Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time

Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time

Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time

Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time


Despite all recent challenges to stage-oriented histories, the idea of a division between a "medieval" and a "modern" period has survived, even flourished, in academia. Periodization and Sovereignty demonstrates that this survival is no innocent affair. By examining periodization together with the two controversial categories of feudalism and secularization, Kathleen Davis exposes the relationship between the constitution of "the Middle Ages" and the history of sovereignty, slavery, and colonialism.

This book's groundbreaking investigation of feudal historiography finds that the historical formation of "feudalism" mediated the theorization of sovereignty and a social contract, even as it provided a rationale for colonialism and facilitated the disavowal of slavery. Sovereignty is also at the heart of today's often violent struggles over secular and religious politics, and Davis traces the relationship between these struggles and the narrative of "secularization," which grounds itself in a period divide between a "modern" historical consciousness and a theologically entrapped "Middle Ages" incapable of history. This alignment of sovereignty, the secular, and the conceptualization of historical time, which relies essentially upon a medieval/modern divide, both underlies and regulates today's volatile debates over world politics.

The problem of defining the limits of our most fundamental political concepts cannot be extricated, Davis argues, from the periodizing operations that constituted them, and that continue today to obscure the process by which "feudalism" and "secularization" govern the politics of time.


In the early eighth century, the Northumbrian monk and scholar now known as the Venerable Bede offered his own etymology for the Latin word tempus, “time.” As usual for him, he considers it in the plural: “Times take their name from ‘measure”’ (tempora igitur a “temperamento” nomen accipiunt). Taken in its various senses, the word “measure” nearly captures the force of temperamentum, which derives from the verb tempero, “to be moderate, to divide, to regulate.” the verb accipio (“to take without effort, receive, get, accept”) hovers between the active and the passive, and thereby displays the logic of the etymological relation: tempora are so called because they do moderate, divide, and regulate. Scholars have tended to attribute this emphasis on temporal regulation to the daily monastic routine of tolling bells and calls to prayer, and in so doing have cordoned it off from its far more ambitious, and effective, historical and political designs. Well attuned to the stakes of time as a regulating principle, Bede later became the first author to use anno domini (A.D.) dating in a historical narrative, thereby attaching history, in the form of Christian politics, to the sacred at the point of a division in time. This periodization, which is not entirely attributable to Bede of course, continues today to regulate calendars and political life.

In recent decades there has been much attention to the “politics of time,” and it has not come untethered from the problematic relation of history with the sacred. Indeed, studies of the politics of time have taken this relation as their conceptual limit, almost always expressed in the form of a divide between a religious Middle Ages and a secular modernity. the arguments center upon historical consciousness and follow along these lines: medieval people subordinated all concepts of time to the movement of salvation history and the inevitability of the Last Judgment, and therefore had no sense of real, meaningful historical change; under such circumstances history is already determined, and a “medieval” politics of time is therefore an oxymoron. These arguments often derive explanatory power from economic models of periodization by aligning a transition from ecclesiastical to secular society with a transition from a medieval, rural, agrarian economy to a modern, urban, commercial economy, most typically expressed as the transition from . . .

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