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The leap year conspiracy : Are 300 years of human history made up?

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Fake news seems to be everywhere these days. Social media and the internet fan the flames of misinformation making it hard to discern between what is fact and what is fiction. There seems to be very little that the collective world can 100% agree on. At least we can all concur on the year…or can we?

There are some who don’t subscribe to the majority view that we’re living in the 21st century. Instead, they believe we’re actually in the 1700s, arguing that 300 years of world history is actually completely fictitious. Those who follow this doctrine believe in what is called the Phantom Time Hypothesis, a theory put forward by German historian and researcher Heribert Illig in 1991.


The missing years

According to Illig, the fictitious years in question are between 614 and 911 AD. If this theory were correct it would kiss goodbye to numerous historical events and characters that have traditionally been pegged to these years.

In this altered timeline the Vikings never raided England, Alfred the Great was never King of the Anglo Saxons, the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne never existed along with the Tang Dynasty in China … and that’s just scratching the surface.


The Phantom Time Hypothesis

So how does the theory work? According to Illig, during the early medieval period, two (maybe even three) powerful figures schemed together to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes.

The people in question were the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III, Pope Sylvester II and perhaps the Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII as well. The culprits decided to push the calendar forward 297 years to reach 1000 AD. The significance of the date, being exactly one thousand years after the birth of Jesus Christ, would help strengthen their reigns and leave them with a special legacy in history.

In order to shift the calendar forward 300 years, they fabricated historical documentation, adding in fictional events and people. They quite literally rewrote the history books.


Understanding its merits

At first glance, such an outlandish claim is easy to dismiss. However, there are a few intriguing arguments that help provide the theory with some credence.

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD, Europe fell into a period known as the Dark Ages. It would last for nearly a thousand years and from the early portion of this period (the Early Middle Ages) very little literature survives. There were also few significant scientific or cultural developments during the Early Middle Ages, lending support to the idea that perhaps they were simply made up. The skeleton history that Otto and his co-conspirators put together to cover this period could seemingly explain why the Early Middle Ages had so little going on.

The power wielded by the church at this time can also not be understated. Since literature was not widespread and mechanical clocks hadn’t been invented yet, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that Otto and the Pope had the power and the means to deceive the masses.


The Leap Year connection

Further intrigue comes when looking more closely at Pope Gregory XIII’s decision in 1582 to switch the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar.

The Gregorian calendar is a solar dating system and the most widely used calendar in the modern world. It replaced the Julian calendar as it better reflected the time it takes the Earth to circle the sun, i.e. one year. It achieved this through a more accurate way of calculating leap years.

To align the new calendar with the solar year, 10 days were omitted; the number of extra days the Julian calendar had accrued since its inception in 45 BC.

However, those who subscribe to the Phantom Time Hypothesis argue that calculations to the year 45 BC suggest the Julian calendar should have accrued 13 extra days, not 10. If that were the case then the omission of 10 days implies the Julian calendar was actually in effect for about 340 years less than expected between 45 BC and 1582 AD.

Is this the smoking gun to prove the political and religious elites cooked the books?


Countering the theory

Whilst the arguments for the theory raise some eyebrows, in general, the Phantom Time Hypothesis has been dismissed by modern historians.

Firstly, the claim the Dark Ages were void of literature and culture has now been widely debunked with clear evidence that art, scholarship, trade, agriculture and architecture all progressed and even flourished in Europe during this time. Fabricating all of that for the history books would have been quite the feat for Otto and the Pope.

That’s also not accounting for all the surviving artefacts and archaeological pieces from the Islamic Golden Age (622 – 1258 AD), as well as the Chinese Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD). Are we to assume these are forgeries or come from another period entirely?

On a wider scale, if the Phantom Time Hypothesis were to be true then China, as well as the Middle East, would have been involved in the conspiracy and been prepared to alter their record keeping to reflect the new dates, the likelihood of which seems incredibly small.

Secondly, natural as well as astronomical evidence weighs in against the Phantom Time Hypothesis. Dendrochronology (using tree rings to date events) has proven the missing 300 years are indeed very real, whilst ancient European solar eclipses agree with our current chronology, not the one suggested by Illig.

For example, the Roman author Pliny the Elder documented a solar eclipse in 59 AD which is consistent with our current astronomical timeline. The observations of Halley’s Comet add further support.

Finally, the 10 omitted days when the Gregorian calendar came in were to bring it in line with the Julian calendar after The Council of Nicaea (325 AD) when the Easter date was fixed, and not from when it was created (45 BC). This accounts for the missing 300 years and why 10 days were chosen and not 13.