Painful Truth: Simpler just to re-write history

History is fascinating, and frustrating. If you read a simple history book, you often get a simple story. X came before Y, and was followed by Z. A better book will often admit that they aren’t sure about X, don’t know exactly where Y happened, and that there is some debate over whether Z was as important as previously thought.

This is where you get historical conspiracy theories, ideas that radically re-write history to scratch that itch at the back of the mind caused by doubt.

Take the Phantom Time Hypothesis, which has been kicking around since the late 1990s, mostly in Europe.

Heribert Illig is a German scholar who believes that almost 300 years of European history was made up as part of a conspiracy by Holy Roman Emperor Otto III. Among other things, he thinks Otto invented Charlemagne to make himself look better.

This theory would eliminate the years 614 to 911 AD from the historical record entirely.

As pretty much every working historian to look at the theory points out, this causes some problems. Among other things, it causes a time-skip that wipes out most of the Saxon kingdoms in England, as well as Alfred the Great and most of the Viking invasions. It eliminates the birth, rise, and spread of Islam across the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain, pretty much the entire Tang Dynasty in China, a couple of dozen Byzantine emperors, the rise and fall of the Tibetan Empire, and so forth.

When it comes to how so much history could have been added into the calendar, Illig essentially believes that events outside Europe were dated wrongly in comparison to his timeline (strange that none of them noticed) or that within Europe, events and characters across a broad swathe of 300 years and multiple nations were simply fabricated. Jesuits and Cabbalistic numbers are, of course, involved.

Illig was inspired by Immanuel Velikovsky, a psychologist who had earlier re-written history based on an even more odd idea – he thought that planets had knocked around in the Solar System, bringing random catastrophe to Earth in the historic past. He thought Venus had been spat out of Jupiter like a watermelon seed, and that Mars had later wandered in close to Earth as well. His ideas deny everything we know about physics going back at least to Newton.

Velikovsky’s theories are only slightly more outlandish than those of 19th century American politician Ignatius L. Donnelly, who believed that Atlantis was a scientifically advanced ancient society wiped out by a natural catastrophe – he’s the one who introduced this common idea into our pop culture, so we at least have him to thank for Aquaman. 

Off to one side is Gavin Menzies, who claimed that the Chinese Treasure Fleets of the 1400s travelled further than believed (plausible) that they discovered North America (dubious) and finally that they made it all the way to Venice, where the Italians cribbed Chinese ideas to kickstart the entire Renaissance (nope).

Made up history isn’t more exciting than real history. Real history does have comets and conspiracies and mad tyrants and love stories and heroes. But it is messy. It doesn’t make much sense as a story, with a nice neat ending or a single explanation for everything.

That’s where these re-written histories find their origin. They impose more order than history naturally contains. 

Rather than saying that there’s a lot we still don’t know, a lot we may never know, they give us the comforting and false sense that the world makes sense.

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