History, that great chronicle of human civilization, has always been subject to scrutiny and investigation. Yet, for quite of lot of it we were rather bad at making sure we wrote down what was going on.
This has led to gaps arising in our historical knowledge, areas where we have to make guesses as to what was going on. This is particularly bad for ancient cultures who had yet to develop writing: not only did they not write down what they were doing, but they hadn’t even invented how.
So, a patchy record them, but this gives rise to stranger things than periods of silence. For instance, try this one on for size: some people think that 300 years of medieval European history isn’t real.
This curious and controversial hypothesis is known as the “Phantom Time Theory.” This captivating notion questions the very fabric of our historical timeline, suggesting the possibility that a sizable portion of our past might be nothing more than an elaborate invention.
Could it be that we have unwittingly conjured up nearly three centuries of medieval history? Or is it yet another crackpot conspiracy theory?
What is the Phantom Time Theory?
Phantom Time Theory is certainly calling into question the accuracy of our accepted chronology by quite a lot. Nor is this some kind of a misunderstanding, but a literal theory that three centuries of the European “Dark Ages” was fabricated and inserted at a later date.
The theory was first proposed in the 1990s by German historian Heribert Illig and posits that a large chunk of history (around 300 years) might be complete fiction. According to Illig, the years 614-911 AD never happened and didn’t exist as part of the medieval era.
Sounds a little far-fetched right? According to Illig’s theory important historical events, figures (like Charlemagne), and even entire dynasties (like the Carolingians) were purposefully fabricated by a group of powerful individuals during the early Middle Ages.
Such an audacious theory obviously needs evidence to back it up. Illig and the few other proponents of the theory have highlighted a range of puzzling historical discrepancies and anomalies to back up their claims. Their main argument revolves around the scarcity of tangible archaeological evidence from the alleged “missing years”.
Additionally, they claim there are inconsistencies in the dating methods used during the early Middle Ages, leading some to question the accuracy of historical records from that time. Much of this has to do with the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1582 and a 13-day discrepancy with the Julian calendar, which they think should be much bigger under the conventional chronology. Using their revised timeline with 300 years taken out reduces the problem.
They also believe that medieval historians relied too much on written sources rather than physical evidence and the presence of Roman-esque architecture in 10th century Western Europe proves that the Roman era is more recent that commonly accepted. But once you start contradicting experts on these things, you are on much less solid ground.
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There are further problems, too. All of this would mean that dating methods used today like radiometry and dendrochronology are inaccurate, or their results are being faked. Absent a global conspiracy of antique historians, or else an egregious misunderstanding of physics, it looks like those 300 years are real.
The Man Behind the Theory
So, who was Heribert Illig and why did he spend so much of his academic life arguing over a theory many historians find pretty laughable? Born in 1947, Illig devoted his academic career to pursuing various historical mysteries, which unfortunately propelled him into the realm of alternative history, or pseudohistory.
He was particularly obsessed with the medieval era and the multiple historical inconsistencies he felt he had found. These inconsistencies (like the ones mentioned above) led him to challenge the traditional timeline. This was nothing new for Illig, before publishing his Phantom Time Theory he had already pushed for rewrites for the chronology of Ancient Egypt.
While it would be easy to label Illig a conspiracy theorist, his motives were laudable. He was skeptical of the accuracy of historical records (all good historians should be skeptical of their sources), and he was determined to uncover truths that he felt had been concealed.
He believed that the prevailing chronology contained gaps and inaccuracies that required reevaluation. By questioning the legitimacy of the “missing years,” Illig sought to rekindle scholarly inquiry and reassess the foundations of our historical understanding.
It is also interesting to look into the implications of Illig’s theory. Let’s assume for a moment that Illig was right, and 300 years of history was essentially faked.
Why would anyone go to so much trouble to invent a period of history? Well, according to Illig it was mainly about politics and religion. He believed that three men were behind it, Holy Roman Emperor Otto III, Pope Sylvester II, and Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII. Their motives were straightforward.
