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 Historical Speculations & Imagination

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Some topics that are disputed and may be controversial.

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How do we know what we know? Is what we think is knowledge actually so? The historian, like the scientist, depends on evidence. All the writers mentioned on this page have claimed to know things that are different to the prevailing body of knowledge, or wish to add to that knowledge by new interpretations of already known evidence, or are presenting what they claim to be new evidence, hitherto unknown or overlooked. In each case their thinking and evidence is subject to assessment and criticism by the general scholarly community. It is often the case that new ideas take a while to be accepted by the community of scholars. The example often given is of Plate Tectonics which was proposed by Alfred Wegener as far back as 1912. He was ridiculed in his lifetime but the core of his idea - that continents move on the Earth's surface - has since been proved by new evidence to have been correct, and a mechanism proposed for how they do it.

That does not mean that the ideas of the people mentioned on this page will be proved correct. Just because a new idea meets opposition doesn't mean it will be shown to be correct eventually. Almost all new ideas are shown not to be supported by the evidence. Some or most of these will certainly never be proved correct. There is, unfortunately, a market for fake history. Below are some of the things to think about before being tempted to believe some of these ideas.

What kind of evidence about the past do historians look for?
1. Documents

Written material can be used for all past societies that have had writing. The earliest readable written material comes from Sumeria and Egypt. There is earlier material from Mohenjo Daro in Pakistan but the script cannot be read, and may never be. Even the language is unknown. Other material from Dilmun in the Bahrain area cannot be read.

Problems
Ancient documents have the same problems as modern ones. Was the writer reporting accurately? For instance, there are many chronicle entries about the Black Death. The historian's problem is that the writers did not observe accurately, or did not have modern knowledge about what they were reporting. Thus it is not even certain what the infectious agent was, nor how many people died.

Another problem is that documents from the past consist only of those that have survived. Thus, we know that many famous literary texts from the past have been lost because no-one copied them, or later times decided to suppress them. This means that the picture we learn of a past time is limited to what we can gain from the existing documents. See this article about preservation

Modern documents can be maliciously false; so can ancient documents - intended to deceive. Both modern and ancient documents can have other purposes than reporting on events, such as maintaining a religious myth. The historian has to assess the veracity of documents.

2. Archaeology
Where documents are absent the only evidence of the past may be artefacts found in digging ancient sites. These may confirm written documents, or indeed may sometimes contradict them.

Archaeology may extend to many physical signs such as tree ring analysis, ice cores, sophisticated methods of dating objects, including carbon 14 and other atomic isotopes.

Problems
There are similar problems, as with documents. We can only examine what has survived. Thus most ancient cities are buried under later cities, including modern ones. Present day urbanisation is rapidly covering many ancient sites.

3. Oral history
In cultures without writing, history may be preserved by word of mouth. Probably, before writing, all human history was preserved in this way. Some of the written records of ancient times seem likely to have originated as oral tales. The problem of oral history is that while the bones of the story might be preserved, the details are often changed. In west Africa history was preserved by the Griots, a profession of poets and memorisers. However, it is known that they "adjusted" the songs they sang to suit their current patron, making his family out to be important in the past, even if they weren't.

A good example of both the fallibility of oral history, and its ability to transmit genuine information, comes from the worldwide stories of flood or sea level rise. In the eastern Mediterranean area there are the stories of the Flood of Deucalion in the Greek tradition, Babylonian and Sumerian accounts of flooding, included in the Bible. In Australia there are Aborigine tales of land that was flooded in ancient times.

Historians can now interpret these stories as possible memories of the rise in sea level that occurred when the ice melted about 10,000 years ago. In many parts of the world there are human artefacts to be found on the seabed from former settlements. An example is the North Sea off the coast of Britain where there was once a country - Doggerland - bigger than Britain itself. Another is the Black Sea, probably the source of the Greek and Middle Eastern stories. For those who escaped the inundation these events were memorable and disastrous and the stories were passed on from generation to generation. Other flooded artefacts can be found in the Mediterranean, off the coast of Malta, and in the Indian Ocean off India and Sri Lanka. A useful survey of this period can be found in Stephen Mithen - After the Ice.

