Did the middle ages not really happen?

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Dear Cecil: I read an article recently about a man who says our current chronology is about a thousand years off and that the years between 500 to 1500 (to round it off) didn’t really happen. It’s a mistake made by historians. I kind of like this hypothesis because I never understood why there are no records for that period of time. Julie


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Excellent and, dare I say, timely question. There are actually two cryptochronology theories in circulation at the moment — I’m guessing you got them mixed up, and under the circumstances, who can blame you? The Eurocentric version, commonly called the Phantom Time hypothesis, is the work of two German historians of sorts, Heribert Illig and the late Hans-Ulrich Niemitz, plus several followers. They claim mysterious forces inserted 297 years into the calendar between 614 and 911 AD — in other words, what we’re calling 2011 is really 1714.

The Russocentric hypothesis, known as the New Chronology, is even bolder. Devised by the mathematician Anatoly Fomenko, a professor at the University of Moscow, and based on the ideas of the eccentric Bolshevik Nikolai Morozov, the New Chronology holds that everything we think we know about historical dating is wrong. Virtually all events associated with the ancients — the Greeks, the Romans, and everybody else — actually happened after the year we think of as 1000 AD.

Are these ideas crazy? Of course they’re crazy, although some of the details can seem eerie at first glance. For example, the Illig-Niemitz group makes much of the fact that in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII removed ten days from the newly reformed calendar to correct for the chronological drift caused by the old Julian calendar’s imprecise rules for inserting leap days. The Julian calendar had been introduced during the time of Julius Caesar, in 45 BC. However, a ten-day shift corrects for just 1,257 years’ worth of accumulated error. Subtracting 1,257 from 1582 gets us back not to 45 BC but to 325 AD. In other words, more than three centuries are unaccounted for!

No, they’re not, nitpickers have pointed out. Gregory’s ten-day correction wasn’t meant to get the calendar realigned with Julius Caesar’s day, but rather with the Easter dating guidelines established at the First Council of Nicaea. When did the First Council of Nicaea take place? In 325 AD.

The Phantom Time hypothesis doesn’t rest entirely on apparent oddities in calendar correction. Ultimately it arises from the same observation you make, Julie. During what we inheritors of the western European tradition think of as the dark ages, pretty much nothing seems to have happened. Think about what they taught you in high school history (assuming, which I suppose one can’t safely do nowadays, that you even had high school history). Rome collapses, passing mention is made of the rise of Islam, and the next thing you know it’s the Battle of Hastings and the Norman Conquest. It’s easy to imagine — well, maybe not easy, but possible to imagine that historians inadvertently inserted three blank centuries in our collective datebook.

Except for Charlemagne. Charlemagne is something of a problem for the Phantom Time hypothesis. The leader of the Franks consolidated much of western Europe under his rule in the late 700s and in 800 AD was crowned emperor of the Romans by Pope Leo III, all of it square in the middle of the intercalated 297 years. Illig explains this away by saying Charlemagne is an “invented figure,” that a famous domed chapel that was part of the Carolingian palace complex in Aachen couldn’t possibly have been built when everybody thinks it was built, and so on.

The larger issue is that the dark ages are strictly a Western hang-up. Sure, Europeans may have spent the medieval period engaged in nothing more ambitious than slopping the pigs. However, there was plenty going on elsewhere in the world. If we turn our attention a mere thousand miles to the east, we find the Byzantine Empire jousting noisily with the forces of Islam for control of the eastern Mediterranean during the supposedly mythical three centuries; meanwhile in east Asia, the Tang dynasts were presiding over a golden era of Chinese culture.

In short, the Phantom Time hypothesis makes no sense — not necessarily a deal breaker where popular beliefs are concerned, but this particular notion has gotten little traction. Compare that to the reception given Fomenko’s New Chronology. The theory is far too bizarre to explain much less refute here; nonetheless, in Russia Fomenko’s views have been widely disseminated — even chess luminary Garry Kasparov has seemingly embraced the idea that world history essentially started in 1000 AD. No doubt this stems from the fact that Russian history is traditionally held to have commenced in 862.

You see what’s going on here. Western Europeans have several centuries of underachievement to rationalize, but Russians face a still greater challenge. Fans of the New Chronology apparently reason as follows: our forebears accomplished nothing of note prior to 862; ergo, neither did anyone else.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.