Engaging with the public directly puts you in contact with a lot of interesting people. In the public lectures and museum work that I’ve done, I have met a large number of really compelling people, most of whom are more knowledgeable and passionate about history than the professoriate would fear.
But, as any public historian will tell you, occasionally you encounter a fun one.
One of mine occurred during the Q&A section of a public lecture I gave several years ago on the depiction of Robin Hood in film and television. In the back of the room, a perfectly normal-seeming man stood up and, with a twinkle in his eye that I couldn’t quite place, asked me a question that I won’t soon forget:
“What if it’s all a lie?”
I’ll admit, I didn’t quite know what to do with that question.
He then launched into a monologue describing a bizarre theory—one which I have come to find out is not just his own—that concludes simply: the Early Middle Ages did not exist.
This man was describing to me (and a group of increasingly confused audience members) the Phantom Time Hypothesis. In short, the Phantom Time Hypothesis, developed and promoted by journalist Heribert Illig and historian Dr. Hans-Ulrich Niemitz, posits that the historical period between 600AD and 900AD simply didn’t exist.
It’s a fascinating load of crap.
Essentially, they argue that 1) there is a lack of documentary evidence from that period in history (note: not true), and 2) there exist a few buildings dated to the 600s which seem to be well ahead of their time architecturally, that the best explanation must be that when the Gregorian calendar was instituted in 1582, the Pope (because of course it’s the Pope) Gregory XIII added 300 years for… reasons. Charlemagne, Alfred the Great? Fiction.
As crazy ideas go, it’s a fascinating one if you give it—purely as a mental exercise—the benefit of the doubt. It calls into question some of the most fundamental ideas about history—how do we know at what point in time we are? Now, of course, we have atomic clocks to keep us moored from one microsecond to the next. But in a pre-modern age could it have been possible for humanity to just forget a day? A month? A year?
The European calendar has been revised a few times; the various ancient Roman calendars were regularized in the Julian calendar, which was tweaked in Gregorian Calendar by about .002% (a difference of three days every four hundred years). This obsession with time, especially during the Middle Ages, was subject of much debate—particularly over the tricky subject of the date of Easter. Problematically, the Jewish lunar calendar does not map neatly upon a solar calendar—so the same date in each Jewish year may fall before or after the summer equinox (for example). This caused an incredible amount of headache for early-medieval scholars. Traditionally, Easter had been celebrated at the end of Passover (as one familiar with the biblical story expect). However, since that date was not at the same point in the solar year, Christians advocated for a break with the Jewish calendar. Thus, an entire branch of early medieval scholarship was invented: the Computus.
Several mathematically-minded monks each created their own Computus—complex algorithms determining the date of Easter. Along the way, one created not just a range of different ways of calculating the date of Easter, but something much bigger. In 525 (during, remember, the period of time that allegedly did not exist), Dionysius Exiguus, a monk from Scythia Minor (today Romania and Bulgaria) invented Anno Domini—A.D.. As in, “the year is 2016 A.D.”
Dionysius calculated that he was living in the 525th year from the birth of Christ, and it was his method of counting the years that has formed the basis of our current system.
Thinking that premodern people could “lose track of” a day, a month, even a year is to do them a disservice. It assumes that time—one of the fundamental features of human existence—was less meaningful for them. But that simply isn’t so. Knowing the day and the year is crucially important planning for the future and understanding the past. It is necessary to help the Church to know when to celebrate their feast days, for merchants to know when a contract has come due, and for a farmer to understand how long until the season turns. A person might lose track of a day, but people together, with all their interconnected relationships (and the evidence for those relationships that they left behind) won’t.
Medieval people may have conceived of the sweep of history differently—as some scholars have postulated—but that is not the same thing.
If you’re still not convinced (and the man at the lecture wasn’t), we actually have two scientific methods for knowing with certainty what year it is—a record of time that is not subject to the vagaries of historical people: radiocarbon dating and dendrochronology.
In short, radiocarbon dating relies on the fact that carbon-14—a radioactive form of carbon—is, in small quantities, in all organic matter. C-14 is steadily produced by cosmic radiation in our atmosphere. Plants absorb this radioactive carbon. Animals eat plants, and thus it goes up the food chain into all organic matter. But, when an organism dies, it stops eating, which causes it to stop taking in more C-14. Since we know exactly how long it takes for C-14 to decay into other elements, if we test the amount of it in some dead organic matter, it can offer a precise date of when it died. Its epigraph is written in radioactive carbon.
In some climates organic matter doesn’t survive the centuries very well. For those places, we turn to the science of dendrochronology: also known as tree-ring dating. This science is founded on the fact that trees are remarkably consistent. Trees of a certain species grow at more or less the same rate as the others in their species. And, each year of growth leaves a mark within its trunk as a new layer of growth is laid on top of the others. But the size and shape of these growth layers depend on the local circumstances—drought or flood, amount of sunshine, or other circumstances. When seen together, these rings create a scientific record of the years. Trees of the same species from the same region can be compared with one another to create a consistent, scientifically grounded record of the years.
So, when a tree is cut down and used—say, in building a 6th-century well—the tree rings tell us when that tree was cut down—in some cases telling us even whether it was cut in the spring or the fall of that year. If the wood is recycled in a later building it can provide a puzzle for archaeologists, but overwhelmingly, this provides a tool for remarkably accurate dating of archaeological sites where wood was used. Scientist-historians have created an unbroken catalogue in Europe that extends over 10,000 years into the past. When anchored with radiocarbon dating (since trees are organic), these chronologies become even more reliable.
These tree-ring dates have been pinned to human chronology through foundation documents, inscriptions on stones, and a bevy of other documentary sources. These have provided historians with a level of confidence in chronology that they never had before. In other words, where previous historians have had to take on faith (or not) that their sources gave accurate dates for certain events, for many, we can now know for certain.
And if there were three hundred years of “phantom time” in our timeline, we’d know.
One of the major problems with conspiracy theories about history is that they see people in the past as fundamentally different than us. Typically, stupider, more easily deceived, or uninterested in the world around them. Medieval people were different than we are, of course, in wild and fascinating ways. But their experience of their lives, as seen through the medium of time, left them just as interested in it—and worried about it—as we are.
Paul B. Sturtevant is Editor-in-Chief of The Public Medievalist. He is a researcher and historian for the Smithsonian Institution, where he helps the institution better understand its visitors and itself. He is an author, a medievalist, and a consultant, and has completed research projects as diverse as exploring the Caliphates of Muslim Spain, the history of American health care reform, and the peculiarities of American-style barbecue. He is unabashedly passionate about the place history has in current conversations.