The House of Forgery


Review of Literary Forgery in Early Modern Europe, 1450-1800 edited by Walter Stephens and Earle A. Havens, assisted by Janet E. Gomez

Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018


Forgery may be a crime, but it is also undoubtedly cool. The artistry of the forger earns a grudging respect, mimicking work that we consider to be priceless, inimitable, even genius. Modern-day forgers have to contend with any number of security features, expert opinions, and proofs of provenance. And yet forgery is not about to be eradicated any time soon, with every new defense feature becoming another challenge to be overcome. Anthony Grafton describes how literary critics and forgers are in fact mutually reinforcing—as the tools of the critic improve to spot “fakes,” the forger is forced to be ever more innovative in their execution.

Yet it would be wrong, not to say unhelpful, to think of forgery moving from primitive to sophisticated. More useful is the idea that forgers, like artists, hold a mirror up to nature; in each successive age the motivations and choices of the forger have much to say about what their larger society values, tolerates, and perhaps even needs to believe.

Exhibit A: Medieval Europe, which has been hailed as a “golden age” of forgery. As society moved from oral tradition to written records, monasteries found themselves having to keep up with new demands for documentary proof by producing “ancient” charters and deeds asserting their rights, which were then accepted by the authorities. Working in a scriptorium involved a lot more than painstakingly reproducing the Bible.

Exhibit B: Bardolatry in nineteenth-century England—the worship of anything and everything even remotely connected to Shakespeare—is inseparable from the forgeries of J.P. Collier and William Henry Ireland. Where the former inserted “Shakespearean” annotations in existing historical records, the latter penned love letters, poems, and an entire historical tragedy called Vortigern in the name of “Shakespeare.” Such forgeries filled the vacuum created by Shakespeare’s scant biographical traces in the archival record, feeding the insatiable appetite for anything ever touched by “the Bard.”

The early modern period too had its own brand of forgery, but this has remained relatively underexamined by scholars. That has begun to change with the “Bibliotheca Fictiva” collection gathered by Arthur and Janet Freeman and housed at Johns Hopkins University library since 2012, which is dedicated to gathering literary fakes and frauds from antiquity to modern times. The current collection of essays is the third publication to stem directly from the Bibliotheca Fictiva, and its granularity is both a strength and a weakness. 

It’s worth noting that the present volume had the working title of Literary Forgery and Patriotic Mythology in Europe, 1450-1800, which hints at the overall focus of the collected essays. Against a backdrop of territorial expansion and nation-building, forgery unexpectedly became a cultural weapon to elevate one’s own national origins while denigrating those of one’s enemies. This in itself is an incredible insight, which was already latent in the contributions of Neil Weijer and Walter Stephens from the earlier essay collection, Fakes, Lies, and Forgeries: Rare Books and Manuscripts from the Arthur and Janet Freeman Collection (2014). Where the first collection aimed to draw out broad themes across the entire Bibliotheca Fictiva, here the focus is narrowed to the still-considerable date range of 1450-1800. This allows Annius of Viterbo (1432-1502) to trade secrets with William Henry Ireland (1775-1835). 

In all there are thirteen contributions in addition to an introduction, although the first two of these, from Arthur Freeman (collector) and Earle Havens (curator) respectively, do fulfil a more introductory overview role. That leaves eleven chapters on subjects ranging from French Medieval histories of Troy to Annius’ Jewish credentials. The European scope is impressive, extending from the Lead Books of Granada as far as the invented letters of Sultan Mehmed II of Constantinople. Each location and time frame is dealt with such specificity that generalizations are avoided for the most part. While in general this is to be commended, it does raise the question of what is to be gained by gathering these individual case studies into a collection. Reducing the time span from millennia to centuries does not always lead to improved cohesion.

The introduction does an admirable job of setting the European scene, arguing for forgery as part of an “incessant ideological conflict” between countries eager to burnish their credentials (and egos) with links to the Classical past and Biblical history. This practice is keyed into evolving ideas of history and historiography, as countries implicitly and explicitly support the invention of patriotic mythologies ex nihilo. Forgers as patriots may seem strange to our modern sensibilities, but the collection as a whole shows how motives of personal gain are inadequate to account for the widespread appeal held by some of these forgeries, becoming firmly embedded in the stories we tell ourselves about where we came from. Here forgery is not a coincidence in the age of Humanism but rather its correlative.

