The Grand Unified Theory and the medieval chronicle

In particle physics, the Grand Unified Theory (GUT) is an attempt to describe all fundamental forces and the relationships between elementary particles in terms of a single theoretical framework. It is the single most challenging theoretical puzzle of contemporary physics. The puzzle of bringing everything together under one hat – a theory of everything.

If science teaches us anything, is that something comes from something else. Just like GUT posits that there was a ‘grand unification epoch’ in the early stages of the universe, so does the Grand Unified Theory itself comes, at a cultural level, from earlier human experiments of bringing everything together under one theoretical hat. While the Ancient Greeks provided some of the earliest examples of reductionisms (all matter and phenomena can be reduced to one element or several, to a principle, to conflict or cooperation), one of the earliest worked-out unification experiments was that of universal medieval chronicles.

Universal chronicles have been dead since the end of the Middle Ages. They are now studied as historical sources and as an important stage in the development of our understanding of historical time.

A universal chronicle aims to present the history of humanity as a whole unit. It embraces all known historical events as points plotted on a timeline and it attempts to bring them together in a coherent model. While X was happening in location A, Y happened in location B. Christ was born in Judea while Augustus was emperor in Rome and while other things were happening elsewhere.

Universal chroniclers acknowledge the ‘dissonance’ resulting from comparing historical sources but believe in the possibility of describing, like the GUT, the relationships between events in terms of a single theoretical framework.

Although universal chronicles emerge in the ancient period, they become popular in the Middle Ages. The modelling is theological: all known history, as well as unrecorded prehistory, falls under the 6 ages of the world: from Adam to Noah, from Noah to Abraham, from Abraham to David, from David to the Babylonian Captivity, from that to Christ, and from Christ to the present age, the last before the end of history and of the world.

Universal chronicles were the West’s earliest grand unifying theory of time. Like particle physicists, medieval historians working in this tradition faced many conundrums: what should year 1 be? Should we count the new year from 1 January or from Christmas, or from the Annunciation? What to do with all the contradictions in the sources? Or with material that simply doesn’t fit in?

Annotation 2019-10-30 110817
A diagram of the six ages of the world, Lyon, BM, 1351, circa 1430 AD

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