Forged Medieval Charters: How To Rewrite History In The Middle Ages
At first glance, charters seem to be nothing more than obscure and boring legal documents, as dull in the Middle Ages as they are today. On closer examination however, there is much more to charters than stiff, dry records of medieval legalese. We can learn much about local, social history, as well as the wider political machinations of history from these documents, details left out of more narrative-style documents like chronicles and annals.
But what is most interesting about medieval charters, and perhaps most surprising, is that a large number of the surviving documents are actually forgeries. The Middle Ages has been called the “golden age” of document forgery and many of these fake charters are so expertly crafted that their falsehood is almost impossible to discern.
The question is, why was forgery of legal documents so prevalent in the medieval period and on such a large scale that it was practiced right across Western Europe? Is it actually more to do with historical record than anything else? Were they trying to rewrite history?
What is a Charter?
In the most basic terms, a charter is a document that records a transaction or agreement between two parties, usually a grant of rights or lands or a confirmation of a previous grant. Charters could be public records, such as those issued by the royal chancery or papal bulls produced by the church. Or they could be private, like those between individual churches and monasteries and their local aristocratic patrons.
Charters would be drawn up shortly after the act of donation or confirmation they recorded, or sometimes beforehand if the terms were already known, and then ratified by royal authority (either the ruler themselves or the chancellor acting on their behalf). A record of those present to witness the transaction would often be included at the bottom of the document with the signatories, and the royal seal would then be affixed to authenticate the document.
The Magna Carta (British Library / Public Domain)
Undoubtedly the most well-known example of a medieval charter among the modern Western world is the Magna Carta (which literally translates as “great charter”) of 1215. This great document records a transaction between King John and his barons whereupon certain rights and privileges were agreed to be granted by John.
Among the clauses of the original charter, some of the most important rights that were granted included the right of an earl or baron’s heir to inherit without paying excessive taxes; the right of a widow to inherit upon her husband’s death and to choose not to remarry if she so wishes; the right of any free man to a fair trial by his equals under the laws of the land.
The contents of the Magna Carta, although they would undergo several revisions after the 1215 signing, would go on to form the basis of the Constitution of several modern nation states, including the United States of America.
Bound In Law And Before God
Medieval charters were “performative” documents, symbolizing oral transactions and making them binding through the ceremonial public act of signing. The transaction was protected from present or future challenge by sealing it with the sacred authority of both the church and the monarchy.
Charters were also very formulaic in nature, the text containing three main parts: the opening formulae or protocol, main body, and closing formulae or “eschatocol.” Many charters used standardized phrases and sentences that were typical to a particular time and place, such as phrases invoking the Lord’s name or expounding on the greatness of the kingdom and the donor’s generosity.
The Magna Carta begins in just such a way. The opening clause states the parties involved in the transaction and the following clause states that these rights are granted “before God, for the health of our soul and those of our ancestors and heirs, to the honor of God, the exaltation of the holy Church, and the better ordering of our kingdom”.
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The heavily standardized form in which charters were written is what makes forgeries in some ways both easy and difficult to detect. Even blatant forgeries drew on authentic elements of earlier texts and materials, but any deviation from the textual traditions can easily reveal a forgery. An entire profession arose out of studying medieval documents to determine their authenticity, the “Diplomatic.”
Boom Years For Forgery
Forgery was not a novel concept in the Middle Ages of course, there is plenty of evidence of document forgeries dating back to the most primitive forms of documentary records. As far back as the second millennium BC, in ancient Eastern civilizations, document forgeries have survived.
These were mainly in the forms of epigraphs such as those found on monuments. The Ancient Greeks and Romans were also known for forging more immediately practical documents such as personal wills, some of which were actually written into public law codes like those of the Roman Emperors Theodosius and Justinian.
The Merovingians were powerful Frankish warlords (Fordmadoxfraud / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Motives to deceive are universal across human history, but in the Middle Ages it seems to have occurred on such an unprecedented level that it became institutionalized within the monastic culture of Western Europe. For example, over half the documents we have surviving from the Merovingian Frankish rulers are forged, around a third of charters from Lombardy in Italy during this period are fake, and over a third of pre-Conquest English charters have been tampered with in some way.
In medieval Europe it was the religious classes who were specialists in literacy and capable of presenting and recording complex claims in written form. This made them the best equipped to produce convincing forgeries, and thus the majority of fakes identified from this period are those possessed by religious houses.
Charters were the type of document most commonly forged, which largely concerned lands and legal rights and particularly those of religious institutions, which would often contain claims of liberty, exemption, or immunity of some description. Most of these forgeries were attributed to famous rulers such as Charlemagne and Edward the Confessor in order to bolster their credibility, and most forgeries were only produced within a generation or two of the original document’s given date.
As with any forgery produced in the ancient world, the goal of medieval document forgers was to use the past to support claims being made in the present. It was for this reason that religious houses were most often the culprits. They were the only entities outside the monarchy possessing a strong enough sense of “corporate identity” to motivate the production of false narratives to serve their needs.
Constructing History Through Charter Collections
Most religious houses across Europe kept records of charters pertaining to their particular institution in the form of “chartularies.” A chartulary or charter roll is a bound copy of a charter archive, although not necessarily containing original documents, most commonly made by stitching together pieces of parchments containing transcriptions of charters to form one long roll of parchment.
