“There’s no such thing as the Middle Ages…”
By Emily Ward
What does the early Middle Ages have in common with the Illuminati, the moon landing and JFK? The answer – that, like the other three, it has also been the subject of a conspiracy theory – may come as a surprise. This conspiracy, often called Phantom Time Hypothesis, suggests that the early Middle Ages never really existed. When conspiracy theories like this come into direct conflict with accepted historical fact, how should we, as historians, approach them?
The Phantom Time Hypothesis was satirised in a recent episode of the podcast There’s No Such Thing As A Fish, where they discussed a paper by Dr Hans-Ulrich Niemitz which argues that the years 614 – 911 A.D. were inserted into history either through an accident of dating or, far more sinisterly, by a deliberate act of forgery. Yet the early Middle Ages are years full of historical significance: of King Oswald, the Battle of Heavenfield and the Synod of Whitby, of Bede and his Ecclesiastical History, of Viking raids and Alfred the Great. So should we even devote any time to extreme theories such as this? The lack of any serious academic response to conspiracies such as Phantom Time Hypothesis makes one initially wonder whether, just by discussing a theory (even in an informal forum such as this blog) you are somehow giving it more credence or legitimacy than it deserves.
However, as researchers, should we ever ignore an opinion straightaway, no matter how spurious it may seem? Instead, should we not be searching for what we can learn from whatever we are presented with? In the case of this conspiracy, for example, it is possible to pick out some elements of truth regarding the early Middle Ages, specifically in regards to dating and forgeries. Chroniclers and annalists often wrote their accounts many years after the events had occurred. They do not always agree on the date when an event took place, leaving it up to modern historians to determine correct dating by evaluating all the sources. It is also true that large numbers of charters dating from this period are forgeries. Some were based on older documents which had been lost, but others were probably entirely made up in order to protect the property and rights of churches, monasteries and individuals. Conspiracy theories can therefore provide a timely reminder of the problems faced by the historian every day, as well as the need to approach any source material carefully.
While often on the lookout for good examples of presentation and methodology to emulate, it is also possible to learn from other examples which clearly demonstrate how ‘not-to-do’ history. Conspiracy theories overwhelmingly rely on methods which no historian should touch with a barge pole: the distortion of facts through extrapolation, the use of limited examples to ‘prove’ a point, selective choice of primary and secondary sources, and arguments without any logical procession, to name just a few. The importance of the use of historical methodology in research is clearly demonstrated when we look at conspiracies which fail to use the framework of this methodology.
Conspiracy theories have always attracted public attention, at times gaining widespread popularisation in the media (need I say the name Dan Brown?). They seem to entice with the same fascination which makes gossip columns so horribly engrossing. However, I would like to suggest that conspiracies like the Phantom Time Hypothesis do not need to leave us with an entirely negative experience focused on derision and rejection, but can actually provide some form of learning experience. I may still be firmly resolved that the early Middle Ages did exist, but I believe it is possible to use exposure to such conspiracies as a way in which to hone the tools and methodology of academic research.