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23.02.02 Berkhofer, Forgeries and Historical Writing in England, France and Flanders, 900-1200

23.02.02 Berkhofer, Forgeries and Historical Writing in England, France and Flanders, 900-1200

The forging of documents was, as most specialists are well aware, rife in the Middle Ages. Be it in the form of the infamous Donation of Constantine or that of the more workaday counterfeits common in local society, false documents pervaded the era. Yet despite their prevalence, forgeries have rarely received their due from scholars. Diplomatists have expended much effort on detecting them, but all too often this has been an end in itself. Motivated by the positivist spirit of the nineteenth century, they have contented themselves with identifying and removing the offending texts from the historical record, much like the cockle from the wheat in the biblical parable. A few more intrepid souls have examined forgery as a subject of interest in its own right, most notably Horst Fuhrmann, Christopher Brooke and Giles Constable. [1] Nevertheless, even they largely restricted themselves to considering the “problem of medieval forgery,” namely, how an age of faith was also an age of falsification. More wide-ranging was Alfred Hiatt’s fine monograph of 2004 on the subject, but this only tackles one country (England) in the later Middle Ages. [2] And while more recently Geoffrey Koziol and Constance Bouchard have helped set the subject on a firmer footing, neither dedicates more than a chapter to forged texts. [3]

It is into this gap that Robert F. Berkhofer III now steps with his fascinating study of monastic forgery in Flanders, England, and France in the long eleventh century (as he calls it). Berkhofer’s is the second monograph on forgery in as many years; and while the present reviewer must admit a partisan interest, [4] it is to be sincerely hoped that it will not be the last. Berkhofer opens programmatically, noting (quite rightly) that the shadow of positivism still hangs over the study of forgery, which is all too often seen as a “problem” to be “solved” with source-critical acumen. In the first full chapter, Berkhofer then delves further into modern and medieval ideas of forgery and authenticity. Here he notes that the traditional distinctions of diplomatists only take us so far. These are often useful from an analytical standpoint, but risk obscuring our vision if they remain the only lens through which we view the phenomenon. As important are medieval ideas about truth and falsehood. These encompassed an awareness of--and concern regarding--the falsification of documents. Yet they also stretched to a more moral understanding of truth, one which accorded much weight to the past as it ought to have been. It is precisely this counterfactual element which makes forgeries such rich sources, as Berkhofer emphasizes. They may tell us little about the time they purport to come from, but they have much to tell us about the hopes, dreams and ambitions of the communities which produced them.

It is this characteristic--an interest in what Karl Leyser memorably called the “ought world” of the Middle Ages--that then becomes the central strand of Berkhofer’s book. At its heart lie three case studies of forgery from across the long eleventh century--those of St Peter’s, Ghent, Saint-Denis, and Christ Church, Canterbury--that are considered in turn in the second section of the book (the first having comprised the introduction and first chapter). Berkhofer proceeds chronologically here, first taking in the forged and authentic acts preserved in the Liber traditionum of St Peter’s, Ghent (ch. 2). The latter was an early cartulary produced in the 1030s, which presents a very particular version of local history, one in which St Peter’s was always senior partner to the other local monastic community, St Bavo’s. At various points in the preceding years, the two monasteries had been overseen by the same abbot, resulting in competing claims to lands and rights. They also jostled for spiritual prominence, both claiming to have been founded by the great missionary saint, Amand. This was not the first conflict between the houses, nor would it be the last; and a string of additions were soon made to the Liber, as the monks of St Peter’s continued to assert their claims. In the second case study (ch. 3), we then move to Saint-Denis just outside Paris some thirty years later (the 1060s). While in Ghent tensions between monastic communities had stood centre stage, here it is conflicts with the local diocesan bishop that were important. As in many other parts of France, these years were characterized by episcopal attempts to extend and formalize powers of oversight over local monastic communities--and by monastic attempts to resist these. Thanks to the survival of an impressive run of pseudo-original (i.e., forged) papyri in the names of popes and Merovingian monarchs, alongside a dossier (or mini-cartulary) bringing these texts together, however, we can follow these processes especially well at Saint-Denis. Certainly, the local monks here were amongst the most brazen and successful of these years, using their counterfeits to secure confirmation of their rights by Alexander II in 1065, an act duly confirmed by King Philip I in 1068. Even so, this was not the end of the story, and conflicts rumbled on well into the twelfth century, inspiring further waves of falsification. The last case study, Christ Church, Canterbury (ch. 4), then takes us into the final decades of the eleventh century. As in Ghent, at Christ Church competition with a monastic neighbour (St Augustine’s) loomed large. Yet thanks to the uniquely English institution of the monastic chapter house, there were also other concerns at play. The brothers of Christ Church were not only determined to prove the antiquity and importance of their own foundation, but also to demonstrate that it had been charged with ecclesiastical oversight (primacy) of all Britain from the start. A further complicating factor was the Norman Conquest, which had led to many traditional rights being challenged, in Kent as elsewhere. As at St Peter’s and Saint-Denis, the result was a wave of forgery capped off with a (now-lost) cartulary, the latter produced some time between the 1070s and 1090s (with Berkhofer following Robin Fleming in preferring an early date).

