The Medieval Review 16.11.24


Bak, János M., Patrick J. Geary, and Gábor Klaniczay, eds. Manufacturing a Past for the Present: Forgery and Authenticity in Medievalist Texts and Objects in Nineteenth-Century Europe. National Cultivation of Culture, 7. Leiden: Brill, 2015. pp. xxxii, 325. $154.00 (hardback). ISBN: 978-90-04-27680-2 (hardback).



Reviewed by:


Elizabeth Emery
Montclair State University
emerye@mail.montclair.edu

A preface entitled "The Long Shadow of Ossian" opens this fascinating essay collection edited by János M. Bak, Patrick J. Geary, and Gábor Klaniczay. The editors and fourteen contributors do not engage extensively with Macpherson's epic, yet the appeal of his Romantic-era medievalism haunts the volume, which presents debates related to philology, authenticity, imitation, appropriation, nationalism, and prestige, largely in the context of Eastern Europe. In fact, the industrial associations connected to the word "manufacture," so prominent in the volume's title, are much less germane to this new contribution to Brill's series on "Nationalism and Culture" than Coleridge's "suspension of disbelief," the willingness of communities to seek out and accept documents, objects, and historical figures that support their rewriting of origin narratives. The book itself originates from the work of a research group organized at the Collegium Budapest in 2008-2009 on the theme of "Medievalism, archaic origins and regimes of historicity" (vii). Given this background, as well as Romantic poet Sandor Petõfi's work on "Homer and Ossian," it is understandable that so many essays (six of fourteen) deal specifically with Hungary.

The editors' seventeen-page preface sets out the volume's parameters, organized according to motifs for engaging in "forgery," a word defined rather idiosyncratically as "something that pretends to be (or is presented as) what it is not" (viii). Such a personal definition strips "forgery" of its strong fraudulent and material connotations, yet it is a useful device for opening the volume to discussion of complex "imitations" and "inventions" in a variety of media from manuscripts and archaeological objects to narratives and genealogies. Part I, "Searching for the Voice of the Nation," includes essays evoking texts found, fabricated, or authenticated by scholars to "serve as the rallying points of emerging national consciousness" (xv). This section includes Pavlína Rychterová, "The Manuscripts of Grünberg and Königinhof: Romantic Lies about the Glorious Past of the Czech Nation"; Péter Dávidházi, "To Authenticate a Manuscript: The Case of Toldy and Hanka, Hermeneutically Reconsidered"; Pertti Anttonen, "The Kalevala and the Authenticity Debate"; László Szörényi, "János Arany’s Csaba Trilogy and Arnold Ipolyi’s Hungarian Mythology; and "From the Anonymous Gesta to the Flight of Zalán by Vörösmarty." Essays in this part hew closest to the book title and its promise of an exploration of the ways in which medieval texts were adapted or created in the service of nationalist purposes in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Finland.

Essays in the second part, "Inventing a Past," similarly explore the use of the Middle Ages to further nineteenth-century national or cultural goals, but they focus more specifically on cases where the falsification of documents and material culture legitimize alternative historical narratives, as in the case of the Cumans in Hungary (Nora Berend, "Forging the Cuman Law, Forging an Identity") and Jews in Crimea (Dan D. Y. Shapira, " On Firkowicz, Forgeries and Forging Jewish Identities"). These two essays are particularly fascinating for their discussion of the ways in which subsequent historians have insisted that they were true, even in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary. The two other contributions to this section ("Benedek Láng, "Invented Middle Ages in Nineteenth-century Hungary: The Forgeries of Sámuel Literáti Nemes"; Igor P. Medvedev, "Excellent Scholar--Excellent Forger: The Case of Karl Benedict Hase") would have fit equally well in the first section as they deal with specific cases of antiquarian-forger-dealers who furnished libraries and collectors with doctored materials purporting to be "real" medieval manuscripts; they chronicle the stories of how subsequent scholars detected their fraud.

Editors explain the rationale of the third section, "'Ancient' Objects: Fakes and Fantasies," as a discussion of "either outright fakes used for misleading the present or such projects that attempt to preserve a long lost time as if it were still alive." As this citation suggests, the essays in this section cohere less than in the two others, both in in the broad conceptions of forgery introduced and in authors' more tenuous focus on the connection between Middle Ages and nineteenth century. Cristina La Rocca's "Agilulf, 'The Nonexistent Knight' and the Forging of the Italian 'Germanic' Past," with its discussion of the "Lombard Treasure" and its reception in the early twentieth century, would have fit nicely in the second section. Two other essays explore the creation and reception of idiosyncratic nineteenth and early twentieth-century museums intended to preserve vestiges of the national (though not specifically medieval) past: Giedrė Mickūnaitė, "Imagining the Real: Material Evidence and Participatory Past in Nineteenth-Century Lithuania"; Johan Hegardt, "Time Stopped. The Open-air Museum Skansen of Artur Hazelius." Sándor Radnóti reflects about museum installations of medieval buildings in "The New York Cloisters: A Forgery?" Given its lack of references to previous work on medievalism in the Americas, this thought-provoking contribution is less a scholarly essay than a series of personal considerations about a New York museum allegedly "sneered at by Europeans" (308). [1]

The most puzzling editorial choice concerns the decision to reprint János György Szilágyi's 1987 essay, "Wisest is Time: Ancient Vase Forgeries," without any update of content or bibliography. It is jarring to read that the history of forgery has yet to be written (173), when so much recent scholarship has focused precisely on forgery, including a book by Radnóti, a contributor to this very volume. [2] While providing lyrical personal considerations about forgery through a discussion of classical motifs found on pieces from the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts, Szilágyi's essay departs entirely from the others, which treat nineteenth- and twentieth-century repurposing of documents, events, and objects from the medieval period. Like Szilágyi, Berend and La Rocca have also published variants of their essays appearing here.

