How could I have written a whole book about conspiracy theories without once encountering Heribert Illig? I just stumbled over a reference to his “phantom time hypothesis” and now I’m finding him everywhere.
A prolific crank in the grand tradition of Ignatius L. Donnelley and Immanuel Velikovsky, Illig has spent many years elaborating and defending his proposition that the years 614-911 CE were invented and inserted into histories ex post facto at the behest of Otto III. The present year is not 2010, but 1713; Charlemagne and Alfred the Great were fictional characters; the Viking raids never happened; etc.
Illig’s foundation for his theory are the presumed inconsistencies between the Gregorian and Julian calendars (which are in fact easily resolved); he criticizes historians’ over-credulous attitude toward written documents and points out inadequacies in dendrochronology and archaeological methods.
None of his books have been translated into English, though amusingly auto-translated reviews and summaries of some of them can be found here (“the book pleases me because of its detailedness; at the same time I recommend to bring along however a due portion of patience for everyone when completing”). From what I can gather, Illig has collaborators and defenders and apparently enjoys a significant following.
Though I hesitate to attack a writer that I haven’t encountered first hand, what stands out in both friendly and unfriendly descriptions of his books is how narrow and pedantic their focus is when it comes to evidence that supports their thesis, and yet how easily they dismiss the whole historical and archaeological consensus–not to mention thousands of years of astronomical observations–that contradict it. Illig assiduously points out the motes in establishment scholars’ eyes, in other words, while ignoring the planks in his own.
And he is, as this cogent criticism notes, almost absurdly Eurocentric:
For example, Mohammed either died in 614, a decade before he began dictating the Koran and 18 years before the history books say, or he lived until 929 A.D. I think we’d have spotted that already. The Phantom Time Interval completely encompasses the explosive growth of Islam. So one day it’s 614 and Mohammed is an obscure visionary trader in Arabia, the next it’s 911, and somehow Mohammed’s ideas have spread from the Atlantic to Central Asia. And Arabs have suddenly occupied Persia and Egypt, as well as Spain, and they’ve been in Spain for 200 years. They’ve also built the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.
The Phantom Time interval closely approximates the Tang Dynasty of China, a high point of Chinese culture and political power. So there’s a neat conspiratorial interpretation. The Tang Dynasty is an invention, a classic “golden age” myth. The only thing lacking is some explanation of how someone from medieval Europe convinced the Chinese to create a fake dynasty complete with bogus archives.
An articulate German student of American culture concedes that Illig’s thesis in some ways resembles conspiracy theory, but for that very reason urges the academy to receive him with an open mind. If Illig is right, he says, then everything we thought we knew is wrong. Scholarship would be revolutionized. “That’s why Illig matters,” he concludes. “That’s why he should be taken so seriously. He has posed a critical question which desperately deserves an answer.”
Unless of course it doesn’t.