2. In Favor: For Discussion
When somebody has been so desperately thrashed by so great many people, you somehow wonder if they shouldn't be right, but from a critical perspective, you perhaps even more suspect the opposite to be true, or rather, more true at least. Approaching a thesis as radical as Illig's may perhaps best be done by imagining beforehand the criticism it may invoke, and put it in perspective. It can come as no surprise that traditional thinking cherishing the Medieval building blocks of Europe would be furiously opposed to his notion that Charlemagne is a character of fiction more than fact. It can come as no surprise, also, that Illig chose to attack precisely that figure in his first book to establish his thesis. Charlemagne has become the godfather of the European Union, the founding icon of the Roman-Franco-Germanic Empire in union with the papacy, the restorator of the West Roman Empire, the one who has finally brought the idea of civilization, i.e. the Roman idea of civilization, to the barbarians of the North. That Charlemagne was a magician, himself barely literate, creating an empire out of nowhere, creating culturally highest forms, like his Palatine Chapel, quasi out of nowhere, and with no real precursors, with everything coming after him being not quite so elaborate, and most obviously, his reign coming out of nowhere and going nowhere. The evidence Illig quotes to illustrate the absurdities in both the common and the academic understanding of Charlemagne is so striking that it does need further attention.
That is not to say I believe him to be entirely right in his assumptions, yet for the sake of argument, let's just concentrate on a more benevolent perspective for now. The factual basis he collects is striking, to say the least, in both books. He illustrates quite authoritatively - which is part of the problem - how a certain scheme tends to repeat itself within the histories of several nations. First, you have either total chaos or total silence. Then, out of the darkness, a shining hero appears, out of nowhere, pulling the strings and establishing a glorious rule. That having lasted for a short while, the region falls back into a similar apathy like the previous one, until it comes to new glory, only much slower, under a subsequent ruler. All the inventions and achievements of the figure of light in between could very well have been invented beforehand or afterwards, as all his knowledge is lost. The greatness of his "golden age" has to be "recovered" - which could just be a term for its invention in the first place. Usually, such tales are placed at the beginning of written culture, coming out of an oral culture. The "Golden Age" described by Ovid, "El Dorado", variations on a "Paradise" theme, the Tower of Babel; utopian places either loosely or not at all rooted in factual history, but rather illustrating the dreams and political ideology of the people who purported such myths and enlarged them. Sometimes, real conflicts or heroes may have been exaggerated, sometimes, a slow and gradual development was enlarged to make it more telling. Thus the Aeneas myth and the Romulus/Remus tale for Rome, drawing on Homer's Ilias, itself possibly drawing on a - probably much less grand - real war over Troia. Thus also the invention of Lykourgos as the founding king of Sparta. Thus the heroification of people like Napoleon, Washington, Jefferson and Gandhi. What has been done way past, what is being done now, the mixing of fact with fiction, the "mythification" of history, why shouldn't it be part of the time in the middle, the Middle Ages? Why should cultural interpretation suddenly cease to exist?
Yet still, there's something different at work here also, an atrocity perhaps even: Here it is not about the beginning of civilization. It is not about ancient cultures, it is about a time not too remote from our own, a time past the Roman Empire, a time where a writing culture and a culture of literacy already existed. It is not - in Illig's understanding - the mere exaggeration of a factual basis, it is something like a combination of some truth with a whole set of outright lies - a founding myth serving both an Ottonian and a Byzantine regime, something of a conspiracy even, a conspiracy to create about 300 years of history to conceal some very embarassing facts in relation to the battle between Christianity and the Islam, to exaggerate one's historical precursors, to come closer to a magical year 1000, a year of change, a millennium that could bring religious revelation and the apocalypse.
How could that possibly have been done? Manipulating the entire concept of historical time, enforcing a set of new truths which were to replace what was commonly known? Commonly known - that's perhaps the key issue at work here. What we have now, a convenient system of chronology, the BC/AD dating, was probably one of the least common systems around the time of discussion. Instead, there had been a mixture of various chronologies, different not only from state to state, but also containing different chronological traditions within one state. Time was counted by the duration of the reign of a king or pope, an emperor, or a consul, there even was the somewhat artificial construction ab urbe condita, counting from the foundation of the City of Rome, traditionally defined as having taken place in 753 BC. The BC/AD chronological system was to originate much later, and was not that widely in use even then, only around the first millennium and after that, it was taken up more widely. That means: If - I'm talking hypothetically here - if someone were to have manipulated that system, it would have had to happen before that, not much later. Thus the window of opportunity, as one could call it, was still open. And if you take into account the persons who were actually able to write, the different systems of power in use, the different traditions from region to region, you could perhaps say that - with some central guidance - the introduction of a new system of chronologizing events, and the creation of a new writing culture and a new way of writing in the Byzantine Empire, and given the close link between Constantinople and the Ottonian regime, such a manipulation may sound a bit more possible.
The examples and bits and pieces provided by Illig's meticulous research, especially in the second book, are too striking to not be at least taken under consideration. Academic thinking does not just come from a civilized exchange of carefully weighed and balanced, unprovocative texts - it may even more so be driven by some kind of violent outbursts of a very provocative nature. The scientific and academic process then means to deal with such radical theses and to examine them under great scrutiny. No matter how provocative - even insulting - a thesis may seem, if it comes up with a sufficient body of evidence, even some intelligent speculation, it has to be talked about - talked about, not just against. Thus any thesis, however strange and perhaps not being academic itself, or coming from an outsider - can be as valuable as any other, the failure comes not with the thesis as such, it comes with the ignorance that just dismisses possibly valid points for discussion on the grounds of some secondary doubts and due to a traditional look on things.
July 19th, 2001