Where does the accepted history of a people or place come from? Who decides what is worthy of inclusion and what stories should be suppressed and forgotten? Since the Early Medieval Period, the answer for most of the world was white colonizing men…aka the nascent Catholic Church.
When Eurasia was devastated by a rolling succession of plagues, natural disasters, climate change, and wars from the 6th – 15th centuries CE, the Church stepped in to mold civilization towards their own worldview. One that lionized men as God’s ideal while women were “defective,” incomplete males who were malformed in the womb. This attitude affected every aspect of medieval European culture.
Women took the brunt of the fallout. Between sex-specific infanticide, the perils of childbirth, malnutrition, and abuse, there was a steep decline in the number of women. In some places, life expectancy for women was so atrocious the sex-ratio reached catastrophic imbalances. For example, in 9th century CE France, the population had 421 men for every 100 women. There is a reason 1 out of every 200 men alive today are direct descendants of Genghis Khan. The man wasn’t preternaturally gifted; the female population of Europe in the 13th century was decimated.
All of this is to say that for almost 1,000 years the stewards of history were the men — and occasionally the women — who lived in the seclusion of monasteries and nunneries. Men who saw women as a whole, and non-Christian men specifically, as inferior beings. The scriptoriums that churned out approved copies of everything from philosophy and history to linguistics and science reflected this bigotry. Beginning around the 13th century, the Catholic Church began burning books in earnest. All copies of “heretical” books were consigned to the flames or cut into pieces to be washed and reused by scriptorium monks. Allegedly the Pope always kept the original manuscript, but until the Vatican opens its archives to scholars without parameters, we can safely assume they’re lying.
So much history was obfuscated by the edicts and whims of the Church, but the fog of history became murkier still with the advent of the medieval herald. Originally a glorified ringmaster meant to announce knights as they took to the tournament field, the role required these men to recognize fully armored knights by their proprietary brand art aka their coat of arms. By the 15th century, heralds had become one of the most influential roles in Europe. Heralds kept detailed records of every noble house’s coat-of-arms. Without one, the nobility had no authority. And without authority, they had no power. After all, a coat-of-arms was a shorthand version of a genealogical record. In an era before DNA testing, having a herald create a coat-of-arms and genealogical pedigree tree for a family was the only way to legitimize them.
Of course, even in the Middle Ages money talked. By the 16th century CE, official heralds were at odds with each other over the authenticity and duplication of a multitude of clients, as noted in the margins of their record books. A better method was needed to make sure only the “right” people were assigned heraldry. Enter Robert Glover (1544-1588), one of the founders of Antiquarianism. Glover began his career as a herald before pivoting to the emerging field of “antiquities” in which prospective or suspect clients sought tangible evidence of their pedigree. Antiquarians discovered artifacts such as medals, weapons, or coins that would tie their clients to a noble bloodline. Of course, there was no rhyme or reason to how an Antiquarian uncovered such artifacts, much less scientific records. For example, John Leland (1503-1552) staunchly believed King Arthur was buried at Glastonbury Abbey (he was not) and that Cadbury Castle in Somerset was Camelot (it was not).
Simultaneously, European historians were utilizing Church records as their sources. There was a fundamental flaw in this, as most “historical” writings by the scriptoriums were in fact hagiographies. Hagiographers have no compunction to moderate their work with conflicting information that gives a more nuanced view of history. Instead, they idolize their subject matter to the point of fiction. All the history of early Christian martyrs, for example, are completely made up.
So while even modern historians will wax poetic about “ancient Roman” histories written by Plutarch, Livy, Tacitus, and all the rest? The dirty secret is there are zero primary documents written by any of those men. All of Iron Age history in Europe is filtered and sanitized through Church scriptoriums. Modern scholars can look at ancient Egyptian papyrus, ancient Greek scrolls, and even Sumerian clay tablets which have all been radiocarbon dated to their respective time periods. Not a single authenticated “Roman” document exists.
This “missing stair” has come into starker relief as scientific fields have begun to unravel the accepted timeline. Most recently, dendrochronologists attempting to create the most comprehensive timeline of Iron Age Europe came to a startling discovery: everything is off by 218 years. Artifacts that have been dated to the 3rd century CE are from the 5th century CE, etc. etc.
“If the dating of Roman time is wrong, this would also have consequences for the radiocarbon calibration curve […] Finally, an error of the size mentioned would have consequences for our calendar as it seems to indicate the existence of invented years in the Christian era.”
That this information is just coming to light is no surprise. The early centuries of archaeology were nationalistic tomb raiding by colonizing European powers determined to rewrite history so that all ancient accomplishments would be seen as stemming from “white” people. Sites were uncovered and stripped of riches as quickly as possible. Like a swarm of locusts, rich white proto-eugenicists descended on BIPOC regions and stole anything that wasn’t nailed down. And many things that were.
It wasn’t until the Jericho dig spear-headed by Kathleen Kenyon from 1951-1958 that archaeology began to metamorphize from a rich white man’s hobby to a scientific field. Kenyon insisted on introducing a method of stratigraphic layers during her excavations. The process forced archaeologists to be precise and methodical, breaking the site into a grid and meticulously recording each artifact found via diagram, drawing, and being assigned a serial number. Her method would not be fully adopted by the field until the late 1960s or early 1970s. Meaning that until about 50 years ago, any artifact found by an archaeologist is chronological suspect, if not outright useless without further scientific testing. Especially troubling since artifact forgeries are still a multi-billion dollar business today.
Does this mean history is hopelessly lost to the fog of time? Not at all! It is only by confronting the biases and bad practices of past historians that we can begin to untangle the snarled chronological mess created by a perfect storm of natural disasters and opportunistic clergy. A daunting task, but a necessary one if humanity is ever to understand where we came from and how we got here.