The three case studies provide the “meat” of the monograph, which is then rounded off in the third section by two more wide-ranging chapters on the perpetration and detection of forgeries (ch. 5) and how such documents can be read as one of many forms of plausible narrative (ch. 6). In both cases, the effort is to identify what was distinctive about forgery in this period and what changed as we move into the twelfth century. For the eleventh and twelfth centuries are often considered (with good reason) to mark the golden age of medieval forgery; and Berkhofer notes that forgers were to an extent victims of their own success. Such were the achievements of communities such as St Peter’s, Saint-Denis, and Christ Church that new measures were soon taken to prevent and curtail forgery, with greater scrutiny given to the script and sealing of documents. This did not mark the end of falsification, but it did mean that it would loom less large in efforts to articulate communal identity in religious houses of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

This is in many respects a fine volume, which marks an excellent start to the new “Medieval Documentary Cultures” series. Berkhofer writes with sympathy, seeking not to judge but to understand the monastic falsifiers of these years. He is to be particularly commended for ranging so widely (and ably) across regions and historiographies. Within these pages, Flanders, France, and England meet in a manner all too rare in other studies of the central Middle Ages. Similarly admirable is Berkhofer’s regular recourse to the original manuscript evidence. Across all three case studies--and in many other contexts--he has consulted the documents in their original (or earliest surviving) format. Yet the fruits of these archival researches are not always clear. Rarely, if ever, is manuscript evidence deployed to challenge scholarly consensus; and those already acquainted with Berkhofer’s case studies will find little new here, at least when it comes to judgements on individual documents.

Still, if the originality of Berkhofer’s approach lies more in the big picture and the insights generated by placing these different forgeries side-by-side, it is to be all the more welcomed for this fact. This is not a book which shuts down debate, but one which opens it up. More powerfully than any previous commentator, Berkhofer has demonstrated the narrative qualities of charters and cartularies. Christopher Cheney once memorably described medieval records as being “like the little children of long ago,” who “only speak when they are spoken to...and will not talk to strangers” [5]. In Berkhofer, they have found a kind and sympathetic interlocutor. Let us hope that where he has trod, others will soon follow!



1. H. Fuhrmann, “Die Fälschungen im Mittelalter,” Historische Zeitschrift 197 (1963): 529-554; C. N. L. Brooke, “Approaches to Medieval Forgery,” Journal of the Society of Archivists 3 (1968): 377–386; G. Constable, “Forgery and Plagiarism in the Middle Ages,” Archiv für Diplomatik 29 (1983): 1-41.

2. A. Hiatt, The Making of Medieval Forgeries: False Documents in Fifteenth-Century England (London: British Library, 2004).

3. G. Koziol, The Politics of Memory and Identity in Carolingian Royal Diplomas: The West Frankish Kingdom (840-987) (Turnhout: Brepols, 2012), 315-399; C. B. Bouchard, Rewriting Saints and Ancestors: Memory and Forgetting in France, 500-1200 (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 63-86.

4. L. Roach, Forgery and Memory at the End of the First Millennium (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2021).

5. C. R. Cheney, The Records of Medieval England: An Inaugural Lecture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956), 11.