Contrary to what you might believe, you aren’t actually living in the 21st Century. Instead, you’re in the 1700s, and the reason that most of you don’t recognize this fact is that the elites of the early medieval period worked hard to deceive you. At least, that’s what German historian Herbert Illig puts forward in his phantom time hypothesis.
“There’s this outrageous claim that all historians have made a mistake and that we’ve all had the wool pulled over our eyes and that the chronology we all follow today is wrong,” explains David Hamon, an independent researcher who has studied alternative histories.
The phantom time hypothesis goes something like this: The Holy Roman Emperor Otto III conspired with Pope Sylvester II (and quite possibly the Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII as well) to doctor the dating system. The trio cooked the books to place their reigns at A.D. 1000, which they did because it is an auspicious number.
The three men added 297 years of bogus history to the early medieval period to facilitate this deception. That would mean everything that happened between A.D. 614-911 was a fabrication — no Charlemagne, no Muslim conquest of Spain and no Viking raids on England.
Illig maintains that the three rulers tinkered with documents at the time, made up historical events (such as Charlemagne), planted fake evidence to be dug up centuries later, and commanded their underlings to back them up. The evidence, cited by Illig, is a lack of original historical documents from the time period – also known as the Dark Ages in Europe — and alleged discrepancies between the Julian and Gregorian calendars.
Do any of these claims hold up against scrutiny? “Everything serious I’ve ever read about the phantom time hypothesis says it’s all rubbish,” says Hamon. “These claims really can’t be supported. Illig is just stirring the pot, and here we are discussing it, so I guess he’s doing well there. But no one has any serious evidence for this.”
In fact, there’s no shortage of convincing evidence to contradict Illig’s theory. First up, the hypothesis is incredibly Euro-centric. If it were true, there would also be 300 years of missing history worldwide, which would be evident from historical documents across Africa, Asia, Australasia, and the Americas.
The fact that these cultures’ timelines match those of Western cultures means that Illig’s theory is either incorrect or, alternatively, the elites around the world somehow colluded with the Europeans to cover up the lost time. That, we can all agree, is exceedingly unlikely.
Next up is the astronomical proof. We have evidence of solar eclipses and other celestial events in documents that predate the missing time period.
If the phantom time hypothesis was true, it would have distorted the chronology, and these events wouldn’t match up with our mathematical understanding of how the universe works. The ancient Romans, for example, recorded a solar eclipse in A.D. 59, and modern astronomers have since confirmed this date as accurate.
There are also archaeological remains that correspond with the written sources, and finally, dating methods such as tree rings and radiocarbon techniques don’t match up with Illig’s claims.
None of this is to say that the phantom time hypothesis doesn’t matter, though, because it has influence beyond those who believe in it, says Hamon.
“When people look to question the timeline and are forced to question whether the phantom time hypothesis could be true, it can ignite a cascade of questions. If the conventional timeline is wrong, then what else is wrong,” he says.
It’s a question of moderation, says Hamon. It can be helpful to question everything and go back to first principles, so long as we don’t get carried away. “General skepticism can [be] healthy if it’s applied with the understanding that we’re trying to work out the truth. I do think it’s healthy to question our assumptions, but if your objective is to manipulate, then that can be dangerous,” says Hamon. “Where does the phantom time hypothesis fit in? I’d say it’s more or less harmless.”