The long Xteenth century

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John Darwin, After Tamerlane:

For all its drama, the Occidental ‘breakout’ of the long sixteenth century (1480–1620) had for long a limited impact.

I've read about these "long centuries" from time to time — it's a convenient way to refer to time-periods that sprawl somewhat beyond the boundaries of years ending in double zeros — but when I came upon this phrase the other day, on a long airplane ride from the Netherlands back to the U.S., some questions occurred to me. Why "long" as opposed to "wide", "broad",  "extended", or whatever? Who started this usage, and when? What are the corresponding terms, if any, in other languages?

The exact degree of epi-centennial sprawl is apparently somewhat elastic, e.g.

The modern world system originated in the sixteenth century, the "long" sixteenth century as Fernand Braudel has called it, that is, from 1450 to 1640. [Immanuel Wallerstein, Immanuel, "Three paths of national development in sixteenth-century Europe." Studies in Comparative International Development 1972]
This volume examines the dramatic changes in politics, society and culture which occurred between 1492 and 1650. [Piet Emmer et al., New Societies: The Caribbean in the Long Sixteenth Century.]

And there are other "long centuries" as well:

This book provides a "birds eye" view of social change in France during the "long seventeenth century" from 1589-1715.
E. Anthony Wrigley, "British population during the ‘long’ eighteenth century, 1680-1840"
D. Blackbourn, The long nineteenth century: A history of Germany, 1780-1918

Here are Google Scholar's counts for "the long ___ century":

second 4
third 11
fourth 23
fifth 9
sixth 12
seventh 10
eighth 205
ninth 16
tenth 67
eleventh 29
twelfth 367
thirteenth 181
fourteenth 94
fifteenth 308
sixteenth 1390
seventeenth 661
eighteenth 7,710
nineteenth 7,560
twentieth 4,370

Several sources credit Fernand Braudel with coining the term, attributing it in particular to le long seizième siècle in his 1949 book La Méditerranée et le monde méditerranéen à l'époque de Philippe II. Thus Carlos Antonio Aguirre Rojas, Fernand Braudel et les sciences humaines, 2004:

C'est ce qu'a fait Braudel dans toutes ses oeuvres. Par example, comme nous le verrons plus avant, dans son livre sur La Méditerranée, la période du règne de Philippe II nous renvoie necessairement à un cadre plus vaste, celui de ce "long seizième siècle" qui dure en Europe de 1450 à 1650.

[Update: Sorry, I previously referred to this as "his 1966 book", due to rushed on-line scholarship as I packed up in Ann Arbor to drive back to Philadelphia…]

There are some earlier "long" centuries, but they are probably normal uses of the adjective — thus J. Frank Dobie, "The first cattle in Texas and the Southwest progenitors of the longhorns", The Southwestern Historical Quarterly 1939):

Through the long eighteenth century in Texas, cattle were worth very little-sometimes not four pesos a head, and no buyers at any price.

Or Vernon Lee, Euphorion: Being Studies of the Antique and the Mediaeval in the Renaissance, 1884.

But the garments left to Italy by those latest Middle Ages which we call Renaissance, were not eternal : wear and tear, new occupations, and the rough usage of other nations, rent them most sorely ; their utter neglect by the long seventeenth century, their hasty patchings up (with bits of odd stuff and all manner of coloured thread and string, so that a harlequin's jacket could not look queerer) by the happy-go-lucky practicalness of the eighteenth century and the Revolution, reduced them thoroughly to rags ; and with these rags of Renaissance civilization, Italy may still be seen to drape herself.

So I think I know who started it — and if it was Braudel who coined the term in 1949, then it certainly has prospered quickly! [Though not as quickly as if his book had first been published in 1966, as I previously thought (and wrote)…]

And since the original was French, I know what it is in one other language. But I don't know how the term has been translated into German, Dutch, Swedish, Spanish, Russian, Japanese, Chinese, etc., or whether it has spread as widely through academic writing in those languages as it has in English.



  1. Victor Mair said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 10:51 am

    This is a question that has long troubled me, and I've often asked my historian colleagues how it came about. It wasn't so annoying when it was used just by Braudel and one or two others who had a particular reason for doing so, but it has long since become a kind of academic jargon. I have encountered many instances when its use didn't really make sense at all, and clashed with someone else's "long century".

    Quick question: why hasn't anyone come up with the idea of a "short century"? Or maybe they already have.

