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May is an exciting month for Exeter’s Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. As a part of Dr Levi Roach’s AHRC funded grant ‘Forging Memory: Falsified Documents and Institutional History in Europe, c.970-1020’, a series of events will be held across the University, and the Cathedral and its Library & Archives exploring Exeter’s genuine and fake medieval documents.
In the 1060s, shortly before the Norman Conquest, the canons at Exeter Cathedral produced a series of fake royal charters. These forgeries claimed that King Æthelstan of England (924-39) had granted the church multiple pieces of land along the Exe valley. These fakes tell us little about the reign of Æthelstan, but they do provide a fascinating snapshot into the concerns of the eleventh-century cathedral community and its leader, Bishop Leofric.
Medieval charters were created to record a transaction between two parties, such as a king and a church. As such, they capture the interests of both the donor and the recipient. In contrast, a fraudulent charter only represents the concerns of those who later forged it. Medieval forgeries can therefore provide us with a privileged view into the thoughts and concerns of the clerics who produced them. In the case of Exeter Cathedral, the forgeries in the name of Æthelstan were created to try and enhance the church’s properties: none of the lands ‘Æthelstan’ supposedly granted in the charters were held by the Cathedral in the eleventh-century. Through these forgeries, the canons tried to provide proof of their ancient right to things which did not belong to them.
Forgeries can tell us about more than just a community’s nefarious ambitions, however. The ways they were composed reveal how medieval people thought about their past. Often, when completing fake documents, forgers would try and copy the style or handwriting of other ancient documents; they were aware that fakes had to look the part. In turn, the authorities invoked in forgeries reveal what parts of the past were most important to a community. At eleventh-century Exeter, it seems that King Æthelstan was a foundational figure.
Including the Æthelstan forgeries, Exeter Cathedral’s Library & Archives hold sixteen pre-Conquest charters – an exceptionally large number for a regional archive.
Between 13-31 May 2019 some of these charters, both forged and genuine, will be displayed in an exhibition held at Exeter Cathedral’s Library & Archives, titled Forging the Past in Medieval Exeter. The exhibition explores how and why the canons at the eleventh-century cathedral produced forgeries, placing their production in the context of changes within the bishopric and Viking invasions. Also displayed throughout the exhibition is the so-called ‘Golden Charter’ – a charter issued by King Æthelred ‘the Unready’ in 994 to the Bishop of Cornwall, in which the see’s privileges are defined and secured. While the contents of this charter are significant in themselves, the charter’s epithet comes from the fact that all its capital letters are covered in gold leaf. The charter is the oldest surviving golden single sheet charter from Anglo-Saxon England. This unique status led to the ‘Golden Charter’ being loaned to the British Library for the internationally acclaimed exhibition Anglo Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, held from October 2018 to February 2019.
Running alongside the exhibition are a series of public tours on Saturday 25, Monday 27 and Tuesday 28 May. These tours provide a unique opportunity to see some of the Archive’s Anglo-Saxon charters up close. They will explore the motivations of specific Exeter forgeries, as well as the dynamic life of these documents in the 1,000 years after they were written. These tours are free, but numbers are limited so booking is essential – please sign up for tickets here.
The month of forgery events is rounded off by Levi Roach’s public talk, ‘Fake founders and counterfeit claims: the forged documents of medieval Exeter’, held in the Cathedral Chapter House at 19.00 on Thursday 30 May. In this talk, as well as discussing the forgeries produced at Exeter during Bishop Leofric’s episcopacy, Levi will place these fake documents in their broader British and European contexts. Again, this event is free, but please do book your seat in advance here.
Dr Jennie England, researcher on AHRC-funded ‘Forging Memory’ project
In June and July 2018, Julia Hopkin, an MA student in experimental archaeology at Exeter, spent some time in Exeter Cathedral Library and Archives, funded by the university as part of the College of Humanities’ student internship scheme. Her job was to create a guide for students (at all levels) who might be interested in using the Library and Archives for research. Here she talks about her experience.
We’ll be putting copies of the guide on the module webpages for the History dissertations other modules but otherwise for a copy please contact Catherine Rider (firstname.lastname@example.org). For more information on the Cathedral Library and Archives see their website.
Most people are completely unaware that Exeter Cathedral has a library or an archives, and to those unfamiliar with it, it might sound like a rather intimidating place, full of dust and uninspiring tomes. These ideas couldn’t be further from my experiences there and in my recent role putting together a guide to the Library and Archives’ collections, my aim was to debunk some of these misconceptions and make the extensive collections as accessible and unintimidating as possible, especially to students who may not have much experience with research outside the university.
The earliest contributions to the library date to the mid eleventh century, with the first books brought to the Cathedral by Bishop Leofric in 1050, and the archival documents have been accumulating from around the same time. Records and acquisitions in both areas are ongoing, and the topics covered by the material are almost bewildering in their scope. This makes them a gold mine for researchers in all sorts of subject areas – from Anglo-Saxon literature to local genealogy, 17th century medicine and medieval land ownership – but something of a daunting prospect for an undergraduate and for anyone (i.e. me!) trying to put together a brief summary of the collections. The L&A staff were as helpful and knowledgeable as always, however, and with their help I managed to find a handful of broad themes that represented the main bulk of the collections while appealing to student interests.
