Inventing the Middle Ages
The Phantom Time hypothesis, a conspiracy theory put forward by German academics to explain some three centuries that never actually existed.
Originally published in Fortean Times 276.
You know what they say about the early Middle Ages, don’t you? If you can remember them, you weren’t really there. However, if you could recall those times, was this simply because you had been making up the entire era as a state-enrolled forger? If so, this would be explicable by the Phantom Time Hypothesis (PTH), a chronological theory almost unheard of in its radicalism, and which has been propagating steadily through German academic circles since 1998.
Picture a medieval-style ‘Manhattan Project’ with scriptoria instead of hangars, and Gothic minuscule instead of maths. Holy Roman Emperor Otto III (980–1002) has engaged his theologians under the leadership of Gerbert d’Aurillac (later Pope Sylvester II) in a project that is among the most zealous and secretive of its kind since the facsimile houses of Alexandria were at their busiest. The gilding of narratives has many precedents in the writing of histories, especially self-aggrandising ones. But the one described by the PTH takes this art of embellishment up a few more notches: more than two centuries worked up from scratch, then infiltrated into as many chronologies as possible. Only a Middle Gothic or a Byzantine fanatic could have taken it to such lengths. But it worked. And as the traces were destroyed, the histories reconfigured and rebound, no one was any the wiser. At least until Heribert Illig and his adherents apparently figured it out.
Illig’s theory is rooted in the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1582. It had long been known that the old Julian calendar had a defect – the Julian year being roughly 11 minutes too long – and the new calendar was designed to correct this discrepancy, to the tune of making up for 10 days that gradually slipped during the years between AD 1 and AD 1582. But Illig alleges that the Julian calendar should have produced a discrepancy of not 10 but 13 days over the period in question, and concluded that roughly three centuries had been added to the calendar that had never existed. His response was to run with the notion of calendar “slack” and look for corroborative evidence.
The obvious period to look at was the most obscure one: the Dark Ages. Byzantinists and architectural historians are largely responsible for giving us the period from c. 600–900, about which almost nothing is known in cultural or urban development. The historical sources simply aren’t in the ground or the archives. This raises the ‘debate of continuity’, explained by groups of ‘Gradualists’ who bicker learnedly over whether the period happened so slowly that the participants hardly noticed it, or that it was a kind of torpid aftermath from Antiquity’s brilliance. The glaring exception here is the Carolingians, and the luminous figure of Charlemagne who is meant to have reigned from 768 to 814. Illig zeroes in on the polymath qualities of Charlemagne as recorded in various texts which make him an architect, astronomer, educator, philologist, folklorist, lawmaker and more. For Illig, “the conclusion is simple: far too much is ascribed to this one person.”
Speaking of these texts, Illig stresses that “[T]he number of genuine documents diminishes all the time. In fact, it’s moving towards zero.” The physical sources of this period are best embodied by the Aachen Palatine Chapel; yet its anomalies, which include a dome without a precedent (or a Carolingian successor) and the lack of a building tradition in the 400-year gap between the Romans and the Franks, makes Illig certain that: “Carolingian buildings do not fit into the history of the arts as it is taught today.” Taking the Palatine Chapel out of the Carolingian Renaissance removes the ‘ecclesiastical heart’ from the Frankish Empire [...] With the loss of this dome alone,” says Illig, “the tradition of Charlemagne’s giant empire crumbles to dust.”
Charlemagne (742/ 747/ 748-814)
Others who’ve taken up the Phantom Time Hypothesis find evidence from further east. Uwe Topper and Manfred Zeller use the PTH to resolve such problems as why the architecture of the Umayyads has untypical characteristics; why Arab coins under the caliph Abd al Malik bear the portrait of a dead King; and why the famous historical epic, the Shahnameh, wraps up in the mid 7th century AD, with a gap of 300 years to its time of writing in AD 1010, and has no allusions to Islam. From this they discern a phantom time period of 78 years that came into being “through artificial separation of the Persian and Umayyad history which in reality was contemporaneous”. This puts the origin of Islam in a bit of an awkward spot, but may at least remove some of the mystery from its near-miraculous success. The history of the dynasty of Harun al-Rashid, greatest of the Abassid caliphs, with all the expeditions he led and the diplomatic gifts he gave to Charlemagne (including a clock that dropped bronze balls into a bowl, and two albino elephants) were dreamt up at a scribe’s desk.