  2. Jonathan Badger said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 11:04 am

    Eric Hobsbawm promoted the idea of a "short 20th century" (starting with WWI and ending with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991) in his 1994 book "The Age of Extremes". I remember the idea had some traction in the 1990s — the idea being that the 20th century was about the rise and fall of totalitarianism

  3. Dave said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 11:04 am

    For Braudel, it was part of a certain thematic unity: although the length of his first book might easily be explained by the paucity of editors in prisoner of war camps, his later ones also give an appreciation of « la longue durée » in more than one sense.

    As to short ("metric"?) centuries, they already have: the last century, for example.

  4. cameron said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 11:06 am

    English used to distinguish between a short hundred (100) and a long hundred (usually 120 – also known as a great hundred). I guess the historians are aware of the older usage "long hundred" and adapt long as the natural way to describe a century that's longer than 100 years.

  5. Dave said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 11:06 am

    Eric Hobsbawm *Age of Extremes : The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991* nyah…

    The thing is, historians like to talk about all sorts of periods, but the outside world like to think in centuries. So this is our compromise…

  6. Dave said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 11:07 am

    Anyway, it's long because it's a duration, innit…..

  7. sister_ray said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 11:18 am

    In Germany the most common example is "das lange 19. Jahrhundert" which is a term that is taught at secondary school.

  8. Jack Lynch said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 11:18 am

    The long eighteenth century — its origins, its boundaries, its national and disciplinary inflections — has been much discussed on the 18th-c. studies listserv.

    In British studies, whether historical or literary, favorite starting dates are 1688-89 (Glorious Revolution), 1660 (the Restoration, and probably the most common), even 1642 or 1640. The ending dates are sometimes 1789 (French Revolution), 1798 (publication of Lyrical Ballads), 1800 (double-zero), 1815 (Napoleon), 1832 (Reform Bill).

    My favorite take on the long eighteenth century came in an address by Earl Miner, who puckishly referred to "the long eighteenth century, 1066 to World War I."

  9. Pompeius said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 11:33 am

    > Why "long" as opposed to "wide", "broad", "extended", or whatever?

    European language always assume intervals of being long (or short). You can find this in Latin and Greek texts already. IIRC languages in other parts of the world say it differently.

  10. Rodger C said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 11:34 am

    I'm with Dave. A long time is a long time, not a wide or broad time. And "extended" is too, um, long.

  11. Coby Lubliner said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 11:47 am

    The choice of 'long' as the adjective, in French or in English, seems obvious, as it refers to duration. 'Long' has also been applied to decades: Arthur Marwick, in The Sixties, postulates a "long sixties" (1958–1874).

    With other adjectives used in historiography one has to be more careful: le haut Moyen Âge is not what in English is known as the High Middle Ages, since haut and bas mean 'early' and 'late,' respectively.

  12. Coby Lubliner said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 11:48 am

    I meant 1974, of course.

  13. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 12:07 pm

    For an alternative thesis as to the short 20th century, see the Ramones lyric "It's the end, the end of the seventies/It's the end, the end of the century." This from a song on the End of the Century LP, which was recorded (in famously weird sessions produced by Phil Spector) in 1979 and released in early 1980.

    Decadewise,although some may argue for a "Long Sixties," I think it has also been frequently noted that much stuff from '60 through '62 seems to fit stereotypically with "The Fifties" (as understood in hindsight), with the Sixties Proper (in the U.S.) really only getting underway in late '63 / early '64 with some combination of JFK assassination / Beatles on Ed Sullivan / Berkeley Free Speech Movement. (See also the British perspective set forth in the Larkin poem beginning "Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three / (which was rather late for me) – / Between the end of the Chatterley ban / And the Beatles' first LP.")

  14. Michael Carasik said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 12:11 pm

    James Kugel of Bar-Ilan University likes to say, “The 1st century is my favorite century because it’s 200 years long.”

  15. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 12:15 pm

    I understand starting the long 16th before 1500 because you want to capture Columbus / da Gama (I guess 1480 gives you some of the runup to da Gama, since the Portuguese progress was more incremental), but I'm a little fuzzier as to the choice of endpoints. If you're inwardly-focused in Europe without being country-specific, you need to either include the whole 30 Years War or none of it, I guess. But Darwin's 1620 is for what? Plymouth Rock? That's a pretty parochial milestone (not least because it ignores Jamestown). Publication of Bacon's Novum Organum?

  16. cameron said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 12:35 pm

    1620 saw the Battle of The White Mountain and marked the Bohemian revolt turning into general continent-wide war.

  17. Chris Eagle said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 12:48 pm

    Has anyone heard a similar phrase for the "nineteenth century" 1815-1914 of european political history?

