Forging Memory: Falsified Documents and Institutional History in Europe, c. 970-1020

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: History

Abstract

Over the last two decades historians have shown great interest in how group and institutional identities were constructed and contested within (and beyond) the Middle Ages. Particular attention has been given to the years around the turn of the first millennium, which is seen as a period of decisive change, when such identities became more clearly articulated in written form. This process found expression in new documentary forms, such as the cartulary (a collection of documents recording grants of land and legal rights to an institution), and a flowering of narrative history, often of an institutional nature. Though these developments have long been appreciated, one of their most important and enduring consequences has received little if any treatment: a rise in documentary forgery. This project seeks to redress the balance, placing forgery at the centre of our understanding of these years.

The project examines how and why falsification became widespread across large swathes of Western Europe in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries. It builds on earlier work on counterfeiting, arguing that this was one of the means by which churchmen began to order (and re-order) their institutional pasts in these years. By bridging the gap between studies of historical memory (which typically take narratives as their starting point) and forgery (which tend to focus on documentary evidence) the project breaks new ground, arguing that forged documents provide precious insights into changing attitudes towards the past, especially in these crucial years. It aims to dispel the rather Whiggish disdain sometimes expressed towards falsified documents, arguing that they are amongst the most interesting and important historical records of the Middle Ages. Far from reflecting childish naivety and blithe anachronism, the counterfeits of the era - which often closely mimic earlier visual and linguistic forms - bear witness to a highly developed sense of the past.

Though much has been written on the subject of medieval forgery, previous work has focused on the 'paradox of forgery': how an 'Age of Faith' was also an 'Age of Fabrication'. As a consequence, individual groups of falsified documents are often still neglected, treated as isolated aberrations rather than part of a broader European culture of counterfeiting. Indeed, attempts at synthesis are particularly rare, and this will be the first major study to go beyond a single realm or region. The subject is approached through five carefully chosen case studies: Worms, Passau, Abingdon, Vercelli and Fleury. These have been selected in order to cover a range of regions (two from modern Germany - and then from its eastern and western borders; and one each from France, England and Italy) and institutions (three bishoprics and two monasteries). The intention is to examine each set of documents in insolation, then draw together the common strands, examining the complex interplay of local and general factors behind this activity.

By pursuing the subject of forgery across medieval and modern borders, this project offers a unique opportunity to engage and collaborate with scholars across Europe and North America. Few historians can claim expertise across all the regions examined, and this will position me at the forefront of a field still all too often divided by national historiographical traditions. Project findings will be discussed in papers at a series of international conferences, including one organised at the host institution, and will reach their final form in a research monograph and edited volume. Elements of the research will be disseminated to a broader audience through a set of school workshops and events at the local Cathedral in Exeter (which boasts its own intriguing set of forgeries of the 1050s). By strengthening ties with these organisations, the project will also place me at the forefront of local and institutional public engagement and impact activities.

Planned Impact

This project will achieve a wide range of impact. Collaborating with the local Cathedral Archive, I will use its history and documents as a springboard for introducing members of the public to the core research themes. Particular points of focus will be A-level history students at local schools and members of the local community in Exeter; both groups have an active interest in the city's past, but rarely know much about its early history. My undertakings here complement existing initiatives: the Cathedral is keen to attract interest in its earliest years (which are often neglected in favour of the more visible twelfth- and thirteenth-century heritage); meanwhile, the new National Curriculum places a strong emphasis on British and local history, and schools are keen to support activities which enhance their coverage here.

As noted, in order to bring the role of forgery in Exeter's (and Europe's) past to light, the project makes use original documents - both forged and authentic - housed in the Cathedral Archive. The core event will be a month-long exhibition at the Cathedral entitled 'Forging the Past in Medieval Exeter', designed to make medieval forgery accessible to a wide cross-section of the general public. This will be the first time that the seven surviving Exeter forgeries have been put on display; it will probably also be the first dedicated exhibition on medieval forgery in the UK. These documents will be presented with transcriptions and translations (from Latin and Old English); they will also be accompanied by a number of authentic charters from the archive (for purposes of comparison). Commentaries will provide a sense of context and explain the reasons for doubting (or trusting) their authenticity. The exhibition will be open to all Cathedral visitors (c. 12-13,000 a month in May), as well as regular churchgoers. It will be accompanied by two public talks at the Cathedral, one by the PI on the Exeter forgeries and how they fit into the project's broader research questions; and another by the keynote speaker at the end-of-project conference, which will address the subject of forgery in broader terms. These will be promoted through the Cathedral's normal outreach programme, as well as by the local branch of the Historical Association. Both will offer smaller groups a chance to hear more about forgery and how it fits into Exeter's past.

The other main strand of public engagement takes the form of school workshops and guided tours of the exhibition. The workshops are designed as 'Stretch and Challenge' exercises for more interested and engaged Sixth Form students at the three local schools offering A-level History (Exeter College, the Exeter School and the Maynard). They will take the form of three hour-long sessions: the first will introduce students to the subject of forgery and its historical interest in broad terms, the second will highlight the importance of forgery in the Middle Ages, and the third will focus on the Exeter forgeries, taking the form of a guided tour through the exhibition. Alongside these, a set of tours will be offered to members of the general public. These will offer an opportunity for interested individuals to engage with the exhibition and its materials in greater detail.

Beyond these core initiatives, I will seek to publicise the project by writing pieces for popular publications, including the BBC History Magazine, and seeking coverage in the local and national press (particularly during the exhibition). There is an enduring public interest in the subject of forgery, shown by such programmes as 'Fake or Fortune?', and I hope to tap into this, opening further impact opportunities.

By balancing articles and larger-scale events with talks, workshops and guided tours the project ensures a range of breadth and depth of impact. It will also strengthen ties with the Cathedral and its archive, placing me in a position to lead future public outreach initiatives.

Publications

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