I love a good conspiracy theory, so I was excited to be told of one last week that was new to me: the “Phantom Time Hypothesis,” which claims that nearly 300 years of history never happened. Under this theory, it’s not 2023; rather, we’re living in 1726. How fun!
The Phantom Time Hypothesis was proposed by German “historian” Heribert Illig in 1991. In short, his theory is that the years 614 CE to 911 CE were made up — that these “phantom years” were included in the calendar due to a conspiracy between the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III and Pope Sylvester II. Why would these historical figures add nearly 300 years to the calendar? According to Illig, it’s because Holy Roman Emperor Otto III wanted to rule during the important year of 1000 so he and Pope Sylvester II added 297 years to the calendar. According to Illig’s logic, Otto actually ruled around 700 CE but by adding 297 years to the date he was able to change his ruling period around 1000 CE (it was from 996 to 1002).
Wow. Interesting theory. But what’s his proof? Illig claims a number of things (source):
- That there is a scarcity of archaeological evidence that can be reliably dated to the period 614 CE – 911 CE.
- That the dating methods used for such recent periods, radiometry and dendrochronology, are inaccurate.
- That medieval historians rely too much on written sources.
- That the presence of Romanesque architecture in tenth-century Western Europe suggests that the Roman era was not as long ago as conventionally thought.
- That at the time of the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in AD 1582, there should have been a discrepancy of thirteen days between the Julian calendar and the real (or tropical) calendar, when the astronomers and mathematicians working for Pope Gregory XIII had found that the civil calendar needed to be adjusted by only ten days. From this, Illig concludes that the AD era had counted roughly three centuries which never existed.
Huh. Interesting points. Is Illig correct?
The chief reason why he’s wrong is that there is actually recorded history during this period. Notably, Charlemagne ruled during this period (768-814). Illig’s response: Otto and Sylvester invented Charlemagne to give credence to the 300 years that didn’t exist. This is silly. There is ample record of Charlemagne’s reign.
Plus, while there isn’t much recorded European history during this purported phantom time, other areas of the world, notably Asia and the Middle East, have substantial recorded history during this period, including the prophet Mohammed and the rise of Islam and the Tang Dynasty.
The final nail in the coffin is that astronomical observations confirm that 2023 is, in fact, 2023. Humans have recorded major astronomical events like comets and solar eclipses before, during, and after years 614 – 911, and all those observations confirm that there is no missing time — they all line up as expected.
So, the Phantom Time Hypothesis is cuckoo. But interesting.