Lesson #354: The Phantom Time Hypothesis

I felt this was a rather appropriate topic for today’s lesson considering that our collective understanding of time is so skewed.

Let me start with a disclaimer: The Phantom Time Hypothesis is a revisionist history and something of a conspiracy theory — although I tend to think of conspiracy theories as having malicious intent, which this does not. As a historian, I really enjoy the concept of revisionist history (mostly…I have nothing nice to say about Holocaust Deniers). One of the most interesting conversations I’ve ever had was a three hour discourse with a friend in the Texas capital in which we discussed what the world would have been like if the English had voted to keep the sugar islands of Guadaloupe and Martinique, rather than Quebec, after they defeated the French at Quebec City in 1759.* But revisionist history isn’t, you know, real. So take all of this with the knowledge that it’s a fringe theory.

The Phantom Time Hypothesis was born from the great number of seemingly out-of-place medieval forgeries that historians have come across over the years. It proposes that the entire span of time that covers the Early Middle Ages (614-911 CE) were wrongly dated. Or simply didn’t occur and were added, either by accident, or misinterpretation or misrepresentation of documents, to the calendar after the fact.

By this theory, Charlemagne is a legend. And large parts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle are made up. And many, many, many other things happened by magic.

The hypothesis was put forward by a German scholar, Heribert Illig, in 1990, in response to the general problems scholars were having with dating (or verifying) documents from the Early Middle Ages. Illig’s evidence? The decline of knowledge and the drop in scientific and architectural advancement between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance (which is effectively what we know as the “Dark Ages”, though my medieval history professor in grad school hated that term), and the lack of archaeological evidence from the time. Illig also suggested that the adjustments made to time in the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar in 1582 are partially responsible.

Now, this theory is all well and good. Except for a few crucial points. 1. Halley’s comet’s set returns. Science says Halley’s comet has been right on time every time. If 297 years were misplaced, this would not be the case and science would be very concerned.** More importantly, 2. the world outside of Europe. Just because things might be a bit difficult to place in European history does not mean that the world outside of Europe doesn’t exist. For example, the Tang Dynasty in China (625 to 907 CE), which was a period of general stability and progress in China. Among the advances of the Tang Dynasty are gunpowder, woodblock printing, the re-opening of the Silk Road, the spread of Buddhism, and a strong maritime trade industry. It was also a golden age for Chinese art and literature.

But anyway, there it is. According to Illig’s hypothesis, this year is 1717. Welcome to 1717, friends!

For more, read here, here, and here.

*There’s a really great CBC documentary called Big Sugar — which you can watch here in full — that discusses how, despite the fact that the sugar islands were so much more lucrative a seizure for the English than Quebec, concerned about the potential for increased competition (and therefore decreased wealth), the English sugar barons in the Caribbean bought off MPs so they’d vote in favour of keeping Quebec — which obviously allowed Canada to become the country we know today — and turning Guadeloupe and Martinique back over to the French.

**If you’ve not read the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, it documents every single appearance of Halley’s comet for 500 years. I know this because I wrote a term paper on astronomical events in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in grad school.

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