History’s Imagined Past: How Scholars Invented Historical Time

Sarit Kattan Gribetz on Oded Steinberg’s Race, Nation, History

The fields of rabbinics and ancient Judaism have long asked a tantalizing question: Was the Jewish revolt against Rome, the conquest of Jerusalem, and the destruction of the temple in 70 C.E. a watershed in Jewish history? The answer any particular scholar might give to this question impacts how they approach the sources they study and the narratives they construct. We find different answers depending on where we look.

Underpinning such questions are larger concerns about continuity and rupture in Jewish antiquity, and especially between what we now call the second temple and rabbinic periods (but which those living in that period of transition certainly would not have recognized as such). In short, the politics of periodization are never simple.

This is the important underlying presupposition of Oded Steinberg’s Race, Nation, History: Anglo-German Thought in the Victorian Era (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019). Steinberg’s study makes a simple yet radical claim: conceptions of race and racial perceptions of time played dominant roles in the development of historical periodization and the foundation of the modern European discipline of history. 

Steinberg’s story begins in Victorian England and crosses the English Channel to Germany. His story demonstrates how intellectual alliances between scholars (as well as national and religious commitments and rivalries) allowed for theories of Teutonic kinship, Anglo-Saxonism, and new approaches to historical time to emerge and flourish during the second half of the nineteenth century. The very idea of “Teutonism” and “Anglo-Saxon” identity as well as the notion that time ought to be divided into ancient, medieval and modern periods – and where the seams, transitions, or borders between these periods lie – developed among a tightknit group of colleagues invested in a shared future.

Steinberg argues for a concept of “racial time,” defining it as “a modern invention in which certain scholars divided history subsequent to the emergence and fall of races throughout history… through conquest, invasion, or even peaceful migration.” As Steinberg demonstrates, the temporal and spatial merge in racial time. The moment when the Germanic tribes crossed the “natural, almost mythic geographical border” of the Rhine and Danube rivers, which had kept the Romans and barbarians separate, did not only signal the end of one historical era and the start of another; it also represented a racial change in which these different groups of people and cultures merged. As is often the case with other modes and methods of timekeeping as well, historical periodization became one of the mechanisms that allowed for constructions of race, nation, and community, that in turn set the terms to reconceive history. 

While Steinberg’s study is situated in the modern era, and in the nineteenth century in particular, the story Steinberg tells is just as much about how the present remakes the past, for he shows how historians used the past – in particular how they imagined their shared racial origins and, in turn, how they divided the historical past into particular periods – to construct the very basis upon which the rest of their historical narrative depended.

Oded Steinberg, Race, Nation, History: Anglo-German Thought in the Victorian Era. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019. pp. 296. $65.

A series of chapters carefully analyses the intellectual contributions and interpersonal relationships of a group of British and German historians of the nineteenth century – among them Thomas Arnold, Edward Augustus Freeman, William Stubbs, John Richard Green, and James Bryce on the English side and B. G. Niebuhr, Christian Karl Josias von Bunsen, Friedrich Max Müller, and Reinhold Pauli on the German side. Steinberg’s analysis focuses on how newly-articulated racial categories not only informed but motivated the historical work of these intellectuals. As Steinberg explains: “Building on the notion of Teutonic kinship, this community of scholars founded an imagined community of belonging, composed of several subnations that were nevertheless understood to be united by racial, ethnic, and cultural bonds… England’s dominant Anglo-Saxons – namely, the retrospective identification of the Germanic Saxons, Angles, and Jutes of the nation’s ancestors – were imagined to have racially united most of the British Isles’ inhabitants (excluding the autochthonic Celts of Ireland, Wales, and Scotland) with the Germanic entities of mainland Europe. From their historical work arose a vision of the English and Germans as ultimately one people, an almost indivisible community. For most of these scholars, the Teutonic notion was not a remnant of the past but a present, living ideal determining their social, political, and religious realities.” Theories of Teutonic kinship developed, Steinberg argues, in the context of the Napoleonic and Franco-Prussian Wars, in which France (Celtic/Gallic, Roman, and Catholic) represented a rival other to both Germany and England (Anglo-Saxon/Teutonic and Protestant), and thus motivated these English and German scholars to construct a historical past that bound them – racially and religiously – with one another yet excluded their French counterparts. 