Phantom Time is also borne out by Jewish history, which “totally disappeared together with the breakdown of the Roman Empire”, not resurfacing in evidence until the Carolingian period. The difficulty Dr Hans-Ulrich Niemitz sees with archaeological sources, for which he cites the absence of German town stratigraphies from the relevant era and the achingly slow development of north German ceramics from the 7th–9th centuries AD, is that it is not dated independently of written sources. This contravenes proper archaeological method. Specialists referring to neighbouring disciplines to solve their problems, Neimitz argues, fall into circular reasoning, discounting the whole situation and thus missing the bigger picture.
Also discussed by Niemitz is dendrochronology, tree-ring dating. The field has only recently bridged all the gaps in European history over two millennia; but, says Niemitz, this achievement relies on far too few samples to date the Middle Ages. More pointedly still, in Niemitz’s view, Ernst Hollstein, Germany’s leading dendrochronologist, fatally changed the methodology by allowing the sequence samples to admit red beech (alongside oak) to bridge the critical 8th century with a sequence predated by historians. An archaeological no-no, you’ll recall. Hollstein despaired that: “It is strange, but it has proved extremely difficult to connect the Merovingian wood samples from excavations with the above mentioned chronologies,” and that “all attempts to get enough tree ring sequences from timber of the Carolingian times have failed…”
Illig offers hypotheses and suspects for this grandest of deceptions. The first is that Otto III had his teacher, Gerbert d’Aurillac, the best-read man in Christendom, direct the production and insertion of 300 extra years because he wanted to be ‘Christian Man of the Millennium’ in the year AD 1000 (in the event, two years before Otto’s death). Or did Constantine VII (AD 905–959) rewrite Byzantine history by having the monks convert every single piece of Greek majuscule into the new minuscule script, before destroying the originals, changing all existing texts in two generations, or even faster?
Niemitz’s two key questions are: when, how, and why was history falsified by 300 years, and how come scientists seemingly didn’t notice sooner? “The second question,” says Niemitz, “implicitly triggers the threat of a changing of the paradigms, which implies a threat to confidence in the work of all scientists working in historical research.” This could be a sleight-of-hand argument, when a more pointed question might be: what’s the point of going to all the trouble? What’s to be gained? If the Otto III scenario is to carry any weight, the question of motive cannot be brushed under the carpet, as Niemitz wants it to be. The Emperor must have been very concerned indeed about his image in history, since his bogus chronology could only have been written with posterity in mind. Why? Because the great majority of those who would have been able to consume it at the time Otto III was alive were already involved in faking it. Practically everyone who mattered within the Emperor’s dominion would have been complicit, negating its intended effect.
Perhaps this is beside the point. As exponents of the PTH are mindful, it is an idea that challenges what is considered to be immutable, exposing weak points and championing the need for more interdisciplinary study. There is also a call for research to be done outside the usual group, since, as philosopher of scientific breakthroughs Thomas Kuhn has explained, only a few scientists are willing to reopen research into a problem that the group considers to have been solved (sometimes on the word of a single expert). I suspect economists know well how true this is – as do forteans. Enough uncertainty exists over inconsistent Dark Ages knowledge, and how the evidence has been interpreted and assembled, to make such a project perfectly conceivable; and, in my view, more research across disciplines is a prime pathway towards gaining a better sense of how and why History comes into existence.
Illig alleges that the Julian calendar should have produced a discrepancy of not 10 but 13 days over the period in question, and concluded that roughly three centuries had been added to the calendar.
The history of the dynasty of Harun al-Rashid, greatest of the Abassid caliphs, with all the expeditions he led and the diplomatic gifts he gave to Charlemagne (including a clock that dropped bronze balls into a bowl, and two albino elephants) were dreamt up at a scribe’s desk.
1. Heribert Illig: “The Invented Middle Ages” (essay) bearfabrique.org.
2. The lack of physical traces of Viking raids in the Frankish Empire, for example.
3. Illig: Op. Cit.
4. The first Arabic dynasty, AD661–750.
5. Dr Hans-Ulrich Niemitz: Did the Early Middles Ages Really Exist?, rev. vers., 2000.
6. Cecil Roth, The Dark Ages: Jews in Christian Europe 711–1096, 1966, p162.
7. E Hollstein: “Dendrochronologische Untersuchungen an Holzern des fruthen Mittelalters”, In Acta Præhistorica 1, 1970, pp147–156.
8. Sir Isaac Newton was dissatisfied with the Classical Mediterranean chronology, changing the dating of the Trojan War and Rome’s Founding.
9. Thomas S Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press, 1970.