But we can see that as the generations passed details were elaborated and the stories became stylised. Thus the rapid rise of the Black Sea (when water from the Mediterranean poured through the Bosporus) may have caused some people to escape on improvised rafts with some of their cattle and sheep. Eventually the account mutated into "the Ark" and the "two by two" myth. Many of the details of the story as written in the biblical and Quranic texts can be shown to be unconnected with real events - such as the Ararat story. (An appearance seen on Mount Ararat is not the remains of an Ark, but a geological formation, millions of years old).

Then, about 5600 BC, as sea levels rose, Ryan and Pitman suggest, the rising Mediterranean finally spilled over a rocky sill at the Bosporus. The event flooded 60,000 miles (155,000 km) of land and significantly expanded the Black Sea shoreline to the north and west. Ryan and Pitman wrote: Wikipedia article

A related problem with stories of this kind is that, while oral teahouse stories can sometimes be shown to be similar to written versions of stories known from ancient sources, oral stories can be various kinds of fiction rather than accounts of past events. It is often difficult to distinguish between stories told for entertainment, moral improvement or other non-historical reasons from accounts of the past.

4. Linguistics - the study of languages
Linguistics is a very specialised study. Many writers of this kind make up their own connections between languages and fail to make use of the professionals' work. Some of the biggest errors in these writers comes from amateur linguistics - Menzies is criticised for his inaccurate inferences from imaginary connections, and Barry Fell has also been criticised for unjustified inferences. But professional work on languages can provide information on the past. The study of the surviving languages of the Indo-European group can provide some information on the mode of life of the earliest speakers, and on the migrations of people - while always remembering that languages can travel when peoples don't.

Should the serious student of history read any or all of these books?

Yes. Why? To get practice in evaluating the quality of evidence.

People who are going to teach history in schools need to realise that at least a part of the population gains its inaccurate notions about history from books like these. Ordinary people often have no idea of how dodgy the basis of some of these, often highly entertaining, books is, or the cynical indifference to actuality of many writers of popular books (and even more, of Hollywood film producers!)

1. Super volcano at the Krakatoa site.
2. Chinese Explorations 1421.
3. Trans-Atlantic voyages before Columbus.
Barry Fell and Thor Heyerdahl.

4. St Clair colony 1398.
5. Origin of the Jews.
6. Graham Hancock
7. Emmanuel Velikovsky
8. Dan Brown
9. Oswald Spengler
10. Ernest Scott
 

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1. Was there a climate-disturbing explosion between Java and Sumatra in 535, separating the islands of Sumatra and Java?
David Keys argues in his book Catastrophe that there was an explosion so large that it created enough climatic disturbance to:

  • Destroy the Chinese, Korean and Japanese Empires
  • set off an epidemic of Plague that depopulated much of Europe.
  • end (and restart) civilisations in the Americas
  • arrest the westward reconquest of the Roman Empire
  • allow the English to conquer the Britons

How do we evaluate these ideas?
Keys argues from several kinds of evidence. He uses chronicles from several different areas of the world, and reinterprets what they say about the period of 535 and the decades following. He also uses physical evidence from ice cores in the Ice caps - Greenland and Antarctica, Dendrochronology from many areas, and other archaeological evidence from sites in areas as diverse as the Americas, Europe and Indonesia. His arguments about the climate perturbation seem sound and likely to be accepted. The connection with the Plague that followed may be more difficult to sustain but by no means impossible. Probably much of his argument will become part of the accepted picture of the late Ancient world.

If his thesis is correct it should be useful reading for all concerned with how to respond to the current climate crisis, and his final chapter, on potential sites for other super-volcanoes, some in the United States, many others in other continents, should make us realise that uncertain events can affect human history profoundly and radically. Of course neither he nor anyone else can predict when such an explosion will next occur.
See Indonesia

We may note that as recently as 1816 there was the "year without a Summer" caused by the explosion of the volcano Tambora in Indonesia in 1815. There was ice and snow in the summer months throughout the northern hemisphere, as far south as Pennsylvania in the United States, and harvests failed throughout this area.

