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One of the most striking discoveries of modern scholarship on medieval European documentary traditions has been just how widespread forgery was. Almost every major religious house was involved in falsifying documents at some point; and many witnessed multiple waves of forgery. Those responsible were not backstreet rogues, but leading members of the ecclesiastical establishment – abbots and bishops, scholars and schoolmasters.
A case in point is Thietmar, bishop of Merseburg between 1009 and 1018. Thietmar is best known to modern students as the author of a chatty chronicle, which furnishes our most detailed narrative of socio-political developments within Germany in these years. Yet Thietmar was not simply a historian; he was also a forger. To modern eyes, these may seem like very different activities: the historian seeks to illuminate the past, the forger to obscure it. In the European Middle Ages, however, they went hand-in-hand. One of the main purposes of narrative history was to secure the rights and reputation of the family or (more often) religious house in question; and so it was with Thietmar. His bishopric had been dissolved in 981 and refounded in 1004, only five years before his own appointment. In writing his Chronicle, Thietmar sought to justify the act of refoundation and lay claim to episcopal rights lost in the intervening years.
It’s here that forgery came in handy. A chronicle might set out a programmatic case for restoring rights, but such arguments were unlikely to gain traction without documentary proof. And so it was that Thietmar came to produce a diploma in the name of Otto II (r. 973-82), claiming to grant the forest of Zweckau to Merseburg. A real document to this effect may once have existed. But this is not it – it’s clearly a fake, modelled on an authentic diploma of 974 (also in favour of Merseburg).
That this document is a forgery has long been known, as has Thietmar’s involvement in its production (he writes about the diploma at length in his Chronicle). What has escaped notice is one of the more subtle signs of falsification. When recounting the grant of Zweckau, Thietmar lays great store the fact that Emperor Otto II confirmed the diploma ‘with his own hand’ (manu propria: see image below).
This is an allusion to the process by which the royal/imperial monogram at the bottom of the diploma came into being. Alongside the seal, the monogram was the main means of authenticating a document. And particular importance was accorded to the so-called completion stroke (German: Vollziehungsstrich) here, the final cross-stroke, which would only be drawn once the grant had been approved by the ruler. Some kings took on the duty of drawing this final stroke themselves, as Thietmar’s account suggests. But this was not a universal practice, as modern scholarship has noted. Within the Ottonian period, Otto III (r. 983-1002) seems to have been the first to do so regularly, starting in the mid-990s; thereafter Henry II (r. 1002-24) also periodically did so. Earlier, there are few if any signs of such autograph completion; then the norm was for the scribe responsible for the closing elements of the diploma (the eschatocol) to produce the entire monogram.
Why does this matter? Because Thietmar’s forgery creates the impression of autograph completion (as mentioed in his Chronicle): the cross-stroke on the monogram is notably thinner than the other vertical and horizontal strokes, suggesting that it has been added in a separate stage. Yet here Thietmar has been too clever by half. In aiming for verisimilitude, he has fallen into subtle anachronism, presuming that the documentary practices of his own day were prevalent in the 970s. His contemporaries may have been fooled, but Otto II wouldn’t have been.
Dr Levi Roach, Associate Professor of Medieval History
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
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:
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
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, 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.
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