3. A Great Conspiracy?
There are lots of unknowns in the various histories traded over from generation to generation. Sometimes, these unknowns are elevated to depicting "dark ages", times throughout history that we have very little, if any, knowledge of, and a knowledge often fragmented, inconclusive, based more upon assumptions and presumed tell-tales than upon solid facts.
Actually, facts are hard to come by the farther you go back in time. Historiography hasn't always been a serious scholarly undertaking guided by strict scientific parameters. Often, historiography just consisted of archiving anything at all, mostly information related to the current government and its foreign relations; including also religious dogma, which has often been a reflection of the society it was set in. Antique "historians" like Thukydides, Herodotus, Sallustius and Livius have rarely, if ever, bowed to the degree of scrutiny which is expected in today's research. Stories, myths, tell-tales, symbolic numbers, lots of exaggeration, as well as political preferences, and of course, the present situation - all those elements have had a strong influence on such writers. The intention for writing their works has probably often been a very different one from that of today. History isn't just written down to record it neutrally, it is written in order to solidify a certain point of view, to support or antagonize the present state of the political entity. So it comes, for instance, that the alleged misdeeds of emperors like Nero and Tiberius have been popularized by their fiercest enemies, that the Persian king Kyros is painted in a rather heroic light by a Perso-phile (or less polemic) author like Xenophone, while otherwise the Persians were constructed as the most devious enemy. Homer, somehow still till today, has been considered as describing actual events, and the history of Rome has usually been cleansed of its Etruscan origins for reasons of patriotism.
To counter those unfortunate trends (which, naturally, have not entirely died out yet), history needs hard facts: second or third opinions, unpolitical writings, pieces of literature, preferrably political satire and personal accounts, graffitti, incidental scraps of notes, as well as much archaeological evidence as possible. One single find for an era that otherwise lacks sufficient material could re-define the entire history of mankind. So-called dark ages are first and for all in the "dark" because they lack such kind of material to an extremely uncomforting degree. There can be lots of reasons for it: The material could either have been destroyed or lost (as is the case of most papyrii), forgotten (if cultures are either destroyed or assimilated by other cultures) or modified beyond recognition (by contributing more to mythology than history). Cities can be swallowed by floods or volcanoes, scorched by enemies, buried under new cities. Languages that have died out are often accompanied by a culture which has been forgotten, or whose memory has been destroyed, sometimes even deliberately (like in the Etruscan example again, or with the Hittites). Long periods of draught or climatic change, combined with cut off trade due to political decline, as well as destruction through war, can have led to drops in population. And sometimes, archaeologists may just not have dug deep enough. In general, the lack of evidence does not mean a lack of occurrence at all: The overall paucity of comprehensive data doesn't allow for a general dismissal of the time period in question. Such an act, the negation of inconclusive data, should be a very complex and heavily disputed one, it should not take place easily.
What about the data available? There's no such thing like a complete lack of data from a period like that questioned by Illig. What he does is an attempted relocation of the data at hand, pushing it either further into the past or the future, or declaring it to be a doublet of another event. Charlemagne thus becomes both an exaggerated Karl Martell and a vision for Otto III. That's a bit too easy, it must seem. The forgeries which have been so common throughout the Middle Ages also constitute a standing invitation to dismiss the subject of the forgery itself - yet forgeries, normally, are not conceived in order to invent something which does not exist, but rather, based upon some core of truth or believability, to conceal a different truth, to reinterpret some unwanted facts, or even to document something in a written form which has for most of its history only had an oral counterpart. Forgeries without some factual basis would not have been succesful. But as most forgeries weren't realized as such, as they were indeed accepted as fact, not fiction, they rather stand for some kind of accepted truth than for a virtual web of lies. As strange as this may sound, forgeries can be quite a material proof for the existence of a certain phenomenon rather than for its non-existence.
The scenario suggested by Illig, though, does not seem entirely implausible. He sees the origin of the forgery in Byzantine culture. The (Germano-)Roman Emperor, having strong links to Constantinople still through family ties, orders a complete redoing of the written material, based upon a new form of writing. Old texts have to be transformed to the new style, so why not take the chance to incorporate some new "facts", conceiling some embarassing truths from the past. All of that may seem strange or odd, but in the entirety of the plot not completely dismissable. This way, you can add detail upon detail and create the illusion of a solid tapestry of facts.
I believe I need to step out of the picture for a minute. I have to admit that at first, I did let Illig convince me into believing the basic assumptions of his. Maybe I was just fascinated by the idea, blinded by his array of facts and factoids. Additionally, I was getting appalled by the way lots of the criticism was uttered. Yet that's the core problem: Like a magician, Illig's books maintain a level of believability by erecting distractions which then guide the audience away from the actual conflict. His distractions are the illusion of detail, the jumping around between various areas, the fragmentation of ideas which are never fully executed (with the exception of the Palatine Chapel in book one) and the level of authority created by his writing style. The illusion consists of the impression that the grand picture is known, and he illustrates it by the evidence he has gathered. Yet the grand picture is not known, it's just a loose hypothesis presented as hard fact at the end of the first book, then taken for granted. After that, he starts looking for additional proof. But that's not how it works.
Method is not everything, granted. Yet when you've set out to discover something entirely new, method is the only friend you've got. Method determines whether you're just stumbling around in the dark, accidentally hitting evidence; or whether what you find is genuine material. How do you prove a hypothesis? First of all, the hypothesis has to be vague enough to be altered within the course of research. A hypothesis has to be supported by hard evidence, and the evidence you continue to look for after having established the hypothesis should be sort of independent. Facts found with a certain agenda in mind are often a very tricky thing: If you go around looking for something very concrete, you may very well find it.
So now what you have is a pretty neat hypothesis that is set out to defy everything you've ever known about a certain problem. The hypothesis may actually be fueled by some concrete oddities and actual mistakes that have crept into an immense body of research amassed over centuries, which is not so difficult as accumulation of knowledge always also means an accumulation of errors, misunderstandings, lies and deceptions; willful or not. So there's a hypothesis turning into a general theory, in itself creating more and more gravity, attracting more and more tidbits and factoids as well as actual facts and errors, which the theory seems to explain utterly conveniently. Now you're actually determined of the justness of the cause, and you start to look out deliberately for things that make it all fit. When in that stage, no evidence in favor of the theory can be too small, no evidence against it can seem solid. The smallest thing appears more believable than the bigger chunks of knowledge, just because the more established facts are all belonging to the very discourse you intend to thrash. The smaller, the freakier, the more remote, the better: Because those lesser known bits and pieces are less likely to have been tampered with by the grand brotherhood of the establishment. Suddenly, it's all a big conspiracy handed down from generation to generation, attracting willful servants within today's politics and academia still.
December 20th, 2002