An even bigger explosion at Toba, also in Indonesia, may have endangered the early human species, reducing the numbers to a very small population.
Toba discussion

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Interesting reading

David Keys - Catastrophe (1999)




Als die Sonne erlosch

2. Did the known voyages of the Chinese in the 15th century actually extend much further than hitherto believed?
It is generally accepted that there was trade between China and India and East Africa, based on the fragments of Chinese pottery found on the East African coast and the reports of the delivery of a giraffe to the Emperor of China. A group of people in the Lamu area of Kenya are thought by the locals to be the descendants of Chinese visitors at that time.

It has also long been noted that the large size of the Chinese ships made them capable of sailing round Africa and reaching Europe, but as they never appeared in Europe the assumption has been that they never got further than East Africa before the naval programme was cancelled by the successors of the emperor after he died.

Gavin Menzies argues that the naval programme initiated by the emperor Zhu Di also caused expeditions to be sent to the rest of the world, including Australia, the Americas on both sides and the poles.

How do we evaluate these ideas?
Professional reviewers of the book regard it as very thinly based with evidence that proves hard to verify and all too easy to prove wrong. Far too much of the book contains phrases like "he must have..."- always a sign of lack of evidence. Thus the question of whether the Chinese really did explore the world in the manner described, remains unanswered with a presumption that they didn't. Most of the reported artefacts supposed to"prove" the Chinese contacts, are not available and are reported by hearsay or could be more plausibly interpreted as evidence of different events.

Critique of Menzies 1421

Australian critical site
Critique of Menzies's naive linguistic "evidence"

Critique of Menzies

One really important objection to the thesis is that there are no records of the vast Chinese ships arriving in European waters, despite Menzies's assertion that they visited Iceland, the Azores and Greenland. Clearly if they had done, their technology would have been so much in advance of the Europeans' that it would have changed the course of history - the European explorations that resulted in the voyages round Africa and across the Atlantic would not have taken place in the much smaller European vessels. The Chinese may well have regarded the Europeans as barbarians, but they knew, at least vaguely, of their existence. According to Menzies they visited many other peoples probably no less barbaric than the Europeans. If he wants to convince the academic community he needs solid evidence. Failing that, the Chinese "explorations" remain one of history's might-have-beens.See China.

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Gavin Menzies - 1421
A very controversial book



Anatole Andro - 1421 Heresy


An Investigation into the Ming Chinese Maritime Survey of the World

3. Was there contact across the Atlantic in ancient times, such as during the Egyptian civilisation, by Phoenicians and Celts from Northwest Spain?
Barry Fell
argued that there are traces of Old World languages in the Americas. He claims in his book that there are inscriptions of ancient Egyptian, Latin and other languages in the Americas, dating from before the known European contacts.

Thor Heyerdahl thought the Egyptians might have crossed the Atlantic. He decided they might have used a reed boat of a design roughly common to Ancient Egypt and Lake Titicaca (though he didn't know about the wooden ships later found buried near the pyramids). He successfully crossed the Atlantic.

How do we evaluate these ideas?
Fell's evidence has always been considered unproven and it is difficult to verify his claimed inscriptions as he cites most by hearsay, most of the originals being unavailable, while those that can be seen are much disputed. More seriously, his idea depends on similarities in languages between the Americas and the Old World. Unfortunately for him, as a non-specialist in the study of languages, he makes the kind of error that an amateur all too easily can make, seeing similarities that the real scholar knows are not there.

However, one of his observations: that there were Celtic and Norse words in the languages of some of the peoples of the northeast of North America, may have been vindicated - though not to support his ideas. His explanation was that there were visits by Gaulish ships from northwest Spain in pre-Roman times. A better explanation would link them to an expedition to north America in 1398 led by the Earl of Orkney (see next section) and from contacts by Vikings even earlier.

