Open chronicles in cloistered times

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An anonymous universal chronicle running from  Incarnation (year 1 in red Latin numerals) to 1141 AD, London, British Library, Cotton MS Nero C VII

There are many paradoxes out there, but they fall under our radar when we focus on the wrong points. Let me explain using a familiar example.

Most chronicles written during the Middle Ages were done by monks. By chronicle I don’t mean any history book, but those long compositions starting from way, way back and rolling down year by year to the chronicler’s last breath. Many are also called annals if they were updated annually and structured accordingly. In the year of our Lord 1000, this happened. In the year 1001, that.

One bestselling genre among producers and consumers of chronicles was the so-called world or universal chronicle – a pompous name, and I know what I’m talking about, having spent 4 years writing my PhD on one of them, and studying others thereafter. Let’s stick with the more pompous of the two, the universal chronicle and expose the paradox! But first, to write or to recognise a universal chronicle, you need the following:

  • a very distant past, or a past perceived as being distant. A founding moment, a point zero. The usual suspects are: the creation of the world, the Incarnation of Christ, the Crucifixion, or, closer to home, the founding of your monastery or a turning point in local history, like a Viking invasion or the death of a king. Warning, Anglo-centrism! So many monks and so many chronicles on such a small island. End of digression.
  • enough source material to cover the period between point zero and the year of writing. Anything counts as source material, but you may apply various notions of criticism to dismiss some and accept others. The devil is in the details of your compilation, and every monastery has its devils and compilations. Monks loved cutting and pasting more than any undergraduate student. You may acknowledge sources from time to time, even those which haven’t been used, as long as they make you look erudite.
  • the illusion of comprehensiveness. This is my favourite and it’s key to universal chronicles. The distant past meets the distant land. Universal chronicles seek to cover the news from every known place on Earth. – Bringing you live, with a delay of 500 to 1000 years, breaking news from Antioch, Jerusalem, Assyria, India, Africa, Egypt! Universal chronicles are histories of the world, all-embracing and the first pulsation of European cosmopolitism.
  • a very simple style and an excess of the conjunction AND: And the Great Heathen Army attacked AND the monks fled AND the monastery was burned AND we all felt bad about it. Aim for an 80-95 score on the Flesch–Kincaid readability test.
  • anonymous authorship: don’t let anyone know who wrote your chronicle. Most chronicles from 500-1250 AD are indeed anonymous, written by obstinate authors who didn’t give their name. While this practice was largely intended to comfort the monk’s sense of humility, it fans the flames of pride of discovery for countless modern researchers, yours truly included, who manage to snatch the coy monks out of anonymity and show them for the authors they are, name and all.
  • updated versions. Some books stay alive because people read them. Medieval chronicles stayed alive (for a while) because monks updated them. One monk may end his chronicle in 1225 AD, but then it is picked up by another, edited and continued till 1300. Open-source and open-ended, universal chronicles are the ancestors of Wikipedia and Creative Commons.

Did I miss the paradox? Not really, here it is, and I call it the paradox of the universal chronicle, you can quote me on that. With very, very few exceptions, universal chronicles were written by monks cloistered in monasteries, on voluntary house arrest. They had access to relatively few books for their immeasurable ambition to put together a universal chronicle. They had little to no travelling experience, they met very few people in their lifetime (ok, forgive my wild generalisation, but most of them did, anyway), and their notion of tourism was framed by the ideal of a pilgrimage to Rome or perhaps Jerusalem. Yet, and it’s a big yet – they lived and breathed under the sign of eternity, of infinite time and infinite space. Confined as they were and reduced to a few miles and a few years, their spirit was roaming free and, if only for an instant, their humility went to sleep allowing them to dream of places they’d never visit and times they’d never understand, and in the end, write a universal chronicle, which for many of them would be the last thing they’d ever do.

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