Indeed the skills of the forger must keep pace with the bibliographical mastery of Renaissance scholars (pace Grafton), due to “changing attitudes and expectations about what might constitute plausible evidence from antiquity” (34). Havens’ chapter on “Babelic Confusion” introduces readers to the Bibliotheca Fictiva collection, raising provocative questions about the nature of forgery such as “what are the essential elements of the literature of forgery” (38) and what of the credulity, complicity even, of those who “simply needed [forgeries] to be true at a particular moment in the historical past?” (66). Arthur Freeman’s “Taxonomic Reflections on the Bibliotheca Fictiva” gives a unique insight into the collector’s work, candidly discussing the difficulties of drawing distinction between “forgery,” “hoax,” “fiction,” “apocrypha,” although in the process he exceeds the bounds of the putative 1450-1800 date range.

Frederic Clark presents an interesting bibliographical puzzle with Aethicus Ister’s Cosmographia at its center. Purportedly translated by Saint Jerome himself, the text attracted the attention of Elizabethan scholar-cum-mystic John Dee, who “became party to, and perpetuator of, a fictitious account of textual transmission … [falling] directly into the forger’s trap” (87). While strong on details of transmission and pseudo-translation, the chapter is less clear on what is to be gained by following the thread through the archival maze.

E.R. Truitt is more concerned with the blurred lines between fact and fiction than with forgery per se, although the chapter is meticulous in comparing competing descriptions of Hector’s tomb, complete with automata by Benoît de Sainte-Maure (mid-twelfth century) and Guido delle Colonne (1287). This becomes an exegesis on the nature of historiography for Guido, who critiques the fanciful details of his predecessor: “[J]ust as the arresting but deceptive marvel of Hector’s lifelike body confuses the viewer into thinking that something false is actually true, the fictitious invention of poets obscures the objective truth of past events” (101). With the fall of Troy as the origin point for so much future imperial rhetoric, descriptions of Hector’s tomb become a testing ground for truth value.

James K. Coleman’s chapter, “Forging Relations between East and West: The Invented Letters of Sultan Mehmed II,” is the strongest chapter in the collection, arguing that the forged letters of the Ottoman leader speak to the constructed nature of the East-West dichotomy more broadly: “[W]hat appears on the surface to be a dialogue between East and West turns out to be a European monologue” (119). It is their very lack of authenticity for Coleman that makes them invaluable for analyzing how “early modern Europeans conceptualized Mehmed II, the Ottoman Turks, and their relations with western Europe” (119). The letters’ subsequent popularity speaks to how audiences reach for media that comfortingly reinforce preconceived ideas and biases: “While the Epistolae Magni Turci are a false reflection of the East, they are a true expression of humanist preoccupations in the West” (132).

Chapters 6, 7, and 8 are all focused on Annius of Viterbo, and while he certainly looms large in any account of early modern forgery, this seems disproportionate considering the date range under discussion. Shana D. O’Connell gives good contextual knowledge on how Annius forged a connection from the Etruscan god Vertumnus to the Biblical figure of Noah, through the use of some creative cross-referencing of his sources. A link from the Biblical flood to Umbria via Pliny’s account of the “Ombrii” (“stormy ones”) only comes in the second-to-last paragraph, however, and it would have been helpful for this to be introduced earlier and expanded upon.

Anthony Grafton’s chapter is as erudite as you would expect, tracing Annius’ use of Jewish sources and invention thereof where necessary. By demonstrating that there were Latin versions of the Hebrew texts Annius cites circulating at the time, Grafton meticulously exposes Annius’ Jewish “friend,” Samuel the Talmudist, with whom he supposedly consulted on matters of etymology, as a figment of his imagination. Grafton goes further to argue for Annius as a pioneer of sorts for comparative historiography, showing that his forgeries may have been misguided but they were still underpinned by deep scholarship and an urge for synthesis.

Walter Stephens’ chapter puts the spotlight on a later critic of Annius, Gaspar Barreiros, who staked his reputation on disproving Annius, in the process demonstrating the “positive benefit to be had from understanding their deceptive mechanisms” (173). Here we have the forensic deconstruction of the forgeries with all the skills of the Humanist scholar, as Stephens traces Barreiros from the University of Coimbra to the Vatican city. Barreiros’ choice to publish in Portuguese or Latin is convincingly connected to contemporary debates over the value (or otherwise) of vernacular literature, with the former hypocritically excused as “rough drafts meant to be polished up in good Latin before publication” (185).

Richard Cooper writes on France’s eagerness to find evidence of pre-Roman civilization to the point of inventing Gallic antiquities, as a pretext for the invasion of Italy by the French during the Renaissance. This game of tit-for-tat sounded down through the centuries, as those “writing during the Italian Wars at the turn of the century saw it as the renewal of an ancient conflict between Romans and Gauls” (199). This even extended to interpreting Hebrew from Jewish tombs as “ancient druidical texts” (207). Cooper is particularly strong on invented etymologies, such as those linking Paris to Cairo and Tours to Turnus, supposed son of Brutus.