  18. julie lee said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 1:06 pm

    From my non-scientific, autumn-of-my life, evening-of-life perspective, the days have been shorter, the months shorter, the year shorter, and no doubt the last century shorter. Is it me, or is the earth spinning faster?
    I remember how slow time was in my chlldhood.

  19. Jon Weinberg said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 1:07 pm

    Braudel used the term, in English, somewhat earlier — his chapter of the 1961 Columbia College student text Chapters in Western Civilization refers to "this immense drama, which I have frequently designated the 'long sixteenth century,' for it actually spans a period of 200 years."
    Sources: and (not including the relevant language, but confirming the 1961 date for that edition and identifying Braudel as the author)

  20. Bloix said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 1:16 pm

    Hobsbawm's "Short Twentieth Century" is a corollary to his "Long Nineteenth Century," 1789-1914, which was his main scholarly interest (see his trilogy, The Age of Revolution, 1749-1848; The Age of Capital, 1848-1875; The Age of Empire, 1875-1914).

  21. Fr. said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 1:39 pm

    Google Ngram returns the same hierarchy of “long centuries”:

    Figure here (drawn in R with package ngramr).

  22. Sili said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 1:53 pm

    Why "long" as opposed to "wide", "broad", "extended", or whatever?

    If we see time as something being traversed, it makes sense to call it "long".

    If we step outside and view the number-line from afar it might make sense to call a stretch of it "wide", but that doesn't fit with my internal representation of time.

  23. D-AW said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 2:59 pm

    > James Kugel of Bar-Ilan University likes to say, “The 1st century is my favorite century because it’s 200 years long.”

    If this is true, then James Kugel of Bar-Ilan University has an odd way of reckoning. By my count 99 BCE to 99 CE is 198 years (if that's what he's getting at by "200 years long"). And actually, if you're not going to differentiate between the CE and BCE, you'd have to say that all other centuries have 200 years in them, just in two non-consecutive sets of 100 years each.

  24. Grover Jones said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 3:15 pm

    @ D-AW

    But what about "year zero"???

    Just kidding.

  25. Rubrick said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 3:45 pm

    The way things are going, our current time period may well end up being known as "the fat century", but that'd be a little different.

  26. Uri said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 4:35 pm

    "The long Xth century" is translated into Spanish and German as "El largo siglo X" and "Das lange X Jahrhundert".

    I'd only encountered Hobsbawm's long 19th century before (from the French Revolution to World War I), but the long 18th century seems to be a thing in British history (from the Glorious Revolution to the Battle of Waterloo). Hobsbawm's short 20th century goes from WW1 to the fall of the Soviet Union—though I wonder if 9/11 might have been a more appropriate endpoint if he'd waited a bit.

    It's not clear whether Braudel's long 16th was bounded by specific events or whether that is a British obsession. Notably, the long 16th century does not start in 1492.

  27. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 5:42 pm

    Since Professor Kugel's own scholarship focuses heavily on the period between 100 B.C. and A.D. 100 (and hey, good for Bar-Ilan, I was not aware he had actually left the Harvard faculty for good a decade ago), his witticism actually has a fairly specific context.

  28. Eric P Smith said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 5:43 pm

    Sili said:

    If we see time as something being traversed, it makes sense to call it “long”.

    Strictly to traverse is to cross (Latin trans). If I saw time as something being traversed (which I don’t), it would make sense to call it “wide”.
    Ever wondered why we go across a bridge, and not along a bridge? Logically, we go along a bridge, and we go across whatever the bridge crosses.

  29. Matt said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 8:16 pm

    In Japanese, long centuries are nagai (and short ones mijikai), which corresponds to the standard spatial metaphor for time. The real interest is how you spell it: the Ministry-of-Education standard 長い XX 世紀 is by far the most common orthography, but there are a few holdouts sticking to 永い XX 世紀, based on the theory that the kanji 長 should be reserved for things that are physically long. (Similar to the 暑-熱 distinction for atsui, etc.)

  30. Garrett Wollman said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 11:05 pm

    I've certainly had arguments with friends about long and short decades in music, at least since the beginning of mass-produced recordings. It's good to know that people far more expert than I seem to have felt the same way. (What we think of as "the Sixties" in music really starts in 1963 and runs to about 1969. "The Seventies" ended in 1982, and "The Eighties" ended either in 1989 or 1991 depending on whether you think the emergence of hip-hop or grunge is what marks the end. It's a bit harder to demarkate subsequent decades, due to the fragmentation of popular music, but "The Fifties" probably run from about 1955 through 1962.) There are various theories about the reduced rate of turnover in popular music since the early '90s.

  31. LDavidH said,

    July 23, 2013 @ 3:24 am

    It's used in Swedish as well, literally translated from English. Sweden even had its own "long 17th century" when it was a superpower (1611-1721).

