Credit: Illustration by Slug Signorino

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I read an article recently about a man who says our current chronology is about a thousand years off and that the years between 500 to 1500 (to round it off) didn’t really happen. It’s a mistake made by historians. I kind of like this hypothesis because I never understood why there are no records for that period of time. —Julie

There are actually two cryptochronology theories in circulation at the moment. The Eurocentric version, commonly called the Phantom Time hypothesis, is the work of two German historians of sorts, Heribert Illig and the late Hans-Ulrich Niemitz, plus several followers. They claim mysterious forces inserted 297 years into the calendar between 614 and 911 AD.

The Russocentric hypothesis, known as the New Chronology, is even bolder. Devised by the mathematician Anatoly Fomenko, the New Chronology holds that everything we think we know about historical dating is wrong. Virtually all events associated with the ancients—the Greeks, the Romans, and everybody else—actually happened after the year we think of as 1000 AD.

Are these ideas crazy? Of course they’re crazy, although some of the details can seem eerie at first glance. For example, the Illig-Niemitz group makes much of the fact that in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII removed 10 days from the newly reformed calendar to correct for the chronological drift caused by the old Julian calendar’s imprecise rules for inserting leap days. The Julian calendar had been introduced during the time of Julius Caesar, in 45 BC. However, a 10-day shift corrects for just 1,257 years’ worth of accumulated error. Subtracting 1,257 from 1582 gets us back not to 45 BC but to 325 AD. In other words, more than three centuries are unaccounted for!

No, they’re not. Gregory’s 10-day correction wasn’t meant to get the calendar realigned with Julius Caesar’s day, but rather with the Easter dating guidelines established at the First Council of Nicaea. When did the First Council of Nicaea take place? In 325 AD.

The Phantom Time hypothesis doesn’t rest entirely on apparent oddities in calendar correction. During what we inheritors of the western European tradition think of as the dark ages, pretty much nothing seems to have happened. It’s easy to imagine—well, maybe not easy, but possible to imagine that historians inadvertently inserted three blank centuries in our collective datebook.

Charlemagne, however, is something of a problem for the Phantom Time hypothesis. The leader of the Franks consolidated much of western Europe under his rule in the late 700s and in 800 AD was crowned emperor of the Romans by Pope Leo III—all of it square in the middle of the intercalated 297 years. Illig explains this away by saying Charlemagne is an “invented figure.”

There was plenty going on elsewhere in the world. The Byzantine Empire jousting noisily with the forces of Islam during the supposedly mythical three centuries. Meanwhile, the Tang dynasty was presiding over a golden era in China.

The Phantom Time hypothesis makes no sense—not necessarily a dealbreaker where popular beliefs are concerned, but this particular notion has gotten little traction. Compare that to the reception given Fomenko’s New Chronology. The theory is far too bizarre to explain much less refute here; nonetheless, in Russia Fomenko’s views have been widely disseminated. No doubt this stems from the fact that Russian history is traditionally held to have commenced in 862.

You see what’s going on here. Western Europeans have several centuries of underachievement to rationalize, but Russians face a still greater challenge. Fans of the New Chronology apparently reason as follows: our forebears accomplished nothing of note prior to 862; ergo, neither did anyone else. —Cecil Adams

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