Forgery, Crime, and Punishment in the Central Middle Ages

Thursday, January 6, 2011: 3:20 PM
Room 305 (Hynes Convention Center)
Robert F. Berkhofer III , Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI
Forgery of documents was rarely punished in the years before 1200, whereas a similar crime, counterfeiting of coins or seals, was severely punished by mutilation or death. Although the faking of writings and counterfeiting of objects might seem similar in the modern world, these clearly differentiated punishments indicate this perception was not shared by medieval people. This paper will investigate the significance of medieval forgery of documents by examining whether and when “forgery” became regarded as a crime or a sin and, if so, what responses authorities made to the revelation of forgeries. Questions addressed will include: Was there a norm or expectation about forged documents? If so, in what ways did forgers transgress such expectations? Were their actions deemed to be wrong and if so, how wrong? What might the treatment of forgery by authorities tell historians about the status of the written in the central Middle Ages?

To answer these questions, the paper will employ the evidence of confessions of forgery, legal commentaries, and disputes about authenticity gathered from extensive archival research in France and England. In particular, the paper will treat methods developed by authorities to detect and prevent forgeries in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, which may be leading indicators of shift towards forbidding and punishing forgery more severely. It will also consider the methodological and historiographic context of forgery within the discipline of history itself, especially how modernist assumptions grounding “auxiliary disciplines” of textual analysis, such as diplomatic and paleography, have shaped how medievalists have previously treated forgeries as evidence.