From there it wasn’t difficult to find examples from both the Library and Archive collections to illustrate the wide range of topics represented in the collections. Famous volumes such as the Exeter Book (a unique collection of Anglo-Saxon poetry) and Exon Domesday (a rare survival of local data collected for the Domesday book) were obvious choices, but other types of sources such as photographs, newspaper cuttings, and even the books and Cathedral buildings in themselves, as records of historical craft techniques and heritage conservation, also provide a vast supply of research opportunities. Many sources are also sadly under-investigated and could benefit considerably from research being done on them – the wax seals of bishops, monarchs and dignitaries from around the country attached to early charters being a particularly promising example.
I also made an effort to emphasise that there really might be something for everyone at the Cathedral and to highlight sources that people might not expect. Students primarily interested in international history might assume there was little for them, but when the library includes a whole range of bibles translated into Native American languages, relics of 19th century Christian missionary efforts, who knows what other research topics the collections can cater to? To combat the misconception that all historical material is dry and boring, I also included my favourite group of Cathedral sources, the Chapter Act books. Kept continuously from 1385 to the present day, these record Cathedral decisions and payments, often in minute detail. The records vividly illustrate life in the past in all its wonderful mundanity, from the orders of new hymn sheets and repairs to almshouses to the misbehaviour of choristers and organists – such as the fines given to Richard Dickinson, bellringer, who ‘through his own fault’ managed to break some of the Cathedral windows during a funeral in 1619.
As I began my research it became clear that not only was there entirely too much material to create anything more than a very brief guide, but also that introducing students to the process of researching in the Library and Archives was just as important as giving an insight into the collections themselves. Having volunteered there in the past, I was familiar with the peaceful location behind the Cathedral, the wall displays in the entrance hall interpreting the history of the Library and Archives and some of its treasures, and the quiet, book-lined reading room, but introducing it for other students has helped me to appreciate it in a new light. I suddenly noticed features like the wheelchair ramp and the browsing mode of the online catalogue, as well as all the potential research opportunities that appeared when I started looking at them from the perspective of other researchers coming for the first time. Describing the process of making an enquiry and trying to emphasise how welcoming and knowledgeable the staff are has made me realize how lucky we are as Exeter students and residents to have such an amazing resource freely available to all of us and right on our doorstep.
I hope that the guide will make the Library and Archives’ material more widely used by Exeter students. There is a huge amount of material that could not only really enhance student’s work, but also would benefit from more attention and research work done with it. There is so much to be gained on both sides and both I and the Library and Archives’ staff would be delighted if even a handful of students turned their interest and expertise to these collections. This has been an extremely rewarding project for me, and I hope it continues to be of value to others for the years to come.
Julia Hopkin, MA Experimental Archaeology
A couple of weeks ago, on Saturday 17th March, a few staff in the Centre had a stall at the University’s Community Day to showcase some of the research we do relating to Exeter Cathedral. We had interest from people of all ages, asking questions about our projects, the pictures and maps we were showing, and about life in medieval Exeter more generally. Here is a short taster of the research by Sarah Hamilton, Oliver Creighton and me that was on display. We’re also in the early stages of planning a larger scale project which looks at the history, archaeology and manuscripts of Exeter Cathedral, and if you’d be interested in hearing more please feel free to get in touch with me.
Exeter Cathedral and its World: Sarah Hamilton focused on Cathedral MS 3518, a liturgical manuscript which lists, among other things, the saints commemorated by the Cathedral community each day. This includes the major Christian saints as one would expect but it also includes a number of more local saints from the South West of England, such as Nectan of Hartland and Petroc of Bodmin. Looking at these saints is one way to understand how the medieval clergy of Exeter Cathedral thought about their local history, and people had fun trying to spot the saints’ names in the images of the manuscript (surprisingly tricky: I never did find Rumon of Tavistock…).
Medieval Medicine in Exeter Manuscripts: I was looking at Cathedral MS 3519, a collection of medical treatises and recipes from the early fifteenth century, particularly some of the ones relating to pregnancy and fertility. Recipes like these are often striking for their weirdness (at least to modern eyes) – eating animals’ reproductive organs to stimulate men’s and women’s fertility, for example – but they are also a fascinating way to think about medieval people’s health concerns.
What Lies Beneath? A Geophysical Survey of Cathedral Green, Exeter: Oliver Creighton contributed some images from a geophysical survey of the Cathedral Green that he undertook last year with other staff and students from Archaeology. This was probably the most popular part of our stall, as people tried to interpret the black and white images and work out if there was a Roman road underneath the cloisters.