  32. deadbeef said,

    July 23, 2013 @ 8:31 am

    @D-AW, Grover Jones

    Because there is no year zero, usually when educated people refer to the "first century", they mean the years 1 to 100, not 1 to 99. But that is a rather trivial distinction, which is why it is more interesting to talk about "long centuries" bounded by interesting events rather than exact centuries bounded by numbers ending with two particular digits.

  33. Uri said,

    July 23, 2013 @ 10:04 am

    Did Braudel's concept of "la longue durée" influence the naming of "le long seizième siècle"? If so, that might imply a subtly different meaning to the phrase in French than simply "extended in time" (and typically bounded by specific events).

  34. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 23, 2013 @ 10:05 am

    There's a separate question (checkable in principle via corpus linguistics in dead-language corpora?) of when people became "century-conscious." Obviously no one at the time of Prof. Kugel's two-for-one "first century" was thinking in B.C./A.D. terms because the development of that reckoning was still a number of centuries in the future (before being anachronistically retrojected onto the period in question), but it's not clear to me whether e.g. Romans as of that time thought of the years 701-800 (or 700-799, take your pick) A.U.C. as constituting some conventionally/symbolically meaningful stretch of time. (I guess for many/most Jews of the time it might have been 300-399 or 301-400 of the Seleucid Era.)

  35. William Berry said,

    July 23, 2013 @ 10:32 am

    @Chris Eagle: Can't recall a source off-hand, but, if I am not mistaken, there is an even longer C19, running 1789-1914.

  36. John Roth said,

    July 23, 2013 @ 10:39 am

    I suppose it depends on what you're studying. For a lot of purposes, WW I makes a rather decent end to the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, but in the sciences a good breakpoint would be the discovery of radioactivity and the rediscovery of Mendel's genetics. In that frame, WW I is hardly a blip.

  37. Rodger C said,

    July 23, 2013 @ 11:48 am

    Ever wondered why we go across a bridge, and not along a bridge?

    The other day I heard an NPR reporter refer to that North Korean ship as "crossing the Panama Canal." Surely she meant "traversing." One crosses the Panama Canal at the Bridge of the Americas, formerly the Thatcher Ferry Bridge.

    @Chris Eagle: Can't recall a source off-hand, but, if I am not mistaken, there is an even longer C19, running 1789-1914.

    This was covered three posts below Chris Eagle's.

  38. Ben Hemmens said,

    July 23, 2013 @ 12:03 pm

    I definitely remember there being lange Jahrhunderte in a dozen-volume Suhrkamp series on Moderne Deutsche Geschichte I have, but the books were of such merciless turgidity that I'm not going to start going through them. Well, I got the boxed set out of a bargain basket and they are pretty rainbow colors.

    The contrast in style between these and historians writing in English such as Hobsbawm, Norman Davies, Roy Foster, etc. shows up a humungous difference in culture between German and English-speaking academia – not a flattering one for the Germans, I'm afraid. In German, popular books are written by journalists; real experts don't stoop to such things.

  39. Craig said,

    July 23, 2013 @ 2:16 pm

    In Portuguese you have "o longo século __"

  40. Oliver said,

    July 23, 2013 @ 5:05 pm

    The Romans had the institution of the Secular Games. They just didn't base it on the founding of the city.

  41. Ken Brown said,

    July 23, 2013 @ 5:30 pm

    I have a vague notion that talk of discrete centuries came into English-language historiography from Italian art history with its 1500s and 1700s. But I don't know where I got that idea from, or, if its true, when we started doing it.

  42. Jongseong Park said,

    July 24, 2013 @ 4:30 am

    Hobsbawm's "Long Nineteenth Century" and "Short Twentieth Century" have been translated as 장기 19세기 janggi sipgu segi and 단기 20세기 dangi isip segi respectively in Korean, using the Sino-Korean terms 장기 長期 janggi "long-term" and 단기 短期 dangi "short-term".

    I personally find this stilted, partly due to the repetition of the Sino-Korean element 기 期 gi. I would have preferred simpler translations like 긴 19세기 gin sipgu segi or 짧은 20세기 jjalbeun isip segi using everyday Korean words for "long" and "short". But the original translator obviously thought that it wouldn't be respectable as specialist terms unless one used big Sino-Korean words.

    Japanese seems to have 長い19世紀 nagai jūkyūseiki and 短い20世紀 mijikai nijisseiki, using everyday words for "long" and "short" instead of Sino-Japanese on readings.

