Sham text

Johns Hopkins just acquired a massive collection of books and manuscripts—every last one of them fake.

Sham Text

Credit: Chris Hartlove (photography) / Mary Mashburn (letterpress)

A Dominican friar with the assonant name Giovanni Nanni published a work of scholarship in the late summer of 1498 titled Commentaries on the Works of Various Authors Who Spoke of Antiquity. A volume of substantial erudition and no small ambition, Commentaries reproduced six inscriptions, unearthed at a dig near Viterbo, Italy, and 11 texts from the various ancient authors of the title, including Berosus the Chaldean, Quintus Fabius Pictor, Cato the Elder, and Archilochus. Medieval scholars knew of these authors' existence but believed that none of their work had survived, save for scarce fragments. Nanni, better known today as Annius of Viterbo, not only published these texts for the first time but took what they related concerning antiquity and used it to rewrite the history of the West from Noah's flood to Charlemagne. His was a startling revision that not only posited Viterbo as site of Noah's first postdiluvian colony and thus the world's oldest city, but denigrated the ancient Greeks as overrated plagiarists while elevating the Etruscans to Noah's eldest and favorite descendants and the true inventors of everything valued from the ancient world. In the words of scholar Walter Stephens, the book revealed "a European past of which his contemporaries had barely dreamed, whose contours and boundaries bore only a superficial resemblance to those they had known before." From 1498 to 1612, about 20 editions of the book were published in Italy, France, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, and Spain. Commentaries was a remarkable example of early Renaissance humanistic learning. It also was a fraud from first word to last.

Image credit: Chris Hartlove

The six inscriptions? Annius had forged them, and by one 16th-century account had buried the fragments himself, so they could be dug up "accidentally" and then "translated" by him. He had made up almost every word of the 11 literary texts as well. Because there were no complete extant works from his lost ancient authors, he could make them say whatever he wanted, and he did. From this initial act of forgery, he spun more than 350 pages of dense scholarly commentaries and created his argument for the primacy of the Etruscans and Viterbo's status as the cradle of European culture. Skeptics began to question the authenticity of Commentaries within a few years of its appearance, but for more than 200 years there were scholars who promoted Annius' work as genuine scholarship, whether they believed it or not. He still had energetic defenders as late as 1779.

The full catalog runs to more than 100 pages and continues to grow through new acquisitions.

In his lifetime, Annius climbed the ranks of the church to become Maestro del Sacro Palazzo, official papal theologian under Pope Alexander VI. But once he was conclusively debunked, he fell into obscurity. In the 1970s, he came to the attention of Stephens. A doctoral student then and now a professor of Italian studies in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Stephens was fascinated by the work of François Rabelais, who may have been familiar with Annius. "I had a kind of literary fixation on this play of truth and falsehood in these early literary texts," he says. "I ended up going to Italy for several years to work on my dissertation, and I had a mentor in Pisa. When I explained to him this interest of mine, he said, 'Well, you should be reading Annius of Viterbo.'" Stephens went out that very day and found a copy of Commentaries, then spent the next four years working on it. "Once I got into the text, there was almost no way out. It became a kind of addiction." He ended up writing his doctoral dissertation on Annius, and for one of his email accounts uses anniodaviterbo for a username. As a scholar Stephens has written about a variety of other subjects, including Renaissance literature and witchcraft, but he says, "No matter what I write about, I always seem to come back to forgery in one way or another."

So you can imagine his pleasant anticipation of a large assortment of newly acquired works temporarily shelved in a storeroom of the Rare Books and Manuscripts Department at the Milton S. Eisenhower Library. A makeshift paper sign taped to the shelving reads "Bibliotheca Fictiva." This is the informal name of the Arthur and Janet Freeman Collection of Literary and Historical Forgery, recently bought by Johns Hopkins: twelve hundred rare books and manuscripts, assembled by Arthur Freeman, an antiquarian book dealer in London, and his wife that form a comprehensive survey of literary and historical forgery from ancient Greece to the end of the 20th century. Stephens is unequivocal about the standing of this collection. "Number one. Number one," he says. "In the first place, because it's such a complete collection. In the second place, because it is so single-mindedly dedicated to forgery. There are other people who collect forgeries, but to the best of my knowledge, there's nobody who has anything even remotely approaching the size and scope of this collection. It's just absolutely phenomenal."

The full catalog runs to more than 100 pages and continues to grow through new acquisitions. There are forgeries from ancient Greece, ancient Rome, and the early Christian West. Medieval ecclesiastical forgeries, medieval secular forgeries, forgeries forged for profit and forgeries forged for political or ideological or theological gain. Fakes from Britain, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, Holland, Italy, Spain, Russia, Eastern Europe, and the United States. The work of the notorious forgers William Henry Ireland, Thomas Chatterton, William Lauder, James Macpherson, and John Payne Collier. There's the first printed description of an "ancient" Hebrew engraving that proved, Annius' claims notwithstanding, that Noah settled in Austria after the flood. (For a time, there was a brisk business in claiming "Noah landed here.") There's an eyewitness account of the fall of Troy. "Evidence" that one Johann Mentelin, not Johannes Gutenberg, invented printing by movable type. "Proof" that John Milton plagiarized substantial sections of Paradise Lost. A prank by some early 18th-century students in the form of a 14th-century edict from Queen Jeanne de Naples authorizing royally licensed whorehouses. (College boys never change.) Phony travel narratives, including one from the early 18th century in which the author, George Psalmanazar, claimed to have traveled in Formosa (now Taiwan) and compiled a fake alphabet and lexicon that included a version of the Lord's Prayer in "Formosan." The first apparent printed account from 1581 of the "Aquila discovery" of a scroll that "recorded" Pontius Pilate's death sentence upon Jesus Christ. Speaking of Christ, there's some correspondence from him, including a "letter from heaven" (a forgery first promulgated in the sixth century), and an account of his missing teenage years in India. (Who knew.)

