The Oxford Dictionaries word of the year for 2016 is â€˜post-truthâ€™. But the problem of distributing information that portrays that world as one thinks it should be, rather than sticking to objective facts, is hardly a new one. Gaining and keeping privileges is based on having documentation appearing to be authentic and credible stories surrounding it. This was no less true in the Middle Ages, and it has always been a temptation to tweak it in oneâ€™s own favour.
Today, we keep a title deed to demonstrate right to a particular property, or a diploma from an educational institution to demonstrate a particular qualification. This stems from the medieval practice of creating â€˜chartersâ€™, derived from the Latin word â€˜cartaâ€™ or â€˜chartaâ€™, originally meaning a sheet of writing material â€” â€˜Magna Cartaâ€™ means â€˜the big charterâ€™. Over time, the word came to refer to a formal deed or other legal instrument, since charters were normally issued as a single sheet of parchment.
Writing Old English in the 15th century: Cotton Charter XI 11.
If a document supporting your claim to a piece of land had been destroyed, lost or mouldered away, this posed a liability. You could have a new charter issued to confirm oneâ€™s privileges in such instances, but this meant extra expenses and bureaucracy. The privileges of institutions were often based on events that had occurred far beyond the realm of living memory, and they risked lawsuits if it became apparent to outsiders that a claim was ambiguous. The obvious solution was to recreate the charter: to make a forgery.
The intent in such cases was not necessarily malicious; historians often refer to such charters as â€˜spuriousâ€™ to avoid passing judgement on their creators. Some documents were obviously fraudulent, and known to be so even in the Middle Ages. The most famous example is the Donation of Constantine, which purported to be from the Roman emperor who reigned from 306 to 337, granting vast temporal rights to the papacy. Most charters, however, were based on originals, now usually lost, and they continue to be of value for understanding the past, even if they cannot be taken as authentic documentation.
Still trying to be Anglo-Saxon in the 12th century: Add Charter 28657.
In England, some of the most fascinating spurious charters are those purporting to be Anglo-Saxon. Documentation from this period is scarce, and historians have analysed them to determine which details might be accurate. But whether their contents are true or false, they give a sense of how someone living after 1066 viewed the period before the Norman Conquest. Far from sitting unread, there continued to be interest in understanding the contents and composition of Anglo-Saxon charters, and this expertise was key to making a successful imitation.
Forgers attempted to imitate script; the form of the document, including the seal; and language and formulae. They did so with wildly varying levels of success. Some scribes had a clear sense that the document they were examining was quite different from something they might create in everyday business. Others made no attempt whatsoever to make a charter look like an earlier medieval document, and in some cases do not seem to have understood the function of every aspect of a charter.
Gothic script taking on aspects of English vernacular minuscule: Harley Charter 43 C 9.
Handwriting is the most obvious indicator of a spurious charter. A document written in Gothic script cannot be an original from the year 900. The cleverest scribes wrote charters in a script after the manner of their own period, but attempting to use the letterforms of an older style, in this case English vernacular minuscule. This was a relatively widespread phenomenon, and can be used as a direct measure for historical literacy, as Julia Crick has shown. Some scribesâ€™ imitations have proven good enough to fool palaeographers into thinking that a document was much older than it really is.
Anglo-Saxon for show: Add Ch 33658.
Some forgers were also aware of how an Anglo-Saxon charter should physically look. Most understood that it should be a single sheet of parchment, but many forgers failed to create a convincing imitation because they attempted to create the most impressive document they could imagine, rather than something that followed historical precedent. One example is Add Charter 33658, a 14th-century creation that purports to be a grant of King Edgar to Ramsey Abbey, dated 28 December 974. It is copied on a massive sheet of parchment, with far wider margins than any known Anglo-Saxon document, and is clearly designed for show. Someone seems to have had a vague idea that a real charter should be a chirograph. This was a medieval method of authentication: two or more copies of a charter would be written on a single sheet of parchment, a word such as CHIROGRAPHVS would be written along the boundaries between the copies, and they would be cut apart with a wavy line. In cases of doubt, the authenticity of a document could be determined by bringing the copies back together. In this case, the forgers do not seem to have known exactly how a chirograph was meant to work: wobbly semicircles have been cut out of one side, without any inscription. Update, 16 January 2017: We had thought that we had ruled out the possibility of this being a rodentâ€™s work, but Susan Maddock kindly points out that the pattern on the left edge indicates that the charter was stored as a roll, not folded as it is now.
An 11th-century test forgery of Edward the Confessorâ€™s seal: Cotton Charter XVII 5.
The most impressive aspect of many charters is their seals. Like the texts of charters, some forged seals were based on originals. Westminster Abbey ran a particularly sophisticated forgery operation: they had some charters with the seal of King Edward the Confessor, and made a very close copy of it around the late 11th century, which survives on several surviving spurious charters. One can catch them in the act of perfecting their work with Cotton Charter XVII 5, which appears to be a practice copy, a seal attached to a small blank sheet of parchment. Centuries later, monks were still trying to produce forged charters of Edward the Confessor, but less successfully â€” Harley Charter 43 E 51, from the 15th century, has what almost looks like a massive Victorian fantasy version of Edwardâ€™s seal (113 mm in diameter), showing the king seated in an unapologetically Gothic structure.
Imagining Edward the Confessor in the 15th century: Harley Charter 43 E 51.
Some charters that are physically much newer than their text are, of course, mere copies of a degrading original, and can still be treated as conveying accurate historical details. Historians can tell the difference between these and deliberate forgeries by carefully analysing the language and formulae used, along with known historical details. Today, we are becoming much better at understanding what makes an authentic Anglo-Saxon charter.
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