University of Exeter: Forgery of official documents by monks was rife across medieval Europe, new book shows

Forgery of official documents by monks was rife across medieval Europe because of social changes and the growing importance of the written word, a new book shows.

Fake documentation began to be produced in earnest in the tenth century across much of the continent and was the “white lie of the Middle Ages”. Monks justified deceit because they felt their efforts were for the greater good.

During this time many diocesian boundaries were being drawn for the first time, and there were changing practices in law and administration. The book, by Dr Levi Roach from the University of Exeter, argues forgery helped people seek solace and security in the past. It was also an important tool for monks to cement what they saw as their institutional rights to land and property as aristocrats gained more power.

Dr Roach said: “Few regions in world history can rival medieval Europe for the sheer scale of forging. Most of the forgeries were associated with leading figures within the church – men such as Bishop Thietmar of Merseburg and Gilbert Foliot, abbot of Gloucester and later bishop of Hereford. It was faith, not cynicism, that inspired the era’s counterfeiters. Before the 10th century it was relatively rare; by the 12th, it was rife.

“This newfound fascination with forgery was driven by new attitudes to local and institutional memory. It was in the later 10th century that many abbeys and bishoprics first started writing down their own histories, often embellishing them with forgery.”

Dr Roach examined five religious institutions in the book, using documents now held in 50 archives across Europe. The painstaking detective work involved analysing handwriting, document layouts and the parchment used. He also analysed later copies of original documents, often produced to reconstruct lost paperwork.

The research shows forgers modelled their efforts on authentic documents, often quite closely. The results may look obviously anachronistic to a trained modern eye, but they did not in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Most were assumed to be authentic well into the nineteenth century, and a few continue to have their defenders.

The growing use of the written word meant more official information was recorded during this period, and these documents had greater authority. There was also disagreement and competition between churches, and between churches and noblemen as to who owned land and property. Sometimes there were conflicts within the same church, something to be expected when monks lived so closely together.

Dr Roach said: “Looking at forgery tells us so much about the human condition. There was a reason why people wanted to deceive, and this was particularly the case in the church in the Middle Ages across Western Europe. It happened at almost every religious house for which good archives still exist.

“Faith drove forgery. People justified fakes because they thought God was on their side. This happened from the earliest days of the church. People knew they were deceiving others, but felt their motives were pure.”

Many of the forged documents wouldn’t have been widely seen, and were often produced as a precaution. They may have been used to show to supporters and visitors, or perhaps presented in a court of law.

Dr Roach said: “Forgery reflects society’s concerns and problems in a similar way to fake news today. Forgeries were often designed to be seen by those already converted to the cause; people lied to their friends not to their enemies.”

Falsifiers used productions on well-known and powerful individuals, such as the Merovingian ruler Dagobert I (623–39), the Carolingian emperor Charlemagne (768–814) and the last monarch of England’s native line, Edward the Confessor (1042–66).

The most common types of text forged in the Middle Ages were charters conveying or confirming legal rights, particularly of liberty, immunity and exemption. Most royal courts had no more than a handful of scribes, who often combined their royal duties with responsibilities elsewhere, often at local religious houses. Texts were drafted and copied before being approved, sealed, or given signs of assent. New charters were modelled on old versions, often repeating their terms verbatim. Forgeries are often obvious because of anachronisms.

One of the case studies featured is Pilgrim, bishop of Passau in south-eastern Bavaria between 971 and 991. Pilgrim hailed from one of the foremost Bavarian noble families, and his uncle, Archbishop Frederick of Salzburg, was his immediate superior within the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Pilgrim faked documents, writing them himself, to give Passau a glorious history, producing one of the most imaginative and elaborate forgery complexes of Austrian and Bavarian history. It is likely that Pilgrim had local audiences in mind: the cathedral canons at Passau, and perhaps also their haughty neighbours at Salzburg.