A town charter from Congleton, England (Congleton Museum / CC BY-SA 3.0)
The earliest surviving chartularies are from the 9th century, from Freising in Bavaria. The Freising chartulary was begun in 820 and contains transcriptions of over 700 documents, some dating back to the 740s, compiled by a priest known as Cozroh.
The Freising chartulary also demonstrates how selective recording and carefully constructed archives can shape and reshape memory of the past. Used in this way the narrative of a community and its allies or enemies can be adapted to suit the perceived needs of the present or future.
For example, a record of a property dispute involving the Freising monastery could look very different depending on the outcome of the original dispute. If the opponent remained hostile, then the transcription would omit the nature of the opponent’s claim to the property from the record. But if the dispute ended amicably then the opponent would be represented on record as a reasonable person and their actions justified.
Emperor Charlemagne (Kotomi_ / CC BY-NC 2.0)
Selective preservation of accounts could also mask competing histories that pose a threat to the religious community, particularly in times of large-scale political change. Charlemagne’s conquest of Bavaria at the end of the 8th century brought about such changes, and the Freising chartulary reflects its impact on a more local level.
The chartulary records two important property disputes involving the monastery from 802 and 804 that were aired at formal judicial hearings conducted by Charlemagne’s legates. However but when comparing the records of the disputes there are notable differences – Charlemagne's notary takes a neutral tone, favoring neither one party nor the other, while the Freising scribe’s account is flagrantly politicized.
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The Freising records of these disputes are written in such a way as to pit newer Carolingian concepts of church property rights against older, traditional ideas that did not serve the interests of the monastery as well. By doing so, the scribe emphasizes the authority of the Carolingian empire and Charlemagne as its monarch.
The Norman Conquest And Glastonbury Abbey
Similarly, following the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 many religious houses chose to combat the challenges presented to their rights and liberties by constructing narratives about their own history. Charter records were an important part of this.
The charter would have legally confirmed the Abbey’s holdings, with maybe a few more added in (Thomas Mucha / Adobe Stock)
A particularly prominent example is the history of Glastonbury Abbey written by William of Malmesbury, De Antiquitate Glastoniensis Ecclesiae. William was employed by the Abbey to write the history of the “antiquity” of Glastonbury, which he completed around the mid-1130s, with the goal of defending the institution’s historical right to their lands and independence.
Although he was a diligent historian, William of Malmesbury uncritically copied charters from Glastonbury’s archives into his narrative that confirmed the Abbey’s claims, whether the charters were authentic or not. The Charter of St Patrick takes up one of the beginning chapters of William’s work, and is an important piece of evidence for the Abbey’s claim to its “twelve hides” of land:
“In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, I, Patrick, the most humble and least of God’s servants…came to the island of Yniswitrin on which I discovered a holy and ancient place chosen by God and consecrated in honor of the undefiled Virgin Mary… instructed by the blessed archangel Gabriel; and that moreover the Lord of Heaven had consecrated that church in honor of his mother, while three pagan kings had given twelve portions of land to those twelve for their sustenance.”
The charter does not follow the typical format of an early medieval charter, and given the antiquity of the grant it claims to record (presumably from the 430s) there is some doubt as to the authenticity of this particular charter. William attempts to provide further evidence to back up this claim later in the piece, referring to a charter ratified by the unnamed British King of Devon in 601.
Glastonbury Abbey (Gerd Eichmann / CC BY-SA 4.0)
This charter claims that additional lands were granted to the Abbey as well as “restoring the stolen lands” seized by pagans prior to their conversion to Christianity. However, without access to the original charter document its authenticity was impossible to prove or disprove.
A Work Of Fiction?
Multiple other charters regarding land grants are also incorporated into William’s history of Glastonbury, and their authenticity appears less dubious. The charter of King Ine for example, although somewhat paraphrased by William, follows a much more standard formula when granting the Abbey exemption from paying taxes to the Crown:
“I, King Ine, by the decision and advice of our bishop Aldhelm…do confer this liberty on the monks in the ancient town called Glastonbury…that with untroubled minds they might serve God alone without the hindrance of worldly affairs and without the need to pay financial dues…To strengthen the validity of this charter we have caused it to be subscribed by princes and ealdormen, doomsmen and nobles. This deed was publicly confirmed in the wooden church in 704 AD.”
Whether the charter of King Ine was a forgery or not, it contains enough authentic elements so as to appear convincing to those who would challenge Glastonbury’s right to exemption from taxes, like the declaration of public confirmation with the authority of both the monarch and the bishop.
The written word is a powerful tool, and those who wielded it in the Middle Ages were granted the valuable ability. They could tell their own version of history, that ensured their communities would be preserved and would have positive outcomes for both their present and future.
It was for this reason that forgery was such an important part of documentary culture in the medieval period. Because by meticulously cultivating records and archives such as chartularies these documents could be deployed to navigate and master changing landscapes of power.
Charter records, whilst they appear to be little more than the shriveled remains of dry legal processes give invaluable insight into how medieval society dealt with conflict and change.
Top image: Landowning houses used charters to confirm their ownings. Source: Thomas Mucha / Adobe Stock.
By Meagan Dickerson
Brown, Warren. 2002. "Charters as weapons. On the role played by early medieval dispute records in the disputes they record." Journal of medieval history 28, no. 3.
Davis, G.R.C. 1963. Magna Carta. British Museum.
Roach, Levi. 2021. Forgery and Memory at the End of the First Millennium. Princeton University Press.
William of Malmesbury. De Antiquitate Glastoniensis Ecclesiae. Trans. Frank Lomax. 2010. Llanerch Press.