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On Heribert Illig's Theory of Invented Time

Section Index

  1. History, Historiography and Time
  2. In Favor: For Discussion
  3. Against: Circular Argumentations
  4. The Appeal of Conspiracy Theories
  5. What Remains

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1. History, Historiography and Time

History is a social science recording and analyzing the past. History is the link to our ancestors, the one we ask for information when we want to go back in time. Yet history is also historiography, it is history written down, narrated, traded over from one person to another, it is a product produced by human beings, thus subject to interpretation, selection and canonizing. History is also tradition, depending on traces left over for subsequent fixation and analysis. History can rely both on textual sources as well as material ones, both having advantages and disadvantages.

History, however, is most of all depending on one crucial instance: Time. History is also chronology - it is events listed in a static and reliable way, it is a strict logic of before and after.

History is also the history of persons, of persons considered crucial for whatever interpretation's sake, persons standing out in the abstract concept of national or world history, persons like Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, Washington, Lincoln, Kennedy or Gorbachev. History linked to persons both makes it more accessible, more human, for the average recipient, as well as it creates heroes out of ordinary people.

Yet when history cannot anymore be truly a field of academic and scientific research, as it is far too often regarded as tradition, certain stereotypes and simplifications - and also lies - will live on and on, although they surely ridicule the academic field behind. History is a merger between fact and fiction, between actual truth and myth, where nothing really can be seen "as it is" - and truth and lies are often just a matter of degree. Yet from this philosophical, perception- and authorship-oriented post-structuralist point of view, this is true for almost everything, following a straight line from the Platonian critique of writing.

Sometimes this receptional relativism can come down to actual hard choices between the truth, more or less, and outright lies. Is something recorded perhaps wrong, a deliberately false account of something allegedly true? Especially Medieval history is full of forgeries. Documents have often been created in the aftermath, fixating the status quo in a written way to counter newly-made claims or demands. A monastery may have "created" a document illustrating the purchase of lands previously in its possession in order to justify its claims. Forgery thus doesn't have to constitute an outright lie, often its occurrence can be explained through the introduction of writing into a prevaling oral culture. Yet that doesn't exclude real forgeries, and for a historian, it can be utmost fascinating to discover the "actual truth" behind an event, deconstructing myth and creating history.

There are small forgeries, large ones, and huge ones. Heribert Illig, a German arts historian, claims to have discovered the ultimate forgery: The invention of more than a quarter millennium in the Middle Ages, somewhere between 700 and 1000 AD. This would ultimately question the identity of one of the above mentioned icons and heroes of history: Charlemagne, coronated 800 AD, the founder of Europe, the emperor who restituted and resurrected the Roman title of Emperor for the West, the Emperor who created the working relationship between Roman Church and Imperial rule, a relationship forming Europe till the Reformation.

Illig's first book presenting his thesis[1] thus mainly deals with deconstructing, or rather, destructing this icon, not quite unconvincingly, however, failing to present the grander scheme, the larger and global scope. This took place in his subsequent book[2], putting the thesis to the test of time and place, taking into account also scientific and academic analyses and aspects. For him, there can be no doubt: The time in question has never taken place, moving the 21st century into the 18th.

It is unsurprising that such a thesis would create quite a turmoil not only in the academic and scientific community. It is, however, somehow a natural process that there can be theses which may challenge the prevaling point of view. Yet Illig is not part of the established academic and scientific community, he's an outsider, which makes it different for him to get accepted. Even more so, this is complicated by his manner of presentation, lacking the necessary self-doubt and methodical reflection.

The task of this essay will be to try approaching this topic from a benevolent point of view, ignoring the outsider status of Illig's, focussing the discussion not on himself as a person, as it is often, sadly, done, but on the thesis itself and the way of presentation.