  43. David Morris said,

    July 24, 2013 @ 7:34 am

    The dictionaries I consulted all gave 'century' as 100 years (or whatever else relevant). Maybe the 'centuries' of the Roman army had more or fewer than 100 men at various times. If 'century' can be a greater or lesser number than 100, then maybe Ashton Agar scored a century in the first Ashes test, and Joe Root scored a double century in the second. (Australians and Britons here will know what I'm talking about.)

  44. Samuel Cardwell said,

    July 24, 2013 @ 8:00 am

    @David Morris, I see your point, and appreciate the cricket reference! But a century for historians isn't just a unit of measurement.

    The idea of long and short centuries doesn't seem at all strange to me from a historiographical perspective. 100 years is basically a fairly sensible and natural length of time for the sake of periodization – more than a generation, but perhaps less than an 'era.' To say that the 18th century stretches from 1688-1815/32 is to acknowledge that there was a broad sense of continuity across this era (the Whig establishment, a gradual movement towards constitutional monarchy, the great rivalry with France etc.) and that it would be ridiculous for an 18th century historian to clock in at 1700 and clock out at 1800, two rather meaningless dates as far as British history are concerned.

    Incidentally, what about the Hundred Years War? Surely that's an even more silly case of people not being bothered to say 'the 116 years war' or rather 'the series of related conflicts that occurred over a 116-year period.' Sometimes you just have to go with what's convenient over what's mathematically accurate!

  45. Jongseong Park said,

    July 24, 2013 @ 9:41 am

    The title Septuagint given to an influential translation of the Hebrew Bible into Koine Greek derives from the number of Jewish scholars that prepared it according to legend (from Latin septuaginta, 70). However, the exact number of scholars involved was 72 according to at least some popular versions of the legend. If the Romans felt like rounding some more maybe we would know it now as the "Century".

  46. julie lee said,

    July 24, 2013 @ 10:15 am

    @John Roth says:
    "I suppose it depends on what you're studying. For a lot of purposes, WW I makes a rather decent end to the 19th century and beginning of the 20th."

    Bertrand Russell repeatedly mourned the passing of a more civilized age with WWI. My impression from him is that the 19th century ended with WWI. (I would say the Middle Ages ended in Britain and America with the decriminalization of homosexuality.)

  47. Akito said,

    July 24, 2013 @ 11:20 am

    Those concepts are translated into Japanese as 長い19世紀, 長い16世紀, etc. Upon hearing the terms, though, most people (non-historians) would interpret them in the same way as they would 長い一日 — an eventful day, not a day that has more than 24 hours.

  48. Faldone said,

    July 25, 2013 @ 9:08 am

    Then, the period from June 68 to Dec 69 was referred to by Tacitus as "that long but single year."

  49. Rodger C said,

    July 25, 2013 @ 12:03 pm

    @Faldone: Ah yes, Vitellius. Best known for his cotton. :)

  50. Evan said,

    July 26, 2013 @ 8:37 am

    On the concept of the 'long 1960s', from a British perspective, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (the proto-sixties movement) begins in 1958 and what Chris Harman called 'the British upturn' didn't really end until 1974, when Labour ushered in the 'Social Contract'.

    If the early 1960s are not part of 'the sixties', it might be worth considering whether the era from 1956 onwards is really part of 'the fifties' or is it a separate era as depicted by Dominic Sandbrook in 'Never Had It So Good'?

  51. Ian Mac Eochagáin said,

    July 29, 2013 @ 6:57 pm

    I've found some references on the Russophone Internet to the long 16th and 19th centuries. The latter is referred to in a Wikipedia article called "The Long 19th Century" ("Долгий XIX век") on Hobsbaum's work. It's interesting that Russian uses two words for long: долгий (dolgiy) for time and длинный (dlinniy) for distance, but the two are used interchangeably. I found both words used to refer to 'long' centuries when Googling.

  52. Richard Gadsden said,

    July 30, 2013 @ 6:03 am

    I expect that the twentieth century will be discovered to have ended in either 1991 (fall of the Soviet Union) or on 11 September 2001.

    Wouldn't surprise me to find that the 1991-2001 period ("the Clinton era"?) gets treated as one of those annoying intervals, like 1901-1914 ("Edwardian", "fin de siecle") that get tacked onto either the end of the period before or the beginning of the period after.

  53. ajay said,

    July 30, 2013 @ 10:44 am

    Maybe the 'centuries' of the Roman army had more or fewer than 100 men at various times.

    They contained different numbers of men at different points in Roman history – the best you can say is that they never contained 100. Under the late republic a century was 83 men – ten 8-man sections, plus a centurion, a second in command and a guard commander (except for the double-strength ones that were 163).

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