The forged texts of the Middle Ages: why Europe’s holy men turned to counterfeiting

Forgery was rife in the medieval era, with some of Europe’s leading holy men cooking up reams of counterfeit documents. Levi Roach examines the fabricated texts of one Bavarian bishop to pick apart why the practice was so popular

This image from the Nibelungenlied manuscript shows Pilgrim welcoming Kriemhild, a fictional character described as his neice in the text (Photo by Alamy)

The desire to deceive – and be deceived – is universal, and the forging of documents as old as writing itself. In ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, local priests – the experts in literacy – forged inscriptions in the names of earlier pharaohs and kings, claiming rights of preferential treatment. And scarcely a society can be found since in which such skulduggery was not practised in some form or another.

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But few regions in world history can rival medieval Europe for the sheer scale of forging. As modern scholars have established, over half of the surviving texts in the names of the Merovingian rulers of early medieval France and Germany (c481–752) are fakes; a third of those in the names of the Lombard rulers of northern Italy (568–774) are suspect; and similar figures hold true of the nearly 2,000 documents of pre-Conquest England. The vast majority of these texts were forged in the Middle Ages, in most cases between the 10th and 13th centuries. Those responsible were not a small cadre of recalcitrant rogues, but leading figures within the church – men such as Bishop Thietmar of Merseburg and Gilbert Foliot, abbot of Gloucester and later bishop of Hereford.

The prevalence of forgery in the Middle Ages poses something of a paradox. How was an age of faith also an age of falsification? Were those responsible simply cynics and hypocrites – or is there more than meets the eye? In an age of fake news and political spin, we are perhaps better placed to resolve these tensions than earlier generations of historians were.

The solution to these problems lies in part in the deep faith of the era. In the Middle Ages, history was a moral exercise. The true past was that which accorded with divine will, not necessarily that attested by earlier documents. The most famous forgery of the Middle Ages, the Donation of Constantine, is a case in point. Although produced in eighth-century Rome, this supposedly records the donations of the fourth-century Roman emperor Constantine to Pope Sylvester I. While the historical Constantine had made no such grant, it was believed that he had, and the Donation largely put flesh on the bones of popular myth. As this case reveals, the temptation to forge was heightened by the fragmentary nature of medieval records. Not even the papacy could boast a complete run of documents back to Constantine’s day; elsewhere, the situation was considerably worse. Under these circumstances, the temptation to fill in the gaps – to produce what might or ought to have been – was too great to resist.

Forging was an act of deceit for the greater good. It was faith, not cynicism, that inspired the era’s counterfeiters

Forging was thus the white lie of the Middle Ages, an act of deceit in the cause of a greater good. It was faith, not cynicism, that inspired the era’s counterfeiters. Yet even within the Middle Ages, not all periods were equally marked by forgery. Before the 10th century, it was relatively rare; by the 12th, it was rife. An important moment of transition here is represented by the later 10th century. This is when forging can first be identified across the core regions of western Europe (thereafter, we can trace a steady crescendo across the 11th and 12th centuries). This newfound fascination with forgery was driven by new attitudes to local and institutional memory. It was in the later 10th century that many abbeys and bishoprics first started writing down their own histories, often embellishing them with forgery.

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Inventing glory

A good example of these processes at work is offered by Pilgrim, bishop of Passau in south-eastern Bavaria between 971 and 991. Pilgrim hailed from one of the foremost Bavarian noble families, and his uncle, Archbishop Frederick of Salzburg, was his immediate superior within the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Pilgrim had been educated at Niederaltaich, a leading local monastery, just upriver from Passau on the Danube. He had probably also spent time studying at Salzburg under his uncle.

In his student days, Pilgrim had read widely about the history of the region. Now that he was bishop, he naturally began inquiring into the history of his see (seat of authority). But where he’d hoped to find evidence of a great and exalted past, he discovered little more than scraps: a brace of privileges in the names of earlier monarchs; a few transaction notices; and a copy of the Life of the fifth-century saint Severin. But just when Pilgrim was about to abandon hope, his attention was drawn to a fleeting reference in the latter work to a bishop (or rather, pontiff) of Lorch called Constantius.