March 31st, 2001

2. In Favor: For Discussion

When somebody has been so desperately thrashed by so great many people, you somehow wonder if they shouldn't be right, but from a critical perspective, you perhaps even more suspect the opposite to be true, or rather, more true at least. Approaching a thesis as radical as Illig's may perhaps best be done by imagining beforehand the criticism it may invoke, and put it in perspective. It can come as no surprise that traditional thinking cherishing the Medieval building blocks of Europe would be furiously opposed to his notion that Charlemagne is a character of fiction more than fact. It can come as no surprise, also, that Illig chose to attack precisely that figure in his first book to establish his thesis. Charlemagne has become the godfather of the European Union, the founding icon of the Roman-Franco-Germanic Empire in union with the papacy, the restorator of the West Roman Empire, the one who has finally brought the idea of civilization, i.e. the Roman idea of civilization, to the barbarians of the North. That Charlemagne was a magician, himself barely literate, creating an empire out of nowhere, creating culturally highest forms, like his Palatine Chapel, quasi out of nowhere, and with no real precursors, with everything coming after him being not quite so elaborate, and most obviously, his reign coming out of nowhere and going nowhere. The evidence Illig quotes to illustrate the absurdities in both the common and the academic understanding of Charlemagne is so striking that it does need further attention.

That is not to say I believe him to be entirely right in his assumptions, yet for the sake of argument, let's just concentrate on a more benevolent perspective for now. The factual basis he collects is striking, to say the least, in both books. He illustrates quite authoritatively - which is part of the problem - how a certain scheme tends to repeat itself within the histories of several nations. First, you have either total chaos or total silence. Then, out of the darkness, a shining hero appears, out of nowhere, pulling the strings and establishing a glorious rule. That having lasted for a short while, the region falls back into a similar apathy like the previous one, until it comes to new glory, only much slower, under a subsequent ruler. All the inventions and achievements of the figure of light in between could very well have been invented beforehand or afterwards, as all his knowledge is lost. The greatness of his "golden age" has to be "recovered" - which could just be a term for its invention in the first place. Usually, such tales are placed at the beginning of written culture, coming out of an oral culture. The "Golden Age" described by Ovid, "El Dorado", variations on a "Paradise" theme, the Tower of Babel; utopian places either loosely or not at all rooted in factual history, but rather illustrating the dreams and political ideology of the people who purported such myths and enlarged them. Sometimes, real conflicts or heroes may have been exaggerated, sometimes, a slow and gradual development was enlarged to make it more telling. Thus the Aeneas myth and the Romulus/Remus tale for Rome, drawing on Homer's Ilias, itself possibly drawing on a - probably much less grand - real war over Troia. Thus also the invention of Lykourgos as the founding king of Sparta. Thus the heroification of people like Napoleon, Washington, Jefferson and Gandhi. What has been done way past, what is being done now, the mixing of fact with fiction, the "mythification" of history, why shouldn't it be part of the time in the middle, the Middle Ages? Why should cultural interpretation suddenly cease to exist?

Yet still, there's something different at work here also, an atrocity perhaps even: Here it is not about the beginning of civilization. It is not about ancient cultures, it is about a time not too remote from our own, a time past the Roman Empire, a time where a writing culture and a culture of literacy already existed. It is not - in Illig's understanding - the mere exaggeration of a factual basis, it is something like a combination of some truth with a whole set of outright lies - a founding myth serving both an Ottonian and a Byzantine regime, something of a conspiracy even, a conspiracy to create about 300 years of history to conceal some very embarassing facts in relation to the battle between Christianity and the Islam, to exaggerate one's historical precursors, to come closer to a magical year 1000, a year of change, a millennium that could bring religious revelation and the apocalypse.

