Texts in Context:
History & Its Discontents

By Gabriel Blanchard

History can be tricky, even when one is not being pursued by a rough-and-tumble college professor declaring that the artifact we are trying to study "belongs in a museum."

Last week, we went over one of the basic “canons” of historical study (namely, that it is based on written documents) and discussed the problem of periodization. This week, to put it unkindly, we will touch on the difference between history and the History Channel; in other words, we will explain a few rules of thumb for distinguishing genuine history from pseudo-history.

If you haven’t come across this term before, pseudo-history is a category just like pseudo-science: something that claims to be a serious evaluation of the facts by a qualified scholar in a given discipline, but is in reality not that. It may be a rationalization put forward to justify a political or social cause; it may be an attempt to bolster some form of religion or irreligion; it may be a personal opinion or speculative possibility, exalted to the level of fact; it may be an old theory, now disproven, to which some people continue to cling for any number of reasons. Whatever the reason it has come into existence, it exists, and its proponents seek to deceive the unwary (sometimes in the interest of shoring up their own confidence—or ego).

It is, of course, unfair to treat the History Channel as though it were responsible for pseudo-history; deliberate lies, misunderstandings, delusions, and skewed version of the truth ye shall have with you always. The past, both immediate and remote, is rich with pseudo-history, and with rebuttals of it. Much of our modern notion of King Arthur comes from the twelfth-century author Geoffrey of Monmouth, for example; the Medievals were by no means generally scrupulous with such things, as history and literature were not firmly differentiated at the time, yet even then, William of Newburgh (forty or fifty years’ after Geoffrey’s death) wrote scathingly that “only a person ignorant of ancient history would have any doubt about how shamelessly and impudently he lies in almost everything,” and that “it is quite clear that everything this man wrote about Arthur and his successors … was made up, partly by himself and partly by others”—and when critics won’t even credit you with the creativity to come up with all your own lies, that is truly rough.

A more current example may be found in the writings of Heribert Illig (fantastic name), first published in 1991. Or rather, according to Illig, really in the year 1694. Why? Because the years from 614 to 911 are a fabrication, concocted by Holy Roman Emperor Otto III and Pope Sylvester II (possibly with the connivance of Emperor Constantine VII in Byzantium), in order to place their own reigns at the year 1000. This would exalt their importance and help secure Otto’s claim to the Holy Roman Empire, due to reasons. Illig considered this thesis—known as the phantom time hypothesis—to be proven by several facts. For example, few records survive from this period (they all had to be forged, after all); Romanesque architecture in the tenth century is a clear tell that this period was far closer to the Roman age than the several centuries’ remove the conventional chronology would have us believe in; and when the Gregorian calendar was introduced in 1582, there should have been a discrepancy of thirteen days to correct between the Julian and astronomical years, but in fact the discrepancy was only ten days, indicating three miscounted centuries. (The fact that the calendar had not been updated in the three centuries between its institution and the Council of Nicæa, which fixed the date of Easter, is probably a coincidence.)

Fred Hoyle has this quote where he says it's better to be interesting and wrong than boring and right, and I disagree. Like, that's the whole point of the science, right, my dude?

But Heribert Illig is, by some lights, thinking small. The new chronology of Anatoly Fomenko is the thing for the more intense, more jaded pseudo-historian. It is ridiculous to claim with Illig that the Carolingian Renaissance, which began around the year 800, never happened: on the contrary, writing was invented during the Carolingian Renaissance, or thereabouts. Little real information about anything whatever predates the year 1000, and most historical events are garbled retellings of other historical events, misplaced chronologically due to confusion or in an attempt to deceive. Time would fail to tell us of all Fomenko’s charming lunacies, and it is hardly necessary: surely anybody can see that the kings of Israel are merely a garbled list of the West Roman Emperors, given local Hebraic names and listed backwards, as one does. But to the present author’s mind, the most winsome of them all is his account of the historical basis of Jesus: namely, the Byzantine Emperor Andronicus I Comnenus (who else?). He reigned from 1183 to 1185 (three years? coincidence?), visited Jerusalem at one point (eh?), was a reformer who opposed corruption (eh??), and was crucified on March 20 (he was not crucified, and died in September).

There are many, many, many, many more of these, and it is probably obvious that the present author derives immense joy from the work of pseudo-historians. It is the academic equivalent of the “so bad it’s good” film; and how much less merry would the world be, if we had to do without “Plan 9 From Outer Space” or “Day of the Triffids”? But this delight can only be safely enjoyed—indeed, strictly speaking, it can only exist at all—on the condition that the distinction between history and pseudo-history is clearly grasped first.

It is important to note that disagreement from other historians does not by itself make a work pseudo-history. Minority opinions, and even fringe theories, become mainstream sometimes. The existence of the Hittites or the historicity of Troy used to be crank views. Nor does a lack of the formal qualifications provided by colleges prove that a given person’s work is, intellectually speaking, bad work. Some people do avoid Academe because they are bad thinkers and do not wish to be exposed; others avoid it merely because they find its social atmosphere uncongenial, or because they cannot manage it financially. It is unsound methodology, not who you are or whom you know, that makes pseudo-history. Key warning signs to look out for include:

  • analyzing a field or sub-field that is well removed from their area of expertise (e.g., a professional microbiologist authoring a textbook on the history of world religions)
  • treating possibilities or conjectures as certainties
  • not only looking to literary sources (such as mythology or epic) for possible evidence, but treating them as straightforward accounts of fact throughout
  • using evidence selectively
  • placing immense weight on out-of-place artifacts (which are often hoaxes)
  • a perennial villain responsible for most or all the evils of history (a few favorites include the Jews, the Catholic Church, Freemasonry, and various royal dynasties)
  • anti-Semitism (which may or, more mysteriously, may not be connected with the previous bullet)
  • “alternative” explanations of genetic, linguistic, or architectural markers (e.g. British Israelism or the theory of the Tartarian Empire)
  • attributing all opposition to their theses, or any missing or contradictory evidence, to the machinations of a vast conspiracy
  • aliens*

Of course, these rules must themselves be applied intelligently—taking the first as an example, sometimes people are experts in multiple, unrelated fields. A good rule of thumb is that any one of these symptoms by itself merely makes for a bad historian. More than one? Hmm, let’s just read someone else’s book.

Having laid the groundwork, we are now ready to proceed. Ladies, gentlemen, and any others present, please keep your hands, feet, and minds within the time machine at all times; we cannot be responsible for temporally stranded personal effects, bodies or members thereof, memories, or identities. Our journey to the past will have begun in one week.

*Not that extraterrestrials, in and of themselves, must be improbable, nor that believing they exist makes a person a crank. But it is an unfortunate fact that those authors who appeal to aliens as an explanation for things do also, almost invariably, check other boxes on this list. Statistically and in the name of saving time, then, once one encounters extraterrestrials in a professedly historical work, one is well advised to continue reading (if at all) in the spirit of one who seeks entertainment rather than fact.

Gabriel Blanchard (MA in Sophistry, Fortean College of Erewhon; PhDim. in Metaphysics, Miskatonic University) serves as CLT’s editor at large. He lives in Baltimore, MD.

Thank you for reading the Journal. If you enjoyed this post, you might also like our recently concluded series on the great ideas, with entries or brief series on topics like causality, the four loves, piety, and sameness versus other-ness. And be sure to check out our podcast, Anchored, hosted by CLT president and founder, Jeremy Tate.

Published on 20th February, 2024. Page image of an illustration of the white and red dragons found by Vortigern on the instruction of Merlin, an episode in Geoffrey Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain.

Share this post:
Scroll to Top