervades the literary thought, emotion, temperament, feelings, attitudes, and actions of a single author or group of authors.


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