How could that possibly have been done? Manipulating the entire concept of historical time, enforcing a set of new truths which were to replace what was commonly known? Commonly known - that's perhaps the key issue at work here. What we have now, a convenient system of chronology, the BC/AD dating, was probably one of the least common systems around the time of discussion. Instead, there had been a mixture of various chronologies, different not only from state to state, but also containing different chronological traditions within one state. Time was counted by the duration of the reign of a king or pope, an emperor, or a consul, there even was the somewhat artificial construction ab urbe condita, counting from the foundation of the City of Rome, traditionally defined as having taken place in 753 BC. The BC/AD chronological system was to originate much later[3], and was not that widely in use even then, only around the first millennium and after that, it was taken up more widely. That means: If - I'm talking hypothetically here - if someone were to have manipulated that system, it would have had to happen before that, not much later. Thus the window of opportunity, as one could call it, was still open. And if you take into account the persons who were actually able to write, the different systems of power in use, the different traditions from region to region, you could perhaps say that - with some central guidance - the introduction of a new system of chronologizing events, and the creation of a new writing culture and a new way of writing in the Byzantine Empire, and given the close link between Constantinople and the Ottonian regime, such a manipulation may sound a bit more possible.

The examples and bits and pieces provided by Illig's meticulous research, especially in the second book, are too striking to not be at least taken under consideration. Academic thinking does not just come from a civilized exchange of carefully weighed and balanced, unprovocative texts - it may even more so be driven by some kind of violent outbursts of a very provocative nature. The scientific and academic process then means to deal with such radical theses and to examine them under great scrutiny. No matter how provocative - even insulting - a thesis may seem, if it comes up with a sufficient body of evidence, even some intelligent speculation, it has to be talked about - talked about, not just against. Thus any thesis, however strange and perhaps not being academic itself, or coming from an outsider - can be as valuable as any other, the failure comes not with the thesis as such, it comes with the ignorance that just dismisses possibly valid points for discussion on the grounds of some secondary doubts and due to a traditional look on things.

July 19th, 2001

3. Against: Circular Arguments

There still remains, somehow, some considerable methodological problem with the approach used by Illig. Of course, scientific and academic writing mostly originates from having formed a thesis in one's mind and then trying to either see it confirmed and supported - or falsified. That's the normal flow of things. Yet to remain academical means to approach your topic from both those sides. You may tend towards defending your thesis, you may want to make a provocative argument, that's fine, and it also allows true dialog to ensue. But presenting your thesis boldly and presenting it one-sidedly, that's two very different things. Also, you don't just jump to conclusions the first time you may see them fit, especially not when they would be of such a huge dimension as those drawn by Illig. That's not only a matter of academic seriosity, it's also a matter of psychology. If you want to present your thesis, you surely want to communicate something to somebody. It is not just the writer who's the focus of the text, it's the reader also - which means, you have to take into account the possible reactions of a possible audience.

That means, first of all, being extremely cautious and careful when presenting your facts, your evidence. Communication doesn't work when it is done in a brutal way, that only leads to friction, to inimical reactions, to ignoring the facts altogether and focussing on external and superficial elements. In that, Illig - in my judgement - commits a grave mistake in his first book when he boldly declares that his findings would without doubt not only support but - even more - primarily enable his conclusion that the BC/AD chronology is a quarter millennium too long. His first book mainly discusses Charlemagne and his surroundings. He may be very substantial and meticulous in his research, but the data basis is simply too small, to exclusive, too regional to support such a general statement. The findings of his first book can only mean one thing - the possibility that something might be wrong within Western chronology, and that the evidence for that is so striking that further research - on a greater scale - could possibly provide the basis for formulating a theory which then could lead to establishing his thesis. Taken both books and various other studies in his related journal Zeitensprünge together, and putting the thesis with all its implications at the end of that process would not even make a much stronger case, it would also provide his writings with a greater sense of scientific and academic seriosity.

