Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Phantom time

The past is disappearing. We used to know the past but not the future. This is changing. We need a new theory of time.

(Don DeLillo, Cosmopolis)

Two hundred and ninety-seven years: from 614 to 911 CE. Three whole chapters of my high school medieval history book. Gone. The whole of European history between these dates is a hoax perpetrated by the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III with the help of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII (to whom he was related) and Pope Sylvester II, for motives that aren’t quite clear but may be as simple as Otto wanting to be Emperor when the odometer clicked from 999 to 1000, as opposed to presiding over the far more humdrum transition between the seventh and the eight century. To this end, or perhaps simply because he could, Otto had Constantine’s scribes and the Pope’s scholars make up nearly three centuries of European history, including a number of popes and kings as well as documents like the Polyptic of Irminon and the Capitulare de Villis, along with everything else between pages 86 and 166 of the book that I diligently read and underlined, like the rube that I am, as a teenager.

The theory is not entirely unique. There is the French classical scholar Jean Hardouin, who in 1696 put forward the idea that most of the ancient art and literature of Greece and Rome was manufactured in the 13th century by monks, while more recently Russian mathematician Anatoly Fomenko and others have proposed that there was no actual gap between the classical era and the Renaissance, and that our calendars should be excised accordingly of eleven centuries whose historical content and artefacts were entirely fabricated. The mere disappearance of 297 years from the least well-documented time in European history seems quite a reasonable hypothesis in comparison.

Still, placing a recall on those three centuries means getting rid of Charlemagne and a bunch of other kings and emperors as well as some sixty popes, some of whom have rather lengthy Wikipedia pages to their name, as well as earthly remains that are venerated as relics to this day, suggesting that the hoaxers were dedicated, inventive and resourceful in the extreme. For one can see how you might come up with a heroic and literally larger-than-life titan of history like Charlemagne (by the way calling his father Pepin the Short: nice comic touch), but filling in the biographical details of dozens of minor figures and planting the bones of the sainted ones in sacraria up and down Europe is the mark of a truly superior enterprise that will stand the test of time. Which it obviously has.

Charlemagne mourns Roland at the battle of Roncevaux Pass

The work of uncovering the elaborate plot fell firstly on German scholar Heribert Illig, who got his inspiration from a conference on medieval forgeries held in Munich in 1986. Illig was drawn in particular to what one of the presenters described as ‘forgeries with anticipatory character’, that is to say forgeries that would only prove useful several centuries after the document was produced. This either showed extraordinary foresight, reasoned Illig, or perhaps the intervening time was much shorter, enough to fall within the lifetime of the forger.

Another discrepancy that Illig observed concerns the transition from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, at which time Pope Gregory XIII ordered that 15 October should follow immediately after 4 October of 1582 to adjust for the slack accrued since the year 0 AD by the older, less accurate calendar. But since the Julian calendar adds roughly one day every century, then the number of lost days ought to have totalled thirteen, not ten – unless three centuries had been added along the way.

Having made these observations, Illig proceeded to look for the phantom centuries, and found them in short order in a period that has long puzzled historians for the lack of advances in technology and architecture, and is notable for having left so little in the way of buildings or conclusively dated written documents: we don’t call them the Dark Ages for nothing. Concerning the sensational exception that is Charlemagne, Illig observes that ‘his achievements would have required the lives of two, three, or four normal men’, and that if ‘too much is ascribed to one person,’ then maybe that person didn’t live at all. More damningly, his famous resting place – the Palatine Chapel in Aachen – is an architectural anachronism, a building whose features ‘have neither predecessors nor direct successors’, and which could therefore have been built either much earlier or much later but hardly smack in the middle of a three century-long historical blip, with nothing that resembled it in any way immediately before or after.

If you were unfamiliar with the theory, you may have come up with a bunch of objections in your head by now. For instance you may have recalled that the issue with the Gregorian calendar wasn’t to remove the days accrued since the birth of Christ, but rather restore the calculation of the Spring equinox used to fix Easter circa the council of Nicea, in the year 325 CE. Or you may have wondered what happened to the chronologies of the cultures that were in contact with Christian Europe during the Middle Ages, concerning which Illig says this:
This setting forward of the clock was taken over by others, especially the Jewish and Islamic cultures, without having to be ordered to do so. They, too, filled the invented time, which at first was empty.
Which rather begs the question of why these peoples and their rulers played along to Otto III’s peculiar and very Eurocentric obsession. Or you may raise the issue of the technical methods that are used to date artefacts directly (radiocarbon dating) or allow historians to cross-reference and corroborate their chronologies (recorded celestial observations). Finally, you may have rejected the premise out of hand for being bloody stupid, which is also a valid response.

Me, I’m fascinated chiefly by the idea that there are people out there, besides creationists, who seek to shorten our collective past, a move that I find oddly apocalyptic. (When civilisation comes to an end, we’ll lose less of it.) I’m also drawn by how the hypothesis forces you to think about what other ways there could be to recover that lost time if one couldn’t resort to historiography. It’s a bit like thinking of how you would go about deducing how the world works if somebody stole physics. And then there are broader implications concerning the social construction of knowledge, particularly in the context of historicity and new media. Illig may have failed to persuade the establishment that his ideas are worth spending much time on (‘at present, German medievalists, after several failed attempts at refutation, are no longer willing to react to my arguments’), but they do have some currency on the internet, including a remarkably sympathetic treatment in the BBC’s h2g2 guide. And after all what is phantom time if not internet time? That is to say infinitely malleable, existing solely through documents in a permanent state of flux that lack the means of external dating – for they are the world, dematerialised.

There might be future Illigs, some day, who will erase this century of ours.


Mike said...

I'd never heard of Carolingian creationism. It would be great to compare its tropes to those of biological creationists, particularly the willful blindness to obvious physical evidence that refutes it. Perhaps someone should try to get equal time for it in schools.

Giovanni Tiso said...

"Carolingian creationism." Very nice.

Tom said...

I demand this be taught in schools. After all, history is just a theory.

Ben Wilson said...

I'm already beginning to wonder if the 20th Century happened.

Greg said...

The 20th Century was when Foxes were invented.

I'd estimate about 2 years before that turns up in a school history essay.

Philip said...

There was also Velikovsky, who proclaimed that something similar had happened to the history of the ancient world (and whose books have wonderful melodramatic titles). He also assumed that the Bible is All True, but suggested natural explanations for the phenomena described, e.g. the fiery pillar which guided Moses and the Israelites was caused by Mars or Venus or some such object passing very close to Earth. Well, obviously.

Word Verification: Botifici. Misspelled Italian cobblers.

Megan Clayton said...


A man


He is confused.

He is found
as far away

as New Brighton.

His sons are veterans.
His sons are boys.
His son is dead.

His wives are dead.
His wife

will be in contact
with the hospital.

His son, later,
will never speak of this.

He will say
to his children,
my parents are dead

and that is that.

The records give up their trace.
The record gives us its sorrow.


A girl,
reared on Ladybird histories
of Kings and Queens

decides not to believe
in Charlemagne.

He is traversing
the pages
of History 125
with too much alacrity.

She cannot fit
his stride, his illiteracy
the theatre of his coronation

into pretend Europe.

It is easier to read
about the peasants
who yearly changed their clothes.


This room was built in 1972.
This grave was erected in 1895.
This memorial is for a child
who is not buried here.

The man's son is not where
it says he is.

The man's other sons are
not here either.

The room is called Science Two
but there is no science in it.
The girl is stacked beside a ream
of notes and textbooks.

She imagines the man,
imagining her.

She is the subject
of his dream.