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Forging the Past in Medieval Exeter

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.

An Anglo-Saxon forged charter at Exeter Cathedral

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.

King Aethelstan (Originally from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge)

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

 

K’zoo and Leeds Forgery Sessions

As part of my ongoing project on medieval forgery, I am pleased to anounce the following Call for Papers on ‘Forging Memory: False Documents and Historical Consciousness in the Middle Ages’ for both the Kalamazoo and Leeds medieval congresses next year (May 9-12; July 1-4), organised under the auspices of the Centre for Medieval Studies here at Exeter:

D Arn 163 (Munich, BayHStA, HU Passau 11), forged by Pilgrim of Passau

Over the last two decades, scholars have shown great interest in how group and institutional identities were constructed and contested within (and beyond) the Middle Ages. Much attention has been given to the role of narrative histories of peoples, regions and religious houses in this context. Only relatively recently, however, has the contribution of more ‘documentary’ sources come to be appreciated. In recent years, we have learned that cartularies and cartulary-chronicles are not merely repositories of texts, but powerful statements about local and institutional identity. These sessions seek to develop these lines of investigation further by examining the contribution of forgery to these processes. They aim to bridge the gap between the study of historical memory (which until recently has taken written narratives as its starting point) and documentary forgery (which tends to focus on the legal implications of such texts), offering new vantage points on old problems regarding uses of the past in the Middle Ages.

 

Papers on any of these themes considering on any region or period within the Middle Ages are welcome. Proposals of up to 300 words should be sent by email to me () by 15 September, with an indication as to whether you wish to be considered for the Kalamazoo or Leeds sessions. Two sessions are already confirmed at the former, while I am looking to organise anywhere between one and three at the latter (depending upon demand).

Levi Roach, Senior Lecturer in Medieval History

 

Forgery comes to Exeter!

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 MGH Diplomatathing. 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).

D Arn 161: forged by Pilgrim of Passau
D Arn 161: forged by Pilgrim of Passau

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 Gearyrange within a tightly defined period; they have also been selected to give a balance of monastic houses (Fleury, Abingdon) and cathedral chapters (Passau, Worms, Vercelli). 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.

 

Exeter Cathedral
Exeter Cathedral

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

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