Forgeries and Historical Writing in England, France, and Flanders,


Welcome to the Herald, Professor Berkhofer! It’s a pleasure to discuss your book in our landmark 50th edition. May we begin by asking about the origins of your interest in the Middle Ages and about your studies to date?

Thanks so much for inviting me. 

My interest in the Middle Ages began as a teenager, when I attended a summer school program in southwest England and first saw medieval castles and cathedrals. I wondered: who built these and how? 

From that point onward, I was hooked. So I decided to study medieval history at university which was an unusual degree of focus for the US. In my earliest research, I worked with medieval documents, that is, charters and collections of charters (cartularies), becoming interested in how different forms of writing were used for various ends. This interest in documentary (or even literate) culture in the Middle Ages is something which unites my various project so far. 

Do you remember when you first encountered the issue of forgeries? And what made you decide to investigate in such depth?

During the research for my dissertation (which later formed the basis for my first book), I spent a lot of time looking at charters and cartularies for the monastery of Saint-Denis. One of the frustrating aspects of this research was how many forgeries one encountered. At that point, there was no edition or even a handlist of the charters of Saint-Denis, so I spent a lot of time trying just to make a list of what existed and trying (perhaps naively) to assign them dates. 

I received some very kind and generous help from two French scholars, Annie Dufour of the section diplomatique of the Institut de Recherche et d’Histoire de Textes, who was in the process of making a list of the charters in Archives nationales series L (when many Saint-Denis charters are kept) and Olivier Guyotjeannin at the École des Chartes, who was re-editing the charters of the early Capetians. Both of them provided new ways for me to consider these forged charters. However, my dissertation supervisor, Thomas Bisson, thought that it would be unwise for me (as such an early career scholar) to focus on them for my dissertation, since forgeries were a vexed subject. This turned out to be good advice, but I never forgot those early discoveries because I was intrigued as to why so many were made.

How do you define a forgery? Does it have to have been intended to deceive? 

So I spend a lot of time in my book defining what forgery means now versus what medieval people thought. I think the most important thing to know is that medieval people had a strong sense of the true/false dichotomy but that the forgery/genuine dichotomy is a modern concept which is not equivalent. Modern scholars DO distinguish forged documents, especially because they view them as bad evidence and there are a lot of technical distinctions. 

But to answer the question, some modern scholars would argue that if the form of a medieval document is not genuine, it should be thought a forgery, even if the writers sincerely believed it was true. On the other hand, medieval people were not unsophisticated, and had very strong opinions about lying and falsity (for example “thou shalt not bear false witness” comes to mind), but actually didn’t have a word that was equivalent to the modern word forgery. Indeed, in Middle English the verb “to forge” simply means to make something (such as a tool using a forge as a blacksmith did), and did not acquire the meaning to make something deceptive until the very late Middle Ages. 

But how did monks/scribes square deception and lying with their Christian ethics?

Throughout the Middle Ages, medieval clerics (monks included) all argued that lying was wrong and that intentionally deceiving others was also wrong. As I show in the book, in a few rare cases in which those monks who forged documents were revealed, they were severely punished. Such activities were regarded as unchristian. 

However, “forgery” as it is usually discussed by historians also includes more subtle practices, which I regard as either “invented traditions” or “creative misreading” of the past. It could be regarded as pious, for instance, to affirm that your local saint had in fact given all the land in the area to your monastic house and for the writer to believe sincerely that this was not only true, but just. So, creating documents or narratives which affirmed such beliefs could be regarded as acts of good faith. Because of this tendency, I deliberately explore the “stories” which forgers were trying to tell and how they might convince various audiences, because I believe that we can write a history of their beliefs and ideas, even if the events they purport to describe never actually happened. 

Tell us about the three archives you have researched.

Each of three monasteries archives has their own story and a special perspective in my book. The archives of Saint Peter’s, Ghent allow for a very detailed reconstruction of how their Liber traditionum of the early eleventh century was composed and by whom. This allows one to explore the purposes and goals of the composer (we are fairly sure who it was) to a degree that most archives and books do not allow. 

I have mentioned Saint-Denis above, whose archives actually show many waves of forgeries over several centuries, which allows historians to understand how repeated layering of forgeries can lead to bigger and better stories (as previous waves become accepted as “history”). 

Finally, Christ Church, Canterbury’s archives show us many moments of transition after the Norman Conquest, across regimes, languages, and even ways of regarding the role and function of writing. 

Each of these was a major center of forgery and each had pretensions of associations with powerful rulers—with the counts of Flanders (who were buried at Saint Peter’s until the time I study), Saint-Denis was the necropolis of the Carolingians and Capetians, and Christ Church was the monastery associated with the archbishops of Canterbury, and thus tied to the origins of the English Church and tied to Norman attempts to dominate and centralize the post-Conquest church. Thus, writers at these scriptoria had means, motive, and also opportunity to forge.

And what did you find? Are there different approaches in each or are there patterns and similarities among the forgeries in all three?