Thor Heyerdahl showed that it was possible to cross the Atlantic on a very primitive boat made of bound papyrus reeds. He did not of course show that anyone did cross with this method. Large wooden boats have been found buried near the Egyptian pyramids. It has been claimed that these were capable of seafaring. The claims (not by Fell) that there were New World plants in Egyptian Mummies, including Cocaine, have probably not been proved. Thus, while it seems legitimate to wonder whether ancient people did travel more than modern people think they did, it cannot be said that Fell or anyone else has proved they did.

Heyerdahl had earlier tried to show, by sailing westward in Kon Tiki, a balsa wood raft, that Polynesia had been settled from the South American mainland. Linguistic and genetic research has since shown his idea to be wrong, as the furthest east island of the Pacific, Easter Island, was settled from the rest of Polynesia. There may, however, be questions about some artefacts and customs in the Americas which could have originated the other side of the Pacific. These include calendar sequences used by the Mayans, which are the same as a Chinese sequence, and the manufacture of bark cloth (discussed in Coe - The Maya).

The peoples of Central America had stories of "bearded white men" from the east. Is there anything in these stories? There may be, but there is still a lack of evidence. The Olmec heads, carved out of very hard rock may look a bit African, but are they? It is very hard to date them. See Central America.

Wikipedia on Atlantic contacts (no evidence).

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the standard work

4. Did Prince Henry St Clair, Earl of Orkney, lead an expedition to North East Canada in 1398 and start a colony there?
Andrew Sinclair argues that the Earl, connected with both Scotland and Norway, led an expedition of people from Orkney - speakers of Norse and Gaelic but probably not English - to Canada landing at Cape Breton Island. There they founded a colony intended to be permanent, but he claims it died out when it was not resupplied after the first season.

The credibility of thebook is not helped by inclusion of material about the Templars, the Masons and similar rather arcane topics. Almost everything anyone has written about the Templars seems to be based on fantasy, and the same would seem to be the case here. Thus the historian is most interested in whether an attempt was made to found a colony in the Americas nearly 100 years before Columbus. He is much less interested in whether there was a quasi-mystic plan by Templars or Masons to found an ideal colony there.

How do we evaluate these ideas?
The claimed discovery of a Venetian Cannon found at or near Louisbourg in Cape Breton Island would seem to be the most interesting piece of evidence. (It can be seen in the museum at Louisbourg.) A Venetian account possibly written by a Venetian sailing master on the voyage is another.

I think Sinclair, who claims to be a descendant of Henry St Clair, has probably made his case for the existence of the colony, based on a Venetian account and the actual archaeology at the site. He says the colony was not resupplied because the Earl was killed fighting an English attack on the Orkneys and thus the colonists were absorbed into the local native tribes, who learned certain techniques from them. This would explain how some tribes acquired Gaelic and Norse words in their language, claimed by Barry Fell (last section).

He goes on to attribute the Newport Rhode Island Tower to the St Clair colonists exploring down the coast and perhaps setting up a subsidiary colony in Rhode Island. The actual tower does seem not unlike northern European towers of the 14th century and earlier in Orkney and Shetland. This explanation is at least as good as any other for the existence of this very Unamerican building.

But students should not neglect the opposition. Cold water on the Sinclair expedition can be found here.

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Andrea di Robilant - Venetian Navigators
Not yet available from Amazon US

Venetian Navigators: The Voyages of the Zen Brothers to the Far North

5. Are the Jews descended from Akhenaten's religious reforms in Egypt?
Robert Feather argues that they represent the defeated followers of Akhenaten after the restoration of traditional Egyptian religion following his death. He argues that Moses was an Akhenatenist and led a mixed group of Akhenatenist priests and Hebrew (Semitic speakers) slaves out of Egypt. He further argues that the Egyptian tradition was preserved in the Essene community of 2000 years ago. His book is based mainly on the discoveries at Qumram of ancient texts believed to have been left there by an Essene community.