Having established that the Teutonic kinship theory was used to construct a shared racial community across geographical and linguistic borders, Steinberg demonstrates how “a certain correlation was established between the method in which these scholars divided time and their perception of the emergence of national communities,” for “the appearance of a certain race at a specific space and time signified the beginning or the end of a period.” For many of the figures at the heart of Steinberg’s study, the invasion of Teutonic (that is, Germanic) tribes and the “fall of Rome” in the fifth century represented the watershed event that signaled a transition between antiquity and the medieval period, however differently that transition was framed by various parties, some of whom regarded it as a celebrated rejuvenation of a fallen empire (which prompted moreover the spread of Christianity westward) while others decried it as the onset of a barbaric era. 

The “Eurocentric triad” of antiquity, the medieval period, and modernity (which Steinberg calls the “historiographical ‘Holy Trinity’”) continues, in Steinberg’s words, to “dominate our general perception of historical time.” It serves a Eurocentric historical narrative, burying other – global and non-Western – histories under the weight, yet again, of European hegemony. But Steinberg demonstrates that already in the nineteenth century, alternatives existed, to which he devotes his final three chapters. These chapters study the distinctive historical views of Freeman, Bryce, and the Irish historian John Bagnell Bury, scholars who favored “a vision of historical continuum” and “unity of history,” eschewing a clear distinction between antiquity and the Middle Ages and, to differing extents, also promoting visions of racial fusion rather than division. Steinberg argues that Bury, uniquely, rejected Teutonism and Catholicism as forces of historical unity and sought instead to present the late Byzantine Empire as Rome’s successor, linking “the ‘old’ Rome of the West and the ‘new’ Rome of the East,” in contrast to most contemporaneous English, German, and French historiography.

Throughout the book, Steinberg argues that historical periodization is not only culturally constructed, but also that it is anything but arbitrary. His account shows how periodization and the identification of watershed moments became a key tool through which to solidify racial and religious categories and develop nationalist affiliations and bonds, and also to question, reconceive, or dismantle them. 

Chronologies, dating systems, calendars, and daily schedules likewise reflect particular religious and cultural commitments, e.g. decisions to date an event to the year of the world’s creation, Christ’s birth, or Muhammad’s hijra. Decisions to employ Gregorian, Julian, Jewish, or Islamic annual calendars are likewise deliberate choices that assert identity and construct communities; the default of using the year of Christ’s birth in so much of the Western world itself testifies to the breadth and depth of Christian dominance, rather than mere happenstance. 

Applying Steinberg’s findings to contemporary historical practice entails upending the very temporal foundations upon which many modern humanistic disciplines stand. Indeed, the discipline of history in Europe and America has, since the nineteenth century, continued to rethink its periodization adding, for example, the study of late antiquity and the early modern period, eras that emerged precisely at the periodic borders so central in Steinberg’s analysis. Late antiquity links classical antiquity, especially Republican and early Imperial Rome, the development of rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity, including the Byzantine east, with what followed in the medieval period. 

The push towards “late late antiquity” now encompasses early Islamic texts and communities as well, an expansion designed to prompt reconceptualizations of interactions between not only Jews and Christians but also Muslims – and Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – in this formative period, even into the second millennium. Similar trends can be identified in early modern history, now recognized, for instance, as a particularly transformative time in the development of textual traditions and technologies. Moreover, some subfields, especially Area Studies, have found ways of shifting organizational principles from the temporal to the spatial, and an argument can be made – whether or not it is borne out in scholarship produced in such subfields – that doing so can help circumvent the limits of historic periodization. To mention a particularly interesting example, Mediterranean Studies, in its focus on the lands surrounding a body of water rather than a historical period, has the potential to undermine existing temporal periodization, perhaps a legacy of Fernand Braudel’s longue durée, itself a project of rethinking historical temporality, having been centered on that region.