A. Katie Harris looks at the fascinating history behind the leaden books of Granada, which creatively reinvented Granada’s past to incorporate origins stretching back to the lifetime of Jesus via St. Cecilio. The books “discovered” in the late sixteenth century were written in Arabic, in an effort to overwrite a Moorish past with Christian origins. Harris’ account gives the lie to the idea of our gullible ancestors, detailing the many experts consulted and tests conducted to establish authenticity: “Plumbers, brass workers, silversmiths, and tinkers assessed the state of the tablets…and judged the books to be as old or older than these ancient [Roman] remains” (220). Local geography and even topography has a starring role, with the location of Sacromonte (“Holy Mountain”) as a crucial piece of confirming evidence. The remains found with the books “continue today to be venerated as relics of Granada’s first saints” (217), showing the long afterlives of early modern forgeries.

Local politics are also intrinsic to the case of the letter of the Virgin Mary to the citizens of Messina, as it ignites rivalries between Messina and Palermo in fifteenth-century Sicily. Its chief defender, a Hungarian Jesuit called Melchior Inchofer, had a first attempt end up on the Index of Prohibited Books. He was himself an uncoverer of forgery in the case of “Etruscan Antiquities,” and would eventually be assassinated for authoring a satire of his own Jesuit order. Ingrid D. Rowland brings this colorful figure to life while also providing a well-shaded portrait of competing religious centers in Renaissance Italy. Inchofer’s equivocal defense of the letter is paralleled with today’s Internet, “as filled with relics for sale as any medieval peddler’s pack” (237).

In “Make Way for the Ghost!” Kate E. Tunstall writes allusively and elusively of ghosts, forgery, masks, and pseudonyms that crisscross the patriotic lies we tell ourselves. Her focus is on the Testament attributed to Cardinal Richelieu but “ghost-written” by an unknown author. In Tunstall’s hands, a forgery is to be understood not as aberration but as an opportunity to unpick the complexities of authorship and fictionality, as she peels back the layers of manuscript and print that even drew in Voltaire to denounce it as a “work of shadows” (248). 

The last chapter falls to Jack Lynch, who gives a spirited defense of William Henry Ireland, linking his Shakespeare forgeries to a wider “revolutionary” political moment in the late eighteenth century. Ireland’s faux Shakespeare points to some of the paradoxes at the core of British identity; Vortigern combines “Saxons and Celts, King Arthur, Stonehenge, and the wassail—it is hard to imagine a richer set of possibilities for imaginative nation building” (261). Such a heady mix appears to go to Ireland’s head, as he attempts to “out-Shakespeare Shakespeare” (268), leading to a downfall every bit as dramatic as a Shakespearean tragedy. The vitriol aimed at Ireland is in part because of Shakespeare’s renewed importance to national myth-making: “At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Shakespeare was English; by the end, he was British” (263). Lynch’s verdict on Ireland also goes for many of the preceding chapters: “Ireland’s national offence was producing exactly the play that confused and weakened British identity at exactly the time it needed to be shored up” (269).

Individually, each chapter does important work for its field, standing as an excellent case study of forgery in its contexts. Yet there is a lack of dialogue across the volume as a whole with little cross-referencing to the earlier collections that laid the groundwork, nor among the essays themselves. Both O’Connell (139) and Grafton (149) mention Annius of Viterbo’s accusation of “Gracia mendax” (“mendacious Greeks”) ten pages apart, pointing readers to the same 1964 essay by Tigerstedt but not to each other. Varying chapter lengths give a slightly uneven feel, with several contributions substantially less that twenty pages. Two chapters contain only ten pages of argument (excluding notes), while editor Earle Havens’ chapter is forty pages with no subheadings. 

At times I felt a glossary was in order, with a variety of what Freeman himself calls “three-dollar words” (16) scattered throughout: in no particular order contributors casually mention furbelows (111), autoptic (99), sclerotic (99), soteriological (34), fissiparous (34), parure (171), opuscules (177), cynosure (180), Rube Goldberg contraptions (149) and epigones (184) without explanation or etymology. As an English literature academic, I am not ashamed to say I had no idea what most of these meant. Suffice it to say that essays are written with specialists rather than casual readers in mind. This is not to denigrate the quality of the scholarship. Rather, it a caveat lector (“reader beware”): the onus is on the reader who enters the House of Forgery to tread their way through the labyrinth, for which they will be richly rewarded when they emerge, with opuscules and parures aplenty.



Posted on 8 March 2021

DEREK DUNNE is Lecturer in English Literature at Cardiff University. Derek’s first book is entitled Shakespeare, Revenge Tragedy & Early Modern Law: Vindictive Justice (Palgrave, 2016). His current research project looks at forgery, bureaucracy and early modern drama.