How do we evaluate these ideas?
Feather's arguments are based partly on his metallurgical knowledge and cites the Copper Scroll rather than the quasi-biblical documents. Critics of his work say he is ignorant of thinking about biblical history, but this may be an advantage if it allows him to bring a fresh eye to the material. The unaligned historian should treat religious and theological theories as lacking in verifiability and therefore not evidence for what actually happened. Feather's idea was previously proposed by Sigmund Freud.

His idea is that the Essenes represented the descendants of the priesthood of Akhenaten, continuing that tradition. Clearly this idea is upsetting to some modern religious Jews but that doesn't mean the historian should not consider the idea. He bases his thoughts on a copper scroll found among the documents at the probably Essene monastery at Qumram. He interprets it as an inventory of the gold at Akhenaten's temple. Texts at the site he regards as based on Akhenatenist tradition.

Is his interpretation right? It is very difficult for the non-specialist to evaluate his very dense and at times mathematical argument. However, nothing he says is impossible, and his hypothesis makes more sense than the theological history. If his interpretation were to lead to actual discoveries at the site of Tel el Amarna, Akhenaten's capital, they would be welcomed more willingly.

One important objection to his theory is that there is no evidence for the existence of the Essenes for much of the period between Akhenaten and Roman times.

Recent DNA analysis of the traditional priest clan of Jews, the Cohens, may show that this hereditary group is descended from Egyptian priests or at any rate has some genes peculiar to this group. He further speculates that another Akhenatenist group settled on the island of Elephantine where they maintained an Akhenatenist temple, with some similarities to Jewish practices. He argues that the priests of this Temple eventually migrated up river and founded the Falasha community of Ethiopia.

Feather also speculates that the reforms of Akhenaten derived from an earlier contact between Abraham and his grandfather. If true what came to be known as Judaism would be a synthesis of some Egyptian ideas and some Sumerian ideas.

See Egypt.

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Robert Feather -







Der Mann Moses und die monotheistische Religion

6. Graham Hancock
Is there anything that the serious historian should pay attention to in the work of Graham Hancock? Hancock has written some popular books. Do they have anything to do with the real history of humanity?

Ordinary academic history is concerned with what is known about humanity in the period since the invention of writing. Thus it begins with the Sumerians, whose thoughts and business practices were recorded in the script they invented. Cuneiform clay tablets exist in huge numbers. Actually, the cities at Mohenjo Daro and Harrapa also have a script, perhaps earlier, but it hasn't been decoded, and may never be. The civilisation of Dilmun, based on Bahrain, also had a script, undeciphered.

Hancock concerns himself with earlier periods. He, and writers like him, ask themselves questions like: how old is the Sphinx? where do the huge buildings in Andean South America come from? Who built the underwater "cities" possibly being discovered off the coast of India?

These are quite legitimate questions but the academic historian finds it very difficult to say anything useful about these matters because evidence is lacking. Writers like Hancock rush to fill the gaps of our knowledge with imagination. It would be wise always to distinguish between things we do know, from evidence, and things that are imagined. Thus, Hancock imagines that the Ark of the Covenant is in a certain church in the city of Gondar in Ethiopia and recounts a tale of how it got there. Is it there and is there real evidence for his tale? As the object in that church is guarded fanatically it seems unlikely that an academic historian will ever get to examine it, the only test of whether Hancock is right. Thus his central idea about the Ark is not in practice testable. (Nor whether it is, as some fringe writers have proposed, an example of ancient Egyptian "high technology" , even nuclear in form.)

How do we evaluate these ideas?
One of Hancock's main ideas is that there was once a worldwide human civilisation that collapsed, and whose remnants were the seeds of modern cultures. One of his claims is that it was based in Antarctica. As the ice cores there have been examined closely it can be said that there is no evidence at all for any ice free period for at least a million years.

