Course: Forgery, Lies, and Deception in Medieval Historical Documents

HC 233H

Professor: Michael Peixoto

As a graduate student, my advisor once told me that a forged document is a perfect document. Every other type of record is, at best, a written approximation of a real action.  The limitations of the page, the scribe, and the circumstances of the writing experience force the writer to include certain things and not others.  Thus the resulting document always has within it the particular choices of the author, and lacks the totality of the real life act.  It is in some sense, a copy of reality.  Conversely, in the case of a forgery, the creation of a written record is the act.  It is its own reality; even if everything it reports is bogus.

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 Carolingian 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.  While fascinating in their own rights, the issues presented by forgery to both medieval people and modern scholars can offer methodological insight for the interpretation of historical texts in general.

As the research component of the three-part honors history series, the primary goal of this class is to develop the intellectual tools necessary for independent inquiry into a historical topic of the students choosing.  Throughout the class, every student will work toward the creation of an analytical research paper based on the reading of historical sources (not necessarily forged ones).  In addition to this 10-week project, and as a means of enriching it, the 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, 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 Norman Conquest of England, 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, research papers on a wide variety of topics will be welcome.