Why bother? Is it just the concern for a possible audience which would necessitate such a strategy? Is it just something you do for effect, to appease the critics, to bring them "on your side"? Not at all. I may have overstressed the communicative aspect here, but the problem seems to go even deeper. It is the philosphy, the method behind which makes something more academical or less. It's the honest concern for scientific and academic seriosity. There's a profound reason for being cautious: The approach chosen by Illig may be seen as a classical case of being caught in the trap of a circular argument. The evidence will manifest itself when the premise is set, the facts speaking in favor of a thesis mentally validated beforehand will be used, the facts to the contrary will be ignored. Research may be biased, but it must never be uni-directional. The result of research has to be open, you must have accepted the idea that you could be wrong. A healthy dose of self-doubt is maybe the primary ingredient of scientific and academic writing: Otherwise, you might run the danger of getting lost in your narrative, of ignoring possible evidence to the contrary - unconsciously even - and thinking in categories of friend and foe, of taking everything personal. Academic writing has to stand beyond that. It has to be a search for the truth, and only for the truth. Personal preferences and overly quick conclusions have no place in such a quest. Truth knows no outsiders, knows no disgrace, knows nothing like personal honor, stubbornness, inconveniences.

That, of course, is true for both sides. It is easy to disqualify Illig's thesis as a circular argument, but only if you look at the method applied to his books. But on the other hand, the narrative to the contrary is what is commonly known, it is what can be found in history text books all over the world. Also, the evidence he has found is by far too numerous and revealing than to just dismiss it condescendingly, as it has been done by the academical "establishment" time and again. Illig may have made some mistakes in the manner of presentation, but he is no Erich von Däniken. Illig cannot be truthfully accused of just being interested in the money and publicity he may get from writing such books. His interest is a deeply serious academical one, his problem may be that his style seems a bit impatient. Maybe that comes from being bashed all the time. It surely is no sufficient reason to just cling to the traditional historical narrative. That very narrative in itself can be called a circular argument also: It uses a set of variables traded over from century to century, erected upon a not too solid factual basis. In fact, the deeper you dive into the sea of historical narratives, you will recognize how shallow they become. There is a point to Illig's method. He is rightfully putting his finger on a situation which - not only academically - can be said to be very problematic, if not more. The blind acceptance of historical narrative as fact is no option either. And especially the period attacked by Illig's research is one of the most problematic ones in history. There is reason beyond Illig to conclude that something could very well be wrong here, the evidence for that is quite telling.

Thus the alternative to Illig's discussion can be anything but falling back into assumedly proven paths. There is no going back to normal after Illig. That is not to say that his conclusions would have to be correct, neither do I advocate the opposite. As said above, research has to remain neutral, non-teleological. The outcome cannot be fixed beforehand. A provocation like that put into the game by Illig cannot go unanswered, cannot go academically unanswered. Yet sadly, most replies to his efforts completely lack an academic basis, and are just retributions for an alleged insult to the historical profession. There's no such thing. If there is an insult, it is the reaction of the academic and scientific community. That is not to say that Illig would not have any followers, or at least people who'd like to listen to him with an open mind. But scholarship is not unpolitical. The policy of "established" historiography is to not accept something like that, especially if it is coming from an "outsider". There's something wrong with that picture, severely wrong, and the question somehow comes into mind, what the purpose of such a negating could be. The harsher the criticism, the more it has to be taken under close observation. Sometimes, such a harsh reaction means that there could be something wrong indeed.

July 20th, 2001

4. The Appeal of Conspiracy Theories

There is one very critical point in relation to the issue which has not yet been discussed, to my knowledge. Scientific research is far too often accepted as a given, accepted as something which is just happening for its own sake. Criticism almost always only goes into a direction which tries to devaluate certain works or theories on the ground of their allegedly being unscientific, unacademic. But that is a far too simplistic approach. In addition, it should not be that new to try to make a point in stating that nothing just happens to be the way it is. There's some kind of motivation behind everything, and if it's neither an outright political agenda nor clearly visible and articulated ideological points of view, that doesn't mean that there would be no opinion behind a text. Everything is biased, one way or the other. The bias I'm referring to, given the example at hand, is rather something having to do with the mind-set of each party involved, with the mental and intellectual and emotional acceptance to whatever approach.