Another of his ideas - also used by other fringe writers - is that the earth suffered a time when the earth's crust "slipped" moving the position of the poles. There is not the smallest piece of evidence for this, and plenty of reasons why it is impossible (this idea seems to derive from a 1960s speculative article by Hapgood - long disproved but still used by fringe writers). Thus two of his main "explanations" for the events he describes are certainly not founded in evidence and must be regarded as pure imagination.

Like many other fringe writers he cites the descriptions of weapons in the Mahabharata that may seem to resemble descriptions of nuclear weapons and jet fighters used in a war, perhaps referring to a time before the Aryans crossed the mountains to enter India. Only the discovery of radioactive sites could lend any support to these ideas - and as China and the Soviet Union have conducted nuclear tests in Central Asia it would be very difficult to attribute any radioactivity there to very ancient events.

Nevertheless, even if Hancock's explanations don't make any sense, there remain problems of dating mega-structures in Egypt and the Americas - the Andean stone structures are indeed a historical problem. Are there undersea structures off the coast of India, and elsewhere? If so, the implication is that they were built before the end of the most recent ice age - about 8000 BCE - at a time when most historians argue there were no urban civilisations. Archaeologists need to examine these sites and look for human artefacts. Perhaps there will be a complete re-evaluation of the age of human civilisation.

Could the civilisations we do know about have got a start from a worldwide civilisation that we don't know about but which broke up in some disaster? Hancock does not provide respectable evidence for such an idea, but imagination is free.
Egypt
South America

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Die Spur der Götter




7. Emmanuel Velikovsky
Velikovsky claimed that the Planet Venus was once a comet and that it disturbed the orbit of the earth causing the stranger events in the Bible and delivering the oil. His books are pure fantasy and have no connection with anything known from archaeology, geology and physics. Nevertheless, apparently he has supporters or disciples. The historian need pay no attention to his books, other than to observe what people will believe.

How do we evaluate these ideas?
Nothing in his books is based on observable evidence. His critics, who are numerous, point out that he knew nothing at all about science or the scientific method but had a background in the fantasies of Psychoanalysis. His "evidence" was based on his interpretation of ancient, mostly religious, texts.

Google will produce many references, nearly all negative.

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Immanuel Velikovsky


8. Dan Brown etc.- Fake History
There seems to be a taste in modern popular culture for conspiracy theories and the idea that "someone" knows things that the rest of us don't know, or indeed that the people who seem to control things actively propagate untruths. In this case the criminals would be the whole profession of historians and scientists. Historians are supposed to rely on evidence. The fringe writers produce dodgy evidence. Perhaps this is part of a general anti-intellectual fashion.

One strain of this distrust of the mainstream of scholarship is seen in the books by Dan Brown, Henry Lincoln, Baigent.. etc. who together have created a series of fictions pretending to be history. It seems that at least some of the readers believe "there must be something in it". However, actual investigation shows that there is no historical basis for their stories. Indeed, the inventor of the key idea is known - Pierre Plantard.

The main concept is that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, moved to France and somehow became the ancestor of the Merovingian kings - a clan of very uncivilised German tribesmen. The story goes on that the secret was carried on by a secret order or society known as the Priory of Sion. Mixed up in this story are the names of people well known to history such as Leonardo da Vinci, enlisted long after their death into this implausible narrative. Other strands are stories about the Priest Berenger Saunière, in the village of Rennes-le-Chateau in southern France, said to be mysteriously rich (though in fact rich from donations from the aristocracy for saying masses - a minor clerical fraud).

The original story in Holy Blood and Holy Grail sold quite well, but when reworked by a popular novelist Dan Brown sold much better.

Is there anything for the historian in this daft story? Nothing at all, though the BBC Timewatch team are to be congratulated on tracing the origins of the hoax. It's been good for all branches of the tourist industry, including Roslyn Chapel near Edinburgh, Eurostar for trips to Paris, certain churches in France and Britain and, of course it has sold lots of novels.