So, as I was just explaining, each adds its own unique “story” which is embedded in its milieu. However, certain patterns in techniques or similarity in themes exist across them (and I believe were present in other houses generally), and I explore these at length in the book, especially in a coda to the three stories, where I draw out comparisons and connections. 

Can you give us some of your favourite examples?

Just to give one example, it is often the case that monks experiencing “regime change” of a major lay patron or ruler feel the need to get the new boss to confirm the acts of the old boss. The new boss, seeking to be accepted as legitimate, will often then confirm the old boss’ arrangements. The best example of this is the new Norman kings of England, who are claiming to be the legitimate inheritors of the English.  Of course, forgers can take advantage of this to present documents which LOOK LIKE what the old boss granted, but might be subtly (or not so subtly) changed to their advantage when confirmed by the new boss.  Consequently, there are a lot of forgeries of the acts of Edward the Confessor (and about as many survive as genuine ones). 

This is, of course, deliberate manipulation, or perhaps we might see it as trimming the sails to the prevailing wind in order to get closer to the course they wanted. Perhaps not the best analogy, but it hints at another common pattern: making small but significant tweaks but otherwise leaving everything else alone so that the desired innovation can go forward clothed in tradition (always thought good in the Middle Ages). 

What did the scribes / forgers hope to achieve? What impact, if any, did these documents have, either at the time or subsequently? 

Their motives and methods varied. In many cases, the goal was to assert claims to lands and revenues which supported the monastery. But there was also a lot of fighting over status, often with other ecclesiastical institutions. In particular, relic forgeries were used to pump up the cult of the saint, to increase prestige of the house (and perhaps pilgrimage to it), or to assert superiority over a rival house. I explore several cases of such competitions. In terms of impact, many forgeries are confirmed or accepted as genuine and they seem to have been as effective as written instruments were generally in this period, which was not always determinative. Ironically, as the status and importance of written records grows in the twelfth century, both the technical difficulty and the utility of forging both increase, which raises the stakes.

How obvious are most forgeries? Are they generally known to be ‘fake’ or have they managed to dupe historians and archivists?

Medieval forgeries were designed to imitate the genuine, and so can be quite difficult to detect then and now. Many were and are quite subtle. I examine the development of medieval procedures to prevent and detect forgeries in chapter five, and explain that the dialectic between forgers’ tricks and means of detection was ongoing, especially as the status of written documents shifted. Many forgeries have managed to dupe historians and archivists. Indeed, the foundations of the modern discipline of history are intimately connected with post-medieval scholarly attempts to sort the forged from the genuine, usually to try align them with “bad” and “good” evidence for scientific (or objective) history. Of course, the value of any evidence shifts based on what one is studying. 

Nonetheless, the rise of actual scientific means of analysis (using different spectra of light, biological or chemical analysis of parchment or ink, etc.) has provided much more certain means of detecting forgeries. But I think one still has to be suspicious first, before going to all that trouble. In some ways, only those documents deemed the most “significant” (charters of kings and popes for instance), have been systematically examined. This was why, of course, I wanted to explore these monastic archives—they weren’t exactly routine ones, but it allowed for an analysis of a different level of activity. 

And finally, what has your experience been of online conferences over the last two years? The hybrid model (online and in-person) seems likely to spread, at least in the short-term. What are your thoughts on conference formats these days? Will you be attending them in-person again this year?

While I have been pleased to see friends and colleagues virtually, including some I did not see before because their circumstances prevented travel to conferences, I welcome the return of in-person conferences. I think that insofar as hybrid contributions increase access for those facing travel or health barriers, they will be a useful tool in future. Of course, hybrid is in many ways much more expensive and difficult for organizers, however it may be convenient for some attendees. 

Furthermore, I think that the pivot to online teaching reveals something about conferences too: it is clear that face to face instruction is generally better and more rewarding than virtual, and I believe this is true about conferences. It is an impoverished sense of a conference to think of it as being only about “hearing” papers. A lot of the value of conferences is in interaction with peers, much of which is spontaneous and cannot, therefore, be planned in advance as all virtual events must be. The pandemic has revealed that such meetings cannot and should not be taken for granted and that we must work in future to preserve them. I think this will not be easy. As for myself, I am planning to attend my first in person conference in four years, the IMC at Leeds, where I hope to be able to talk to people about my new book, since this will be the first big conference at which it will be available from Boydell. 

I look forward to seeing you and any of your readers there!

Forgeries and Historical Writing in England, France, and Flanders, 900-1200

Robert F. Berkhofer III

1 b/w & 3 line illus.; 348pp
£75/$99, 9781783276912
April 2022
Medieval Documentary Cultures
Boydell Press




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ROBERT F. BERKHOFER III is associate professor of medieval history at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Images: BL Cotton Charter xxi.9, a cover letter (top) of Bishop Giles of Évreux (1170-1179) with his account of the confession of Guerno the forger (bottom), joined by the bishop’s seal. One of three sets of identical copies. © The British Library Board, reproduced by permission.