Forgery, Lies, and Deception in the History of the Middle Ages


The issue of forgery is central to many of the most important aspects of medieval history. Some of the foundational documents relating to the medieval growth of the papacy were forgeries that were not discovered until centuries later. Hundreds of landed charters, accounting for large pieces of the kingdom of England, were forged in the immediate wake of the Norman conquest of 1066. Some scholars have estimated that as many as 50% of all documents from the Merovingian period were forged. In addition to these overt cases of intentional deception, medieval people also struggled with the ideas of authorship, authority, and legitimacy regarding many key elements of medieval culture. Theological writing, personal letters, religious objects, and narrative chronicles all posed issues of truth and falsehood for medieval people. This class will study the intellectual, cultural, and social history of medieval forgery and ideas of veracity. We will examine famous forged documents such as the Donation of Constantine, the use of historical chronicles as a source for political propaganda, the legitimacy of relics and miracles, and the correspondence with the imaginary Eastern king, Prester John. The material of the class will explore many of the most important events of the Middle Ages: the coronation of Charlemagne, the first crusade, the affair of Abelard and Heloise, and the Trial of the Templars, among others. The class will question the search for legitimacy in historical writing and explore the uses of fake and outright untrustworthy material. The strategies for the critical interpretation and use of phony and deeply biased sources will prove valuable in analyzing almost any historical material and, consequently, conference papers on any medieval topic will be welcome. This course does not require any previous knowledge of medieval history and is open to all students interested in the period.