Politically, they were looking to consolidate their positions. During the early Middle Ages, the consolidation of power was a turbulent and often treacherous process.
Fabricating historical figures, events, and dynasties could have been a strategic move to enhance the legitimacy of rulers and their claims to authority. By creating an illusion of an ancient lineage and long-standing traditions, the rulers could strengthen their grip on power and gain support from their subjects.
In an era where religion played a dominant role in shaping societies, the construction of historical events could serve religious agendas. Proponents of the Phantom Time Theory speculate that the alleged fabricators might have sought to align significant historical occurrences with religious narratives to strengthen the influence of certain religious institutions.
Finally, historical narratives often shape a community’s sense of identity and pride. By inventing or exaggerating historical achievements, these rulers might have aimed to bolster their cultural significance and foster a collective sense of purpose.
While Illig felt he put forward a good argument and he presented his theory with thought-provoking analysis, it faced immediate and substantial opposition from the majority of the academic community. In particular, historians and experts in various fields criticized the Phantom Time Theory as speculative and lacking credible evidence.
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Much of their argument boils down to the fact that while Illig claimed there was too little archaeological evidence that can be dated between 614-911 AD, some evidence is better than no evidence, which is precisely what Illig had. They argued that the established timeline, supported by extensive research and archaeological findings, is the most accurate representation of history.
It has also been pointed out that observations from ancient astronomy, especially those regarding solar eclipses cited by European sources before 600 AD agree with the conventional timeline, not Illig’s. An eclipse reported by ancient historian Pliny the Elder in 59 AD, observations from China’s Tang dynasty, and Halley’s Comet all support the conventional timelines.
There’s also the fact that radiometry and dendrochronology (counting tree rings) don’t support phantom time theory. Illig may not have trusted radiometry, but dendrochronology has been a method of historical dating going back to the Greek botanist Theophrastus in the fourth century BC.
If this wasn’t enough, Illig’s concerns about the introduction of the Gregorian calendar were also misplaced. The mathematics and methodology behind it are quite complex but essentially, Illig claimed the Gregorian calendar was meant to bring the calendar in line with the Julian calendar as it had existed in 45 BC. But it didn’t, it meant to bring it in line as it had existed in 325 AD (by which time various adjustments had been made).
Finally, Phantom Time Theory, like so many conspiracy theories, begins to unravel when you actually stop and consider its implications. If Charlemagne never existed and neither did his Carolingian dynasty, then all of European history during this period would have had to of been fabricated. This means faking Anglo-Saxon England and changing records of the Papacy and the Byzantine Empire.
But European history doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Phantom Time Theory also includes the life of Muhammad and Islamic expansion into the former Western Roman Empire, the conquest of Visigothic Iberia, and the history of the Tang dynasty and its contact with the Islamic World.
That’s a lot of history to “fake”.
Nice Idea, Though
While Phantom Time Theory still has its proponents (especially among internet conspiracy theorists) very few modern historians take it seriously. Illig continued publishing articles on his Phantom Time Theory until at least 2013 but there has been next to no scholarly reception to his work since 1997.
So, Illig put forward a thought-provoking theory, but it’s just that. It seems incredibly unlikely that he was right, there’s just too much actual evidence going against him. But this doesn’t mean Illig’s work wasn’t important.
Illig should be commended for challenging the historical record, even if his theory was a little far-fetched. As the old saying goes, history is written by the victors. Countless figures throughout history have twisted history to fit their nefarious purposes. Just look at Hitler and how he used the Ahnenerbe to “prove” his disturbing racial theories and support his Third Reich.
Today we live in a world where fact is often confused with opinion and where the internet makes it easy to spread disinformation. Even today in classrooms across the globe (including the West) false interpretations of history are taught. It’s more important than ever that we question what we are told, but we must rely on facts, not speculation, to do so.
Top Image: The Phantom Time theory suggests that three hundred of years of fabricated history was inserted into the records of the Holy Roman Empire by conspirators in 1000 AD. Source: LIGHTFIELD STUDIOS / Adobe Stock.