And if anyone wants to hear more about one of Exeter Cathedral’s most famous manuscripts, the Cathedral is holding an afternoon event celebrating the Exon Domesday on 17th April: see their website here for more details and to book.
Senior Lecturer in History
It brings me great pleasure to announce that the Arts and Humanities Research Council has seen fit to fund my new project, ‘Forging Memory: Falsified Documents and Institutional History in Europe, c. 970–1020’. This aims to place forgeries at the heart of our understanding of the growth and development of historical consciousness at a key period in European history. Starting from the the deceptively simple observation that the later tenth century is the first time when the forging of documents can be attested across the Latin-speaking West, it seeks to investigate what this meant on the ground.
Medievalists have, of course, long known that falsified documents can be just as interesting as the real thing. Nevertheless, forgeries continue to receive less attention than their authentic counterparts. In part, this is a matter of inertia. Particularly when using older editions, it is all too easy to slip into the tendency of ignoring those marked up as ‘forged’ (conveniently relegated at the back of the volume, in the case of the older Monumenta Germaniae Historica editions). More to the point, perhaps, forgeries often lack context. Whereas we know a fair bit about where and when most authentic documents were produced, it is difficult to ascertain the same for forgeries – documents which by their nature seek to hide their true origins. Studying them therefore requires a great deal of contextual knowledge about the forger and his (or her) aims, a fact which has discouraged synthesis and generalization.
Still, when we can date and localize forgeries, they offer a wealth of information. Precisely because forgers were not constrained by the realities of their day, these documents tell us much about their hopes, dreams and ambitions; they were the blank canvases onto which the monks and clerics of the Middle Ages projected their ‘ought world’ (to use Karl Leyser’s memorable turn of phrase). In this respect, we are lucky to have a number of closely datable forgery complexes from the later tenth century. Five of these will form the basis of my investigation, which will result in a book-length study: the counterfeit diplomas and papal bulls of Pilgrim of Passau (970s); the Worms forgeries, associated with Bishop Hildibald (980s); the purported papal privileges of Abbo of Fleury (990s); the Orthodoxorum charters, concocted under the auspices of Abbot Wulfgar (mid- to later 990s); and the forged and authentic diplomas associated with Leo of Vercelli (late 990s).
The intention is to use these case studies as a springboard to consider broader themes of memory and institutional identity in these years. They have been selected in order to give maximum geographical range within a tightly defined period; they have also been selected to give a balance of monastic houses (Fleury, Abingdon) and cathedral chapters (Passau, Worms, Ivrea). Each forgery complex is unique; and I hope to give due weight to the specific as well as the general. By examining a range of cases, however, I also hope to avoid getting lost in the detail. The interest of these documents lies in the fact that each act of forgery was not simply one of wishful thinking (though it was often this too); it involved a creative engagement with the past, the formulation of an alternative history of the religious house in question. By examining this phenomenon at the turn of the first millennium – a period identified by Patrick Geary as a decisive one where attitudes to the past are concerned – the study will add depth to our understanding of these developments.
In pragmatic terms, the project will run 21 months (effectively two years), with the first nine of these spent on archival research. Thereafter, the focus will be on writing up and disseminating findings, with a strong public outreach element. During this time, I will organize panels on the subject at a number of international conferences. The project will be then capped off with a public exhibition at the local cathedral in Exeter, which boasts its own fascinating collection of forgeries of the mid-eleventh century. This will be complemented by an end-of-project conference here at Exeter on ‘Forgery and Memory between the Middle Ages and Modernity’. Anyone interested in getting involved is strongly encouraged to !
Dr. Levi Roach, Lecturer in Medieval History
Of the many celebrated names connected with medieval Exeter, Bracton is one of only a handful to claim global recognition. Bracton is known to students and practitioners of law throughout the Anglophone world as a founding father of English Common Law and the assumed author of an invaluable compendium ‘On the Laws and Customs of England’. While he is widely known as Bracton, his name should properly be written as Bratton, and he probably he hailed from one of the two Devon parishes (Bratton Fleming or Bratton Clovelly) that carry this name. A justice on the south western circuit and serving the coram rege – later the court of King’s Bench – in the middle years of the thirteenth century, Bracton was probably not the originator of the book that has always borne his name but rather its subsequent editor. It was perhaps his great expertise gained from years on the court circuit, as well as his status as chancellor of Exeter Cathedral – a position he secured at the close of his career (1257) – that ensured his editorial interventions were remembered above all others. Bratton was buried in the nave of the cathedral, endowing a chantry funded from the manor of nearby Thorverton; sadly the site was lost in the building’s later remodelling.
Bracton and ‘his’ book are attracting renewed attention from Exeter researchers. Following a successful exhibition at the cathedral library and archives highlighting his work and Exeter associations curated by Centre PhD student Zoe Cunningham, this week Anthony Musson, Professor of Legal History, will deliver a keynote lecture, Bracton: Making Laws in Medieval Devon, on 11 November in the Cathedral’s Pearson Education Room at 1pm as part of the Archives Explored programme.