History is a very broad field of study that encompasses literally everything that has ever happened.
Because of the vast amount of material and time there is to consider in history, it's unsurprising that the subject is broken down into periods of time as well as categorised by the topic of research such as social history or political history.
If you study history at high school it's likely that you will mainly look at Modern History. This might include Australia's growth as a country through the 1900's, and the study of World War One and Two.
Studying a history degree at university allows you to look at a wider scope of history; looking at revolutions in all corners of the world, political progressions through the centuries, and the relentless colonialism of Europeans.
You may also be able to choose some of your units to study topics that interest you the most, this can be hard though as there are endless options for you to consider.
Every culture and civilisation around the globe has a unique history, and all of their histories' intertwine with each other. Early history was passed through word of mouth from generation to generation, before writing allowed historians to begin recording with more accuracy.
The sheer amount of data and sources that are considered historically relevant is too much to think about at once, but it can be an easier task when you look at them in groups as different types of history:
- Cultural History
- Economic History
- Social History
- Diplomatic History
- Political History
Further still, there is another branch of history known as historiography. Historiography refers to the study of historical sources themselves; Who wrote them, how accounts differ between historians, the style of its writing, whether it is a source that holds a lot of bias or vested interest.
In this article we'll look at a few of the main types of history that you might choose to study in your high school exams (if they are available to you), at university, or in your own time; Ancient history, Postclassical/Medieval history, and Modern history
Ancient History (3000BCE - 500CE)
Ancient history refers to the period of time of around 3000 BCE to 476 CE. This is the case as the period of 'Ancient history' started with the creation of the first written languages - like the Sumerian texts - and ended with the fall of the Roman empire.
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The creation of writing allowed the first historical sources to be made and passed through the years, and what little remains today gives historians a better picture of what life might have been like thousands of years ago.
The period before writing was brought into practice is known as pre-history, and you would be more likely to study that period through archaeological discoveries or fossils than any written sources other than drawings.
That being said, archaeology still plays a huge role in the study of ancient history as surviving written works from this period are rare.
If you study ancient history at high school, it's likely that you will be studying a subclass known as 'Classics', this refers mainly to the two great civilisations and empires of Rome and Greece. These are rich and interesting subjects with a lot of content to cover but are only a small fraction of the ancient world.
Taking Ancient history further to university could see you studying the first Qin empire of a unified China, the advanced and bustling civilisations of the Aztec, Mayan, or Incan people, or even diving into the Achaemenid (Persian) Empire.
A lot of study of ancient history involves unearthing the reliability of surviving sources. A lot of written accounts were produced many years after events had happened - Meaning that facts are likely to be blurred, and potential evidence swayed by biases held by the historian.
For example, the surviving accounts of the Battle of Marathon, around 490 BCE, were created by the Greek historian Herodotus. However, Herodotus wrote his account 50 years after the battle took place and was also on the side of the victorious Greeks, this makes it likely that we don't have the full truth from his account.
Your job within ancient history would be to take these clearly biased written accounts, compare them to any solid facts you have such as archaeological findings of buildings or battlefields, and to try and find the closest thing to the truth as possible.
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Medieval History (500CE - 1500CE)
Ancient history ends around 500CE, and Modern history is said to begin around the 1500s, so what happened in between?
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This period, roughly 1000 years, is known as medieval history, or the middle ages. The official start and end date of this period differ slightly depending on the geographical region of your study, but at least for Europeans the middle ages began with the fall of the Roman empire.
As you can imagine a lot happened in these 1000 years, with huge advances in technology, endless wars, exploration, and huge amounts of poverty and inequality. To be honest though, you could say this about any point in history if you look in the right places.
So what exactly would you study if you choose to look deeply at medieval history? Quite a lot actually, depending on which country or civilisation you focus on:
- In Scandinavia - The Vikings, their attempted conquests and coastal raids of England and surrounding nations, and their intrepid exploration (Discovering North America as early as the 10th century)
- In Japan - Study the feudal wars of the Daimyo families, spanning from the 1100s to the unification of Japan in 1603
- In Europe - Learn about the rise and fall of the Holy Roman Empire from 800CE to 1800 CE (Branching into Modern History), or discover how William the Conqueror became King of England in 1066.
This just scratches the surface of topics you can study within Medieval history, and if you decide to study a history course on this period at university you will have plenty of chances to focus your study on the areas that interest you the most.
Modern History (1500CE - Present Day)
Around the 1500s, the Middle Ages started giving way to a period which brought with it new ideologies towards all aspects of life; Social, Political, Religious, and Economic.
Through this historical period, weaponry and warfare tactics also evolved massively, allowing wars to be waged on a global scale with a huge toll on life and humanity.
Modern history began with the Renaissance, and period of enlightenment spearheaded by the romantic countries of Europe ie. Italy and France, and the surrounding areas. This period saw many people abandon the God-fearing ways that had oppressed the lower classes for centuries and began a series of systematic changes that have shaped the world we live in today.
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There are a few key points that can be identified as the end of the Middle Ages, a few of these being:
- The invention of the Gutenberg printing press in 1439, and it's spread throughout the world via the Silk Road trade route
- Christopher Columbus discovering the Americas around 1492 (Despite the Vikings already having done this 400 years prior)
- The rapid spread of political, religious, and social ideology, as well as luxuries and goods through Europe, the Middle East, and Asia also via the most important trade route in history, The Silk Road.
Modern history itself is often split into two by historians, making Early Modern History and Late Modern History.
Again, if you take a history course at university you are likely to spend a fair bit of time looking at Late Modern History, but will also have the chance to choose several elective units where you can choose your topic of focus.
Here is a quick overview of some of the areas and events of interest within Early Modern History:
- The Renaissance
- European Colonialism in the Age of Discovery
- The Religious Reformation of Europe, followed by the Counter-Reformation led by the Catholic church
- Piracy and the East Indian Trading company
- The development of sciences and political ideology like capitalism
- Widespread use of slavery going into the late modern period
Obviously, there is a lot more to cover in this period of several centuries, but these are some of the main areas of study at this time.
Late Modern History is the most recent period of history studied by historians and is most likely what you will begin to study if you choose to make history at high school.
This historical period is marred by genocides and World Wars, bloody colonialism, and atrocities towards indigenous and ethnic minorities around the globe.
However, it is also a time of peoples' revolutions, the fall of once-great empires, the rise of democracy, and the overthrow of tyrants.
Here are some major historical events that have helped shape Late Modern History and heavily impacted the world we live in today:
- The French revolution
- The American revolution
- Australia's colonisation by the British empire, and later its independence
- The wave of European revolutions in 1848
- The 2 Russian revolutions
- The First and Second World War, including the Holocaust
- The space race and moon landing
- The Cold War and fall of the Berlin wall
You could spend years studying just one of the minor topics mentioned in this article and still not have the complete picture of what happened.
With this in mind it's important that, throughout your study of history and historiography at school and university, you find an area that you feel passionately about that you want to spend a lot of time researching and learning about.
That isn't to say that you must study only one topic for your entire career as a historian, but it might be wise to focus on a particular area rather than trying to study the last 5000 years of humanity at the same time!
Overall, you have a silly amount of options for what to study if you take history at high school or university; You just need to find your interests and never stop seeking out knowledge!
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