The Bizarre (And False) Conspiracy Theory That Says the Middle Ages Never Happened

We’re currently living in the year 1725, not 2023. At least, that’s what adherents of the Phantom Time Hypothesis would have you believe. First put forward in 1991 by the German historian Heribert Illig and popularized by his sensational book The Invented Middle Ages: The Greatest Time Fake in History (Das erfundene Mittelalter: Die grösste Zeitfälschung der Geschichte in German), this historical conspiracy theory alleges that the years spanning 614 to 911 CE never actually happened, but were fabricated by powerful members of the medieval elite: Pope Sylvester II and Holy Roman Emperor Otto III.

Illig’s story goes like this: Sylvester and Otto, possibly in conjunction with the Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII, altered the medieval European calendar to align their respective reigns with the year 1000 CE, exactly one millennium after the birth of Jesus Christ, a significant date in a Christian society. Illig also claims the trio forged historical documentation to account for the “phantom” centuries, inventing everything from the Muslim conquest of Spain to the life of the post-Roman ruler Charlemagne. As support for his theory, Illig cited a suspicious lack of original historical documents from the early Middle Ages, as well as discrepancies between the Julian and Gregorian calendars, which he believes do not add up.

Pope Sylvester II (left) and Holy Roman Emperor Otto III (right).

The supposed co-conspirators: Pope Sylvester II (left) and Holy Roman Emperor Otto III (right). / Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images (Sylvester), Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images (Otto)

Though widely recognized as a baseless conspiracy theory, Illig’s Phantom Time Hypothesis does have its followers. One of them is Hans-Ulrich Niemitz, a professor of chemistry and former head of the department of the history of technology at the University of Applied Sciences in Leipzig. In a paper titled “Did the Early Middle Ages really exist?” [PDF], first published in 1995, Niemitz agreed that “between antiquity (1 [CE]) and the Renaissance (1500 [CE]) historians count approximately 300 years too many.”

Another prominent supporter of the Phantom Time Hypothesis is Anatoly Fomenko, a mathematics professor at Moscow State University. His so-called “Russocentric” take on the theory goes even further than Illig’s “Eurocentric” version, arguing that human history did not get started until the 800s, and that everything we think we know about ancient Egypt, China, Greece, and even Rome is but a “phantom reflection” of events that happened in the Middle Ages.

As the journalist Rex Sorgatz puts it in The Encyclopedia of Misinformation, which discusses the Phantom Time Hypothesis alongside other famous conspiracies, Fomenko’s attempt at collapsing history “like a folding map” completely rearranges the past. According to the mathematician’s alternative chronology, the New Testament was written before the Old, Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun are different names referring to the same person, and the Trojan War of Homer’s Iliad was part of the Crusades.

“Like every good lie,” writes Leland Renato Grigoli in Perspectives on History, an online magazine published by the American Historical Association, “the PTH has a small nugget of truth.” While there is no shortage of primary sources detailing what happened in Europe during the early Middle Ages, most of them are copies produced at later dates “as their originals faded, wore out, or just because their owner wanted to have another copy,” according to Grigoli. And because the originals have become lost or destroyed—whether through conflict, epidemics, or iconoclasm—it can be difficult to verify the accuracy of those copies.

This inconvenience lends the Phantom Time Hypothesis the faintest air of credibility. Unfortunately for its adherents, that credibility quickly dissipates when one considers other forms of historical documentation. The study of tree rings (dendrochronology) clearly proves that the phantom centuries did indeed happen, as do countless books, artworks, and artifacts from the Islamic Golden Age, the pre-Columbian Americas, and China’s Tang Dynasty—to name just a few examples.

According to Grigoli, the Phantom Time Hypothesis “is based … in a myopic, nationalist eurocentrism that has long defined the field [of medieval studies].” Illig’s Eurocentric version conveniently eliminates the early Middle Ages, “an exceptionally nonspectacular period of European history,” Sorgatz writes, that “happens to coincide with a massive Islamic flourishing throughout the Mediterranean and a golden cultural explosion in China’s Tang dynasty.” Fomenko’s Russocentric version, meanwhile, implies that the history of civilization starts roughly around the same time as the founding of Kievan Rus, the East Slavic state to which modern-day Russia traces its own lineage, in the 800s.

“Each hypothesis rewrites history to its advantage,” Sorgatz concludes.

One reason the Phantom Time Hypothesis has proven difficult to dispel is that evidence of its incorrectness can also be interpreted as proof of its legitimacy. By Illig’s account, artifacts demonstrating the Islamization of the Iberian Peninsula or historical documents chronicling the military campaigns of Charlemagne can simply be dismissed as red herrings planted by Otto and Sylvester.

“Counter-evidence,” Sorgatz explains, “evokes a new plot from a crypto-historian. Each historical refutation requires another for its support, leaving an entire chronological framework susceptible to implosion. No matter how convinced you are that Charlemagne existed, can you prove it? For that matter, can you prove anything that happened before you were born?”