Tackling the Archive: Detecting Forgeries. A Case Study

Dr Daniella Marie Gonzalez | Aberystwyth University

This is the fourth instalment of a series on archival skills and training, designed for early researchers and enthusiasts.

My last article ‘Understanding Archival Diplomatics’ touched upon the subject of medieval forgeries in the context of how diplomatics can be used to authenticate documents and tell us whether or not the document is legitimate. As outlined in my third article, figures like Jean de Mabillon saw that it was essential to distinguish and identify forged documents in order to establish the integrity of a document. This article thus looks at forgeries more closely, explaining what forgeries were, why they were popular in the Middle Ages, offering an example of a forged document and how to realise this ‘deception’.

Forgery in the Middle Ages

The practice of forgery has a long and rich history and can be traced back to the worlds of Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt. Forgeries were also not just texts, such as charters, but also constituted objects and items, such as seals. It was during the Middle Ages, however, that forgeries became widespread and largely increased following the tenth century when institutions began to commit memory to the written word. During this period we especially see that counterfeit documents were made in large numbers by leading figures in the Church, who were individuals who had the linguistic and technical skills needed to forge documents. These individuals would have crafted forgeries to prove rights of land, for example, or to assert particular privileges or precedents. Moreover, there is widespread evidence that monasteries, such as Christ Church, Canterbury, and St Augustine’s, as well as Westminster and Durham, produced forgeries both to add to the archives of less affluent houses and for their own advantage. Not only were those who were literate found within monasteries but, also, monasteries themselves were repositories that had their own archival practices.

While there were those who criticised the act of forgery – we see that John of Salisbury viewed the falsification of the papal seal as a threat to the fabric of the Church –, forgery itself was not exactly a punishable offence. The exception to this was the forgery of the King’s seal yet generally, in the words of T. F. Tout, ‘forgery was a misdeed that was necessarily limited to clerks’ and thus ‘[t]he clerk addicted to forgery was in a … secure position’.1

Forgeries were not necessarily about deception. Frequently, forged documents were made for what Levi Roach has termed the ‘greater good’ and were created as an act of faith (see the full article in HistoryExtra here). It is important to remember that whilst forgeries could be based on genuine historical records that forgers were trying to imitate and thereby implemented the usual formulaic structures of the documents that they were recreating/rewriting. These false documents, whilst ‘rewriting history’, are also a useful insight into the practice of medieval historical writing and contemporary concerns that those forging documents had.

The History of Crowland Abbey: A Case Study

There are several examples of forgeries produced during the Middle Ages, one especially well-known example is the ‘Donation of Constantine’, but being a late medievalist myself, I thought I’d go into detail about one particular example from the later medieval period.

The History of Crowland Abbey (Historia Croylandensis) is made up of several records, such as charters and grants, that detail the history of Crowland Abbey, located in Lincolnshire and which the King of Mercia, Ethelbald, had built during the 8th century to commemorate St Guthlac. Thought to have been written by Ingulf, the second Benedictine abbot of Crowland Abbey from 1087-1108, the Historia was widely accepted as THE history on Crowland Abbey. The part of the Historia written by Ingulf consists of 2 parts: the first is made up of charters of Crowland Abbey that date from 716 to 1085, and the second part is a history of the Abbey itself from 716 to 1091, which includes a summary of the life of St Guthlac and information about the Mercian kings spanning from Penda to Celred. Ingulf’s work is then supposedly followed by material written by Peter of Blois, a twelfth-century humanist. The histories believed to be written by Ingulf and Peter of Blous are then followed by three further histories found within the complete Historia Croylandensis – these range from 1149-1470, 1459-1486, and October 1485-April 1486.

The Historia’s authenticity and its authorship, however, began to be questioned by the nineteenth century and it was W. G. Searle who determined in 1894 that the text was a fourteenth- or fifteenth-century production. As a result, the ‘Pseudo-Ingulf’ and ‘Pseudo-Peter’, as these are now referred to, were undermined and their credibility as a historical source became circumspect. For the purposes of this piece, the rest of this section focuses on the material included within ‘Pseudo-Ingulf’ to demonstrate how to identify a forgery and what we can learn from them.

Whilst the Historia was unparalleled and unquestioned from the sixteenth century onwards and by later antiquarians, the content of the Historia immediately draws attention to its dubious nature. Contextual errors are made throughout. For example, Edward the Confessor was the first English king to have a Chancellor, yet the author of the text recorded that Edward the Elder’s Chancellor was Thurketil. The author even went as far as to write that a fourteenth-century structure, known as the triangular bridge, was around during the tenth century. The writer even brought back men from the grave who had been long dead, causing them to go on missions to princes and kings!

Linguistically there are also telltale signs of forgery. There are several anachronisms peppered throughout the charters that make up the Historia and it is clear that the figure who forged the Historia confused Norman Latin terms with those used before the Conquest of 1066. Even the tenth-century Englishmen included within the Historia are using the wrong language and speaking within the French vernacular!

Despite the Historia’s harsh critics (especially the renowned T. F. Tout!) and its evident implausibility, its usefulness as a source, nevertheless, is not totally lost and the text itself borrows from well-regarded and reliable sources, including William of Malmesbury, Orderic Vitalis, and Florence of Worcester. The records included within the Historia also drew upon Exchequer material. Within the later material, the forger clearly made use of the Exchequer copy of the Domesday Book in their recounting of the Domesday survey itself and the description offered of what lands Crowland Abbey owned. Its reliability may be suspect but it certainly shows us what forgeries can tell us about textual culture and the concerns of the medieval mind, as well as institutions, at the time of production. The Historia Croylandensis may be a monastic forgery but it gives us an insight into monastic historiography and the importance given by the forger to Crowland Abbey.

Further Reading:

If you’re interested in reading more about forgeries and examples of these in the Middle Ages, here are some reading recommendations:

  • Alfred Hiatt, ‘Forgery as Historiography’ in Medieval History Writing: Britain and Ireland 500-1500 ed. Jennifer Jahner, Emily Steiner and Elizabeth M. Tyler (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019)

  • Alfred Hiatt, The Making of Medieval Forgeries: False Documents in Fifteenth-century England (University of Toronto Press: Toronto, 2004)

  • Levi Roach, ‘The forged texts of the Middle Ages: why Europe’s holy men turned to counterfeiting’, History Extra (February, 2020)

  • David Roffe, ‘The Historia Croylandensis: A Plea for Reassessment’, The English Historical Review, Vol. 110, No. 435 (Feb., 1995), pp. 93-108

  • T. F. Tout, ‘Mediaeval forgers and forgeries’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, 5(3-4) (1919), 208-234

Dr Daniella Marie Gonzalez is a Cataloguer on the Prepare & Move Project at the Parliamentary Archives. She is also the Social Media Fellow for the British Association for Local History, Communications Officer for ARA’s Section for New Professionals and Co-founder of MEMSLib. She completed her PhD at the University of Kent in 2020 and researches the history of medieval London, focusing particularly on political language and civic records. Dr Gonzalez is currently undertaking a qualification in Archive Administration from Aberystwyth University and is pursuing a career as an Archivist.

Twitter: @DeeGonz92