Although not strictly a conference proceedings, reading the volume feels a bit like plunging into a conversation already started, an impression fostered by the editorial preface which, for definitions, tends to defer to other essays and to a 2013 volume also derived from the 2009 Collegium Budapest research group: Manufacturing the Middle Ages: Entangled History of Medievalism in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Brill, 2013). The conversational nature of the style in several essays (notably Szörényi, Bak, and Radnóti) evokes their initial oral presentation, while the extremely poor copyediting detracts from the otherwise lovely production standards of the volume. Many texts contain errors of grammar and punctuation as well as striking infelicities of style and expression. To give just one example, on a single page of the preface (x) we find "Napoleon times," "hundred years old copy," "forged himself the title of a baron"). The sixty images, on the other hand, a few in color, enrich essays about little-known artefacts and museums (Láng, Szilágyi, La Rocca, and Hegardt) by allowing readers to examine them for themselves.

Manufacturing a Past for the Present: Forgery and Authenticity in Medievalists Texts and Objects in Nineteenth-Century Europe provides captivating insights into the motivations for passing off "doctored" materials or stories as medieval originals. Readers encounter scholars so enamored of their field of study or their desire to promote alternative histories for their community that they feel little compunction about "augmenting" the work of their medieval subjects. These are stories brimming with "double agents" (129), scholarly "criminalists" (147), and historians as national heroes. Shapira refers to his subject, Firkowicz, as "a Jewish Tolkien with a chisel before there was any modern Jewish literature at all--what a role!" (166). Indeed! The sheer variety of engagement with the falsification of documents and material objects and attempts to preserve them in national archives, museums, and libraries invite readers to reconsider received ideas about forgery as largely motivated by financial gain. In the pages of this volume we find innumerable motives for fabricating "medieval" documents and art work, from the desire to imitate or complete unfinished works to personal experiments with language to nationalist imperatives. The volume's geographical scope and interdisciplinarity merit particular praise: contributors include historians, literary scholars, art historians, archaeologists, philosophers, and specialists of religious studies working across Europe broadly defined.

On the other hand, the definition of "forgery," the ostensible focus of the volume, is extremely broad, which leads to a great deal of slippage among the words "forgery," "fake," "imitation," and "fabrication," which tend to be used interchangeably though they carry markedly different connotations (x). In some cases (Hegardt and Radnóti), the word "forgery" seems particularly inappropriate to the subject at hand (museum installations). It would have been helpful to provide a general theoretical conclusion that might more explicitly have made the claim that "forgery" can be a productive process. Similarly, the term "medieval" receives no definition, despite the fact that examples from "the past" run the gamut from classical Greece to the nineteenth century. Is there a difference between forging seventh-century objects for exhibition at the Burlington Fine Arts Club and incorporating eighteenth-century buildings into Skansen? Without critically responding to this question the third section of the book, where a variety of objects from various eras are collected and "repurposed" for modern needs, seems to suggest that all appropriations of the past are the same.

Essays in this volume provide valuable insights into the reasons for which scholars, artists, and museum curators have created modern documents and objects masquerading as "medieval" or authenticated them as such. Yet the project as a whole would have benefited from more overarching theoretical engagement with the concept of medievalism, a field critically engaged with precisely such issues of imagination, authenticity, authority, primitivism, and presentism. Defining the word "medievalism" only as "those ideas and manifestations that in one way or another attempted to conjure up the pre-modern world of Europe" provides similar organizational flexibility to the broad definition of "forgery" adopted in this volume, but it also neglects one of the major theoretical aspects associated with the field of medievalism, namely that "present" concerns impact all scholars working on the Middle Ages whether they be professionals or amateurs, their works academic or fictitious. Such ideas have been discussed by scholars such as Leslie Workman and Richard Utz in articles for years, but have been more formally codified in recent books published after the present volume was already in press. [3] One of the most interesting implicit conclusions that can be drawn from Manufacturing a Past for the Present: Forgery and Authenticity in Medievalists Texts and Objects in Nineteenth-Century Europe is precisely the argument made by these theoreticians of medievalism: one generation's "scholarship" often becomes the next generation's "medievalism."

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Notes:

1. Kathleen Davis and Nadia Altschul (eds.), Medievalisms in the Postcolonial World: The Idea of "the Middle Ages" Outside Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2009); Angela Weisl (The Persistence of Medievalism (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003).

2. Sándor Radnóti, The Fake: Forgery and Its Place in Art (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1999).

3. David Matthews, Medievalism: A Critical History (Rochester: D. S. Brewer: 2015); Elizabeth Emery and Richard Utz (eds.), Medievalism: Key Critical Terms (Rochester: D. S. Brewer: 2015); Tison Pugh and Angela Weisl, Medievalisms: Making the Past in the Present (New York: Routledge, 2013).



Copyright (c) 2016 Elizabeth Emery



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