That may sound a bit awkward, and maybe it is. But let me explain. I tend to view almost everything as a question of belief, not in a deeply religious sense, but in a sense of being able to accept something as true, or reject it as false; and - more importantly - the readiness to jump to either of those poles, the eagerness to take sides, the degree of hesitation involved when we make a decision which way to pursue - or neglect. Put differently, it is the ability to reach and maintain professional detachment under such conditions. That may be one of the most sincere definitions of scientific and academic research even: The ability to keep an open mind, and not let your research be fooled by the urge to take sides. It doesn't matter what anyone believes to be true (well, in discourse, it does) - in science and scholarship , it should be about what answers the factual basis yields. No "side" of the argument should by default be accepted as truer, more established, more appealing. Tradition, narrative authority, "common sense"; those things are not supposed to matter. It may sound terribly archaic, maybe naïve even, but scientific and academic research is supposed to be about the truth, about the objective truth, at least, about a truth which can be said to be more objective and less subjective than others.

What I'm aiming at is to try to narrow the issue down to two sides; which - of course - is a grave understatement, and a simplification. I'm aware of the constructivity of such a dichotomy. The sides - or rather, questions - could be:

  • Is it so impossible to just rely on common sense, suggesting that this cannot be, that this is so outrageous a claim, brought about in such a direct, uncautious manner, that it's just too much?

  • Or is it better to show an intellectual attitude embracing all radical theses just for the sake of being radical, implying that radicality of mind be progressivity, that rejecting such a proposal would be conservative, even reactionary?

These sides I see not as clear-cut fronts in the academic and scientific community, I see them rather as a psychological battle inside, as a fight within, battling for the point of decision. I would like to argue that none of those sides can be the ultimate answer, not in a separate way. Taken together, they can establish a working relationship. Maybe scientific and academic research is like an idealized parliamentary democracy, a dialectic, communicative approach (following Hegel, not Marx). But that dialectics should not only take place in the grander scheme, it is something inside the head, something a priori to the actual communicating with others. Science thrives on controversy. It should also thrive on dialog, on a common interest to find the truth. It should not be obscured by an absurd division of the academic and scientific community into factions or fronts. Opposing opinions should never lead to anything like the almost scandalous battle between believers and non-believers, categories which are absolute non-issues in scientific and academic discourse. And sadly, most of the arguments can be said to be driven rather by belief (or wish-belief) than by the desire to actually arrive at any kind of truth, by critically examining everything with utmost scrutiny.

Don't jump to the conclusion that all my criticism would intend to hit any faction in particular. What is true for the non-believing party is also true for the believing one, especially given the growing fascination with any kind of conspiracy theories lately. This may be illustrated by the never-ending discussion surrounding the death of John F. Kennedy, it is also fueled by any kind of alleged alien abduction stories and the not less alleged involvement of a construct called the "military-industrial complex". Politics is easily seen as a field of conspirators pulling the strings behind official channels, a perspective furthered by known cases of corruption on the highest levels of power. The overall impression created by this complex web of sentiments and rumors is that of "you are being lied to"[4]. Authority not only isn't trusted any more, it is distrusted by default. Establishment, once a category of high social prestige, has become a derogatory term. Anything coming "from above" deserves an opposition. While that may be a healthy corrective to blindly trusting the authorities in whatever field, following the general post-structuralist critique, it can also lead to a sense of pursuing a kind of radical deconstruction for its own sake, a deconstruction which no longer has an academic agenda, which is no longer interested in finding a truth, but whose sole premise has become that of finding something different. Yet being different isn't necessarily being truer.

Taken this kind of millennial fascination with the unexplained (which, I have to admit, is shared by me in part), and transposing it into other fields and times, Illig's thesis can very well be seen as containing some classical elements of a conspiracy theory. And if you don't trust the authorities now, why should you trust the authorities then? It is, to repeat myself, a matter of setting your default position, of setting your agenda, of what becomes your "opposing other". This then would determine your line of argument, the frameset of research, would determine the points of attack, and the line of defense. In the end, nobody is talking to anybody, and everybody is just talking to themselves. That's not a very helpful approach, for neither "side".