The author has heard Lincoln lecture and formed the impression that he believed in his (or Plantard's) theory, but it seems unlikely that Brown does. There are many spin-offs from the central story - the "mystic" landscape round Rennes-le-Chateau, "interpreting" the painter Poussin, the alleged symbolism of the Roslyn Chapel - a very ornate building from before the Scottish Reformation. Does any of this impinge on real history? Probably not, though the Chapel certainly exists, even if the Priory of Sion does not and did not. The unpleasant Merovingian kings existed but Pierre Plantard is not descended from them - or no more than we all are after over 1200 years of gene mixing.

There is a legitimate study of symbolism in Old Master paintings, but the Baigent etc. theories do not belong to it.

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Numerous books:
Dan Brown - the Da Vinci Code


Michael Baigent et al - Holy Blood, Holy Grail


See also the BBC Timewatch programme, debunking the whole theory and showing that Plantard was the author of the hoax.
This site includes a variety of material about the hoax, some critical, others less so.
See also Fringe history>

9. Oswald Spengler
This writer wrote in German, but was translated into English (of a heavy handed Teutonic style) and was influential during the early part of the 20th century. He seems to have influenced such modern writers as Samuel Huntington and his theories of the Clash of Civilisations. Adolf Hitler is said to have admired his work, though Spengler himself did not admire Hitler. In the first half of the twentieth century a number of other writers took his work as the basis for their interpretation. Although few people now admit to an interest in his ideas, some of Huntington's writing seems to have unacknowledged quotations from Spengler's work, and he may have influenced the Neo-conservative movement in the United States (see Project for a New American Century)

Spengler interpreted human history as being the story of a number of quasi-biological entities he called Cultures. He claimed that each Culture had a fixed period of existence (about 1000 years), and that its final stage was what he called a Civilisation. He said that each culture went through a series of processes just like a biological individual. He saw a period of Birth, an early period of Feudalism, a period of Contending States and then a fixed period when cultural changes ceased. The last he called the Civilisation, but with the specialised meaning of the death of culture and development, when intellectual change ceases. Scott (see below) sees the moment of birth as the result of exceptional people acting in such a way as to create new cultural currents. Spengler has no theory of how cultures begin, other than a kind of biological inevitability.

Among the Civilisations he said he recognised were: the modern European (or Euro-American) culture, which he called Faustian, after the story by Goethe; the Apollinian or Classical, based on Greece and Rome; the Egyptian; the Magian or Middle Eastern, based on the Jewish, Christian and Islamic religions; the Chinese. He proposed that Russia represented a future Culture in embryo.

His was a theory of Determinism (like the Marxism he disliked). His view was that individuals can do nothing to influence the course of history, but merely play out the roles available to them at the particular stage they find themselves in the history of their Culture. Thus in Late Cultures the inevitable political form is the universal empire, headed by an emperor and giving no power or influence to the formerly independent and contending nations.

Spengler was a high school teacher but excellently well read in classical history. His political views were influenced by the milieu of the Bismarckian Empire, and the Prussian concept of the State, to which individuals were subordinate. He did not believe in democracy, preferring rule by an aristocracy. His disdain for Hitler was that he wasn't an aristocrat (but he shared his contempt for ordinary people - whom he characterised as Felaheen).

His type of thinking, classifying humanity into super-organisms also influenced Arnold Toynbee who wrote a competing version in his immense work "A Study of History".

Do either of these writers add anything to the study of history?

How do we evaluate these ideas?
It would seem to be impossible to prove or disprove them. That is, neither Spengler's nor Toynbee's are to be compared with Science. As they could not be disproved, they can be classified merely as visions or interpretations - another kind of imagination. The danger is in those people who treat them as if they were objectively true. Thus those who treat them as fact, and base current foreign policy on them, may make serious mistakes. For a dangerous example, the idea that there exist different "civilisations" which are totally incompatible may contribute to the intellectual milieu that makes possible such wars as those in Iraq and Afghanistan, in which western troops treat the "natives" as less than human.

