Phantom Time

In History by Brian Koberlein2 Comments

In my last post, I talked about how historians can help us understand aspects of astronomy, such as the rate at which Earth’s rotation is slowing. The same thing can happen in reverse, where astronomy can confirm aspects of history. Take, for example, the Early Middle Ages, and the theory of phantom time. 

One of the wilder things that has been proposed in Medieval history is the idea that about 300 years in the Middle Ages was simply made up. Gap of history and phantom time. Proposed by Heribert Illig in 1991, the idea is that the Catholic Church, led by Pope Sylvester II, rewrote the calendar to put themselves at 1000 AD, rather than around 700 AD. As a result, the years 614 – 911 are simply made up. If this were true, historical figures such as Charlemagne were simply made up.

The idea has never been accepted by mainstream Medievalists, but it raises an interesting aspect about the challenges of reconstructing history, namely that that contemporary authors of history don’t always tell the truth. Victors of a battle may overplay the strength of their enemies to make their success all the more glorious. Or the case of the Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose III, who tried to expunge his Aunt and predecessor Hatshepsut from the records.

Usually such revisionist history is unsuccessful, since we can compare different historical accounts to get an accurate view of events. One of the biggest criticisms of the phantom time is that simply adding three centuries to European history would make it disagree with other historical regions, such as the Islamic expansion and the Tang Dynasty of China, and we see no such discrepancies. But another way to disprove phantom time is to look at astronomical records.

Throughout history, humans have recorded major astronomical events. We have, for example, observations of solar eclipses from both before and after the early Middle Ages. Pliny the Elder mentions a solar eclipse in 59 AD, which agrees with our current dates. Astronomical observations of the Tang Dynasty also confirm our current date.

So both mainstream historians and astronomy agree that phantom time is an idea that simply doesn’t hold up. If 300 years of history were simply added to the record, the forgery would be written in the stars, and this simply isn’t the case.


  1. It is bad enough that we have had time gaps to adjust the calendar before we had leap years (or maybe because we did). All this in order to get Spring when Spring was supposed to be.

Leave a Reply