The study of Jewish history, to cite another example, has to some extent embraced the contours of European periodization but has questioned the standard seams between those periods. The redaction of the Babylonian Talmud, rather than the fall of Rome, often represents the end of Jewish antiquity, the geonic era firmly placed in the medieval (though this periodization is being likewise questioned as the field turns increasingly to incorporate sources produced during and after the Babylonian Talmud, including liturgical poetry, synagogue art, amulets and incantation bowls, and late midrashim, previously understudied and regarded as marginal, and also draws more heavily upon Iranian, Sasanian, Zoroastrian, and early Islamic history to situate Jewish communal life and cultural production in the seventh through eleventh centuries). The Jewish Enlightenment in Europe, or the Jewish Nahda in the Arab world, are seen as heralding the modern period, rather than the European Renaissance or the Enlightenment, even as these developments are interrelated and studied in dialogue. But the current field of Jewish Studies also employs alternative historical periodizations, often preferring “biblical,” “second temple,” and “rabbinic” to the more all-encompassing but vaguer “antiquity.” Though these periods fit within the moniker of “ancient,” they also begin earlier and extend past classical antiquity, challenging the easy imposition of categories from “general” (European) history onto Jewish history.

There have also been persuasive calls, by historians such as Dipesh Chakrabarty, Geraldine Heng, Ayanna Thompson, and Urvashi Chakravarty to embrace alternative periodizations, global perspectives, and multiple temporalities and spatialities in the contemporary study of history. The task entails expanding to the global without further imposing European periodization, developed as Steinberg demonstrates for particular European ends, unto yet further regions or contexts and to rethink the practices of history and periodization in ways that accommodate different contexts and their unique historiographies rather than erase them. Expansions of the historical gaze ought to “provincialize Europe” not only spatially but also temporally, opening up new ways of thinking about what each historical period encompasses, embracing overlapping periods and the multiplicity of historical time. Recognizing the origins of – and reasons for – particular methods of periodization is a necessary step towards thinking more critically about them as well as thinking beyond them.

Steinberg’s careful unpacking of how the intellectual, cultural, and political contexts of the Victorian era produced the historical periodization upon which so much subsequent historical analysis relies provides a good model for thinking through other cases of historical periodization. Similar questions emerge, for example, in the use of the term Anthropocene, a geologic strata that, unlike all previous ones, has been identified not by the geologic remains of the past but by the high carbon emissions and extinctions of the present. Can geologists and climate scientists periodize the present based on projections of the future?  What function does this new geological periodization have, and to what environmental and political ends is it promoted?  Debates about the Anthropocene and climate change, as other types of historical periodization both ancient and modern, are about how we interpret and live in the present. And the periodization of the present is just as practical, political, and philosophical an affair, with stakes no lower than those of the periodization of the past. 

In Race, Nation, History, Steinberg identifies some of the commitments that drove particular forms of historical periodization in nineteenth century Europe. His methodology might be applied by contemporary scholars in their reevaluation of other historical narratives from previous eras.  If we take Steinberg’s arguments seriously, his book should also prompt new forms of self-reflection by scholars today about their own assumptions and presuppositions about the flow and divisions of the past, how they imagine watershed moments and historical periodization, and why they prefer certain versions over others. 

These questions need not be limited to reflections about the past, however. We can – and should –  also apply these insights to the periodization of the present. Are we still in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic or has it now passed? Are we currently in a state of emergency? This is not merely a debate about nomenclature nor primarily an academic discussion. The answers to such questions determine which public health measures are followed: Do we require masks and testing? Do we permit travel and large gatherings? Who can live their lives more normally and at whose expense, and what types of state funding can be used? Much is at stake in how we construct and periodize not only the past, but also the present and future.

Sarit Kattan Gribetz is Associate Professor of Classical Judaism in the Theology Department at Fordham University, and a Contributing Editor at Marginalia. Her book Time and Difference in Rabbinic Judaism (Princeton University Press, 2020) received a National Jewish Book Award in Scholarship and a Jordan Schnitzer Book Award from the Association for Jewish Studies.