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Friday 22 July 2011

The Phantom Time Hypothesis

The latest issue of Fortean Times has another of my letters in it... or rather, the first paragraph of one of my letters. Originally it was the introductory preamble to a much longer letter about the "Phantom Time Hypothesis" (FT276:58) -- the idea that there was a grandiose conspiracy during the Middle Ages to fabricate three hundred years of non-existent history.

As it turns out, I'm rather relieved that the latter part of the letter didn't make it into print, because the theory was convincingly demolished by another letter in the same issue from Steve Moore (who points out that the so-called "Phantom Time" is a purely European phenomenon, which doesn't hold water if you look further afield).

What I said in my original letter was that (in my opinion) most supposed "top-level government conspiracies" are actually "bottom-level civil service cock-ups". The Phantom Time Hypothesis, if there is even a grain of truth to it, is likely to be an example of this. It's a theory for which the most persuasive evidence is actually lack of evidence. In the whole of Europe, there is a dearth of material that can be dated to the immediate post-Roman period: say AD 600 - 1000. Compared with the centuries flanking this period, there are almost no great buildings, no paintings, no engineering works, very few written records... not even much in the way of coins or pottery fragments. It's obvious that Europe in those days wasn't a place of soaring intellectual and cultural ambitions... so it seems pretty doubtful that its rulers would have been driven to concoct a sophisticated and complex conspiracy merely to fool later generations of historians.

What seems far more likely (I said in my letter) is that record-keeping during the post-Roman period became so vague and disjointed that, when later historians tried to make sense of it, they ascribed four hundred years of history to what had actually taken only one hundred years. This would explain why there is so little archaeological evidence from that period, and why the art and science of the eleventh century is so little advanced on that of Roman times (for example, the model on the left depicts the Roman temple complex in Bath as it would have looked in the fourth century AD... although in terms of architectural style and engineering principles it could easily date from six or seven hundred years later).

In light of Steve Moore's comments about Chinese chronology, it's clear that (no matter how incompetent mediaeval scribes and chroniclers were) there isn't room in the post-Roman chronology for three phantom centuries, or even a single phantom century. But the odd year or decade here or there... who's to know? Once an error like that took hold, it would be almost impossible to shake off -- no matter what new evidence was found. If a historian firmly believed he was living in, say, the year 1284, this would be the one "truth" that he'd never think of questioning -- any new historical evidence would have to be twisted to conform to it!


PoissonPete said...

Interesting. I've never come across this before.

Anonymous said...

"Steve Moore's comments about Chinese chronology."
Reference please.

Andrew May said...

Fortean Times 278, p. 73. Here are the relevant excerpts: "...Chinese historical records are complete, and the chronology well established, for the entire Christian era and some centuries before, and there are occasions where they intersect with European history... Friedrich Hirth (China and the Roman Orient, 1885, reprinted Ares Publishers Inc, Chicago, 1975, p. 42) quoted the official History of the Lower Han Dynasty as mentioning an embassy from the Roman emperor 'An-Tun' arriving in China in AD 166. This is usually thought to be Marcus Aurelius Antonius (161-180); in any case it would appear to refer to an emperor of the Antonine dynasty (138-192). If three centuries had been deleted from European history, the Antonines would have reigned from 438-392, making it rather difficult for them to send an embassy in 166. And three centuries before the Antonines, of course, there wouldn't have been any Roman emperors at all..."