July 25th, 2001

5. What Remains

The task of this essay hasn't been to determine whether Illig would be right or not. That's not the issue at hand, and neither can this question be answered exhaustively in such a short attempt, nor has there been sufficient research yet. Also, even if someone were to find out that certain astronomical data (which would have to be reliable) could seriously counteract Illig's time frame, that would still not answer the question. The question isn't just whether a single person is right or wrong, the question addresses the very validity of Western-based history.

If you look at the issue in detail (and that's the core of what Illig does) you'll soon find out that everything is much more complicated than it looks, that the depths of historic data are much more obscured than anyone could possibly imagine. What Illig has dug out is something which used to belong to a very small circle of specialists for special issues within Medieval history. Anyone coming from the outside has to cope with lots of peculiarities and oddities, yet an outsider's perspective can also be very helpful in broadening the view. That also means investigating the links European history has with other areas. If Illig's discovery were correct, and approximately 300 years were missing from our history, that doesn't mean that these years would be missing in other histories in the same time slot, or even at all.

What Illig brings up in his second book is mainly a serious attempt to incorporate methods from natural sciences. C14 chronology doesn't work because the margin of error is too large. Dendro-chronology seems to rather raise more questions than it answers. The only reliable thing seems to be astronomical data. But it seems this field is not as solid either. Thus the only sufficient approach would have to be a very large scope of research, utilizing various fields and methods.

This is precisely what Illig's approach seems to be most fruitful for. He doesn't appear to be interested in the traditional conventions of historiography. He is rather interested in finding evidence to support his thesis, from whatever field. This method, if it were to be left alone, would incorporate several problems of a circular argument. Yet if it were to be supported by "regular" scientific and academic research using the same methods, couldn't that even revolutionize scholarship in general?

Today's historiography, mainly in Europe and especially in Germany, often seems to be too preoccupied with its own traditions and with traditional divisions between the fields of research. These divisions are constructions - they can be helpful, but they can constitute a serious trap also, if they stand in the way of true, unbiased scientific and academic dialog between all possible fields. There's really no need why certain methods and approaches should be made something like a corporate identity of one field only. The only thing important is what works, what comes closer to an answer. That sounds very pragmatic, and rightly so, I feel: Scientific research should be interested in the pragma, nothing else. It needs no ideology, no customs, no conventions - good historic research is something which produces sound scientific and academic results, no matter how strange the approach. The new historiography has to be global, it has to be in dialog with other fields also. No taboos, no stigmatization of heroes or tradition. That's why Illig matters, that's why he should be taken so seriously. He has posed a critical question which desperately deserves an answer.

July 26th, 2001

(The entire essay was minimally reworked by September 26th 2001, concerning spelling and minor corrections, while the substance of it was left intact.)


[1] Heribert Illig. Das erfundene Mittelalter. Econ: Düsseldorf 1997, 4th ed.
[2] Heribert Illig. Wer hat an der Uhr gedreht? Wie 300 Jahre Geschichte erfunden wurden. Econ&List: München 1999.
[3] The invention of the starting point for the chronology Anno Domini is attributed to the monk Dionysius Exiguus, around 525.
[4] A whole counter-culture has developed in recent years, and is still growing, which - in its most extreme form - can be said to be propagating an almost militant resistance to authority of any kind. Though also following other threads, recent militant protests against "globalization" may very well thrive on that argument also. Some kind of cultural groundwork - as well as grounds for a critical discussion - has been laid by the television series The X-Files, whose default position has always been a synthesis between the crude scientific and academic and the crude emotional approach. The topic of conspiracy is dealt with par excellence, as it can partly be seen from some of the opening tags, which pretty much describe the general atmosphere of conspiracy theories: "Deny Everything", "Apology is Policy", "Deceive, Inveigle, Obfuscate" or "Believe the Lie", as well as "Trust No One".

For a bibliography, please check the Selected Bibliography page.

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