Rethinking Period Boundaries: Hidden Continuities and Discontinuities in European History and Literature From the Eighteenth to the Twentieth Centuries

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Date: 26-27 May 2018

Venue: European Studies Centre, St Antony’s College

University of Oxford

Whether it is implicit or explicit, periodization is an ever-present feature of the grammar of history-writing. As with all grammatical rules, the order it imposes has the potential to both liberate and stifle. Though few historians would consider their period boundaries as anything more than good to think with, heuristic artifice all too easily congeals into immovable structure, shaping how we view the dominant characteristics of a century or decade, determining what gets treated as premature or belated and governing our usage of the prefixes “pre-“ and “post-“. For every caesura that periodization underscores, a continuity is covered up and alternative caesuras marginalised.

Researchers of literature are, of course, challenged by similar dilemmas. Here, too, the neatness of periodisation can distort or even obscure the cultural output of those awkward individuals and groups that do not fit the right chronological corset. Where some authors and movements seem to embody that which is thought essential in a period, others have to be coerced into uneasy groupings, hailed as precursors or dismissed as epigones.  The organisational benefits of literary periodization, thus, create unfounded expectations of shared experience and expression – and no amount of intellectual unweeding ever seems to eradicate these expectations for good.  

Such frustrations are especially familiar to scholars of Europe’s more ‘peripheral’ regions where developments of an economic, cultural and political nature are rarely synchronised with those in historic centres. Though Eastern Europe is the most obvious and most mythologised case of such a region, in reality there are and have been many other examples of either developmental difference or more teleologically insignificant non-simultaneity in European history. By way of schematic example, how should scholars deal with: the emergence of Enlightened thought in some places at a time of Counter-Enlightenment in others; the regionalised prevalence of peasant and manor alike throughout the industrial age; the diverse and divergent chronologies of women’s history; or, to turn to the present, the electoral breakthrough of right-wing populism in Eastern Europe some years before its (as yet only partial) success in the West?

This conference seeks to encourage an interdisciplinary approach to such problems, bringing together postgraduate students and early career researchers from history, literature studies and related disciplines who are interested in questioning the dominant period boundaries in the study of modern European history and literature, with both “modern” and “European” loosely conceived. In particular, we wish to promote engagement with overlooked continuities, hidden caesuras, and instances of non-simultaneity between ‘centres’ and ‘peripheries’ at both national and international levels. By gathering scholars from both West and East European institutions, we aim to foster a dialogue between researchers of different regions and help problematize the categories and period markers prevailing in different national and regional historiographies. This conference invites researchers to step out of their temporal and spatial comfort zones, by considering what can be gained from looking forwards and backwards in time and sideways at neighbours far and near.  

Suggested topics for presentations include, but are not in no way restricted to the following:

- Continuities in structures, practices, mentalities and discourses across revolutions, wars and periods of rapid change or reform

- Historical anomalies and ‘survivals’

- Divergent histories of democratisation, industrialisation, modernisation etc.

- The role of cultural transfer (or the absence of transfer) in explaining parallel developments across regions, countries etc.

- Discrepancies between conservative vs radical, religious vs secular, elite vs popular etc. visions and understandings of the historical present and its relation to the past/future in different periods

- Religion in an age of secularisation

- The relevance and applicability of concepts like Enlightenment/Counter-Enlightenment, feudalism, semi-feudalism, post-socialism or neoliberalism in specific historical settings

- Observer-based (etic) vs actor-based (emic) views of periodisation

- Overlooked and rediscovered forms of literature (including émigré, women's, and minority literature)

- The advantages and disadvantages of applying historical contrast to literary studies

- ‘Peripheral’ modernism(s)

- The impact of censorship and repression on the formation of artistic periods

The conference committee invites paper proposals and fully formed panels. To apply, please send the title and abstract (of max. 300 words) of the paper you would like to present and/or a description of the panel you would like to lead (of max. 300 words) in pdf/word to by 9 March 2018. Proposed papers should not exceed 20 minutes in length and must be in English. Proposals should also contain the name, institutional affiliation and current position of the candidate.

Some travel expenses may be covered for applicants, but this is not guaranteed and therefore, we strongly advise you to seek alternate sources of funding beforehand.

For more information please contact: Jade McGlynn (, Lucian George ( or Maria Florutau (