Lorch, in modern Upper Austria, lay within Pilgrim’s diocese. And the Life of Severin suggested that there had been a bishopric here in the fifth century, long before the foundation of Passau or Salzburg. That Lorch had been an important centre was borne out by physical remains of settlement, including antique walls and church buildings – remains Pilgrim knew first hand. Most tantalising of all, the Latin term used to designate this Constantius, pontifex (pontiff), was an ambiguous one, equally applicable to a bishop, an archbishop or even a pope. In Pilgrim’s eyes, Constantius soon became not a lowly bishop, but an archbishop charged with oversight of all Noricum (as the region was then known). Moreover, Pilgrim became convinced that Passau was the lineal descendent of this earlier archbishopric of Lorch – and thus rightfully an archbishopric of its own.

Pilgrim of Passau’s counterfeit privilege from emperor Arnulf of Carinthia (Photo by Bayerisches Hauptsaatsarchiv)
Pilgrim faked documents to give Passau a glorious history – this is his counterfeit privilege from emperor Arnulf of Carinthia (Photo by Bayerisches Hauptsaatsarchiv)

An aside in a saint’s Life and a few physical remains may seem a rather slender basis on which to build such wide-ranging speculation. But this was all that Pilgrim had. And it was, in any case, hardly less plausible than most other versions of local history. Yet if Pilgrim’s claims were going to be taken seriously, he would certainly need more to show for himself than ancient rubble and learned speculation.

It was in this context that Pilgrim set to work on one of the most imaginative and elaborate forgery complexes of Austrian and Bavarian history. At its heart lies a set of false papal privileges (or bulls, as documents carrying the papal seal are known), granting and confirming archiepiscopal rights to Lorch from the fifth century onwards. The central claim is that Lorch had been an archbishopric, but that this status was lost – stolen by neighbouring Salzburg – when the see was forced to relocate up the Danube river to Passau, on account of political instability. The hope was evidently to have Passau restored to its “rightful” position.

Alongside the bulls, Pilgrim also forged a number of documents in the names of earlier monarchs. Most of these concern local lands and ecclesiastical rights. But one, in the name of the late ninth-century emperor Arnulf of Carinthia, speaks of how an earlier archbishop of Lorch had been forced to relocate to Passau, losing this status in the process – precisely the scenario envisaged by the bulls. Fortunately for us, this document survives in its original format (the bulls are only preserved in later copies made in the 12th century). From this, we can see that it was written in a hand of the later 10th century, and not the late ninth. What is more, we can identify the script as that of Pilgrim himself, who was also responsible for a number of authentic privileges for Passau in the 970s. It is this document that allows us to identify bishop with master forger.

World of deception

What was the purpose of these texts? It was once thought that Pilgrim planned to present them to the pope, in order to facilitate the “restoration” of Passau to archiepiscopal status. More recently, historians have preferred to identify Pilgrim’s audience at the imperial court, albeit with similar motives. Neither scenario seems particularly likely, however. Papal documents of the period were written on papyrus, a material vanishingly rare north of the Alps, and in a distinctive (and highly technical) script, which was little known outside Rome. It’s therefore most improbable that Pilgrim’s bulls would have looked the part. Given this, it seems more likely that Pilgrim had local audiences in mind: the cathedral canons at Passau, and perhaps also their haughty neighbours at Salzburg. Here such shortcomings might more easily pass unnoticed.

It simply wouldn’t do to have Passau’s past shrouded in mystery. It had to be revealed; or if not, it would have to be invented

Pilgrim would doubtless have loved to have become archbishop. But he must have known that it was always a long shot – and there is no sign that he made a serious bid for elevation. The real aim of his forgeries was to provide a suitably glorious history for Passau, one that could be placed alongside that of Salzburg. This is revealed by Pilgrim’s choice of sources. All of his bogus bulls are modelled on earlier Salzburg texts; the same is true of his false royal privileges. Pilgrim wanted for Passau everything he had seen at Salzburg.

This is not to say that Pilgrim’s forgeries were an entirely innocent exercise. They certainly were an attempt to deceive. But they were an attempt to do so in a world in which deception was increasingly common. In fact, Pilgrim’s uncle, Frederick, had commissioned a number of forgeries in favour of Salzburg. Here, too, the bishop of Passau was learning lessons from his neighbours.

Above all, Pilgrim’s forgeries speak of the new attitudes toward the past that were taking root throughout Europe. Bishops and their cathedral canons were starting to conceive of themselves as distinct communities, with histories of their own. It simply wouldn’t do to have Passau’s past shrouded in mystery. It had to be revealed, and where it could not, it would have to be invented. Pilgrim was not the first to rise to this challenge, nor would he be the last.

Levi Roach is associate professor of medieval history at the University of Exeter. His latest book, Forgery and Memory at the End of the First Millennium, will be published in February by Princeton University Press

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This article was first published in the February 2021 edition of BBC History Magazine