Spengler wrote 50 years before it was recognised how many influences entered Medieval Europe from the neighboring Islamic world: the foundations of modern science and mathematics, derived from the Arabic texts translated into Latin at such places as the School of Translators in Toledo, Spain, at first while it was part of the Islamic world, later when it had been conquered by the Christians. It is now clear that all human civilisations have influenced each other profoundly and all languages show influence from others. In fact, far from these writers producing a universal theory of human history we can see that in reality they reflected their own times and circumstances. Spengler reflected the authoritarian state of Prussia and Bismarckian Germany; Toynbee the British Empire and its influences. At that time the different European states seemed immensely separate, each its own universe - two world wars have ended that feeling. Europe itself seemed separate from the rest of the world, a perception necessary for ruling the colonial empires. Our own time sees the world in a different light, as modern communications bring all the formerly separated parts together.

Francis Fukuyama, once part of the Neo-conservative group, rather rashly claimed that with the end of the Cold War history itself had come to an end, with western democracy destined to be the final political form, and war to cease. At least Spengler and Toynbee with their immense historical perspectives would never have been so foolish.

The desire to find a general theory of history would seem to be entirely futile, because human beings and their behaviour is so extremely complex, and so little can really be known. It is always difficult to know what happened and why. Consider the quite recent assassination of President John F Kennedy. There are many theories about how and why he was shot, and there will never be a generally accepted and undisputable account.

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Der Untergang des Abendlandes (Albatros)

Le déclin de l'Occident. Volume I : Forme et réalité. Volume II : Perspectives de l'histoire universelle

Arnold Toynbee - A Study of History



A Study of History: Abridgement of Vols I-VI


Samuel Huntington - Clash of Civilisations


The Clash of Civilizations: And the Remaking of World Order

10. Ernest Scott
This writer (claimed to be Edward Campbell a journalist who died in 2006) has produced a book with unusual ideas. His main idea is that human history is directed by a group of organised and more highly evolved humans, perhaps based in Afghanistan. He cites huge numbers of texts. He seems to have been influenced by the ideas of George Gurdjieff, and possibly Idries Shah.

Like Spengler and Toynbee, Scott sees human history as comprising a number of civilisations and cultures. Unlike Spengler he does not see them as rigidly determined by mechanical rules, but as the result of the actions of very gifted people creating or introducing new ideas and techniques.

Among the many interesting ideas in his book is his suggestion that at certain periods a small number of very gifted people can set the tone for a whole subsequent period of history. Thus he cites the abbey of Cluny in Burgundy from which the whole of medieval religion may have emerged, especially its Gothic style of architecture, with its mathematical implications and the development of building and engineering skills. It was founded by monks from Monte Cassino in Italy. He notes that the founders of this community sent students to Toledo to learn from the Arabic texts being translated. One of the offshoots of Cluny, Cîteaux, also had huge influence on medieval society, religious, economical (a Cistercian monastery in Yorkshire invented steel in the 13th century) and even military. Perhaps also the Templars.

Another of Scott's examples is the Renaissance in Italy when a small number of intensely gifted people in Florence, such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michaelangelo created the artistic and intellectual streams that influenced the whole of Europe for centuries. An earlier example was the founders of Greek civilisation, including Pythagoras, Thales and Solon, all competent in many different human fields (learning many things in Egypt), who lived at the same time as Gautama Buddha and several other founders of cultures, including Confucius. Later in Greek civilisation was Socrates, whose methods influenced philosophers for thousands of years.

The legendary founder of the Egyptian culture, Thoth, also was said to be competent in all human skills - law giver, engineer, physician.

Does he make his case? The only thing is to read his book and for the reader to make up his own mind.

How do we evaluate these ideas?
I have no idea how to evaluate them but the book is an interesting read. It is a great contrast to Spengler's work. Spengler, Toynbee and Scott are not writing conventional history, but perhaps something to be called Meta-history - attempting to find a meaning in history, something professional historians avoid.

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Ernest Scott- People of the Secret



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