Earle Havens, a curator of rare books and manuscripts at the Sheridan Libraries and possibly the only person as excited as Walter Stephens about the Bibliotheca Fictiva coming to Johns Hopkins, says, "This collection gets at the heart of what we teach our students every day at this university, which is to appreciate and constantly question the sources of our knowledge of the historical past." And he adds, "Forgery has always been with us, like original sin. And it's still going on today."

Stephens has harbored an interest in these works for 40 years. "I'm intrigued by the way fiction and forgery rely on misrepresentation," he says. "In some of these older texts, there's a very thin line between what we would now call fiction and what we would now call forgery. There's even a subclass of literary works that are what I call 'fake forgeries' or 'pseudo-forgeries.' That is, they are works that only pretend to present themselves as genuine, knowing quite well that the reader will intuit from the way they're presented that these are forgeries. Since the reader isn't fooled, we can't call them forgeries in a strict sense. If you trace the trajectory of fake forgeries, what you eventually come across is the novel."

He says that with a forged text, frequently there are three "authors" at work. There's always the person who actually put pen to paper, whom Stephens calls the empirical author. Often there is an imaginary attributed author, such as Robinson Crusoe in Daniel Defoe's 18th-century novel of the same name, or a misrepresented historical author such as Ben Jonson in the forged poem "No Songe No Supper." Third, says Stephens, there's often "the sponsor," a third voice, created by the empirical author, that sponsors the text, presenting it to the reader as the work of the attributed author. For example, says Stephens, "Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose opens with a statement to the effect that, 'Here is a memoir by a 14th-century monk, dear reader, I hope you enjoy it, blah, blah, blah'—implicitly saying, 'I didn't write this, I'm just giving it to you.' And that's the quintessential move of the forger: 'I found this. I didn't write it. This is something written by someone else, probably long ago, which I had the good fortune to run across.'"

A convincing work of forgery often requires a significant level of scholarship and an abundant knowledge of the history of textual production from the Middle Ages to the modern era. The aforementioned Annius of Viterbo might have been dishonest, but his work reveals that he was also learned about texts and textual history in antiquity and early Christianity, was a theoretician of political reform, and had an interest in natural philosophy and philology. Hermann Kyrielis, who forged a poem by Martin Luther (nine three-line stanzas signed by the "author"), knew he could further enhance the credibility of his manuscript by tipping it into a late 16th-century binding that scholars knew had been made for Jacques-Auguste de Thou, the leading historian of the French Renaissance.

"Most people now find it impossible to imagine how a really respectable scholar could possibly toss in a few forgeries as part of his work."
Arthur Freeman

In the rare books department at the Eisenhower Library, Havens opens a volume that once belonged to Sir Thomas Phillipps, the greatest manuscript collector of the 19th century. Composed of 52 leaves of artificially aged vellum, the book prompts Havens to say, "It looks like something out of The Lord of the Rings, right?" Each leaf is covered in handwritten Greek minuscule ostensibly written by Meletios of Chios, a Mount Athos monk. Actually, it was written and assembled by Constantine Simonides, a contemporary of Phillipps and a forger. To fool Phillipps, Simonides needed a facility in both late demotic and ancient Greek, plus knowledge of paleography and manuscripts and a fine hand for convincing ancient calligraphy. "He would take pieces of parchment, which were very rare, and forge important Greek texts that ostensibly go back to classical antiquity, including this one, the only known 'history' of Byzantine painting to have survived from the ancient world," Havens says. Phillipps also is known to have had in his collection some fragments of ancient Greek texts by Homer and Hesiod. Simonides wrote those, too.

Like Simonides, many forgers were in it for the money, and they did not always have to invent an entire document or book. For example, a con artist might enhance the value of a volume by forging a signature, or a note on the title page, to make it appear that the book once had been owned by someone noteworthy. In the Freeman collection there's an important cosmographical text from 1563 by Bartholomeus Mercator, Breves in sphaeram meditatiunculae, signed by Johannes Kepler. Well, actually, signed by Vrain-Denis Lucas, a 19th-century forger who, over the course of 16 years, cooked up an astonishing 27,345 letters and documents written by people you might have heard of, including Aristotle, Alexander the Great, Attila, Cleopatra, Vercingetorix, Mary Magdalene, Judas Iscariot, Dante, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Pascal, and Newton.

Some of the most important forgeries represented in the collection were means to political ends. One occurred in either the eighth or ninth century, when someone—experts point the finger at various unidentified Catholic monks—cooked up a fourth-century document now known as the Donation of Constantine. According to the document, when the Roman emperor Constantine the Great left Rome to establish his eastern capital at Constantinople in 330 CE, he granted to the pope authority over Rome and all of the western Roman Empire. This specious "donation" was used in the Middle Ages to justify papal infallibility, the occupation of the Papal States in eastern Italy in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, and the pope's ostensible authority over all the kings and princes of Europe. Subsequent popes invoked "the donation" when it suited their interests, such as when Pope Hadrian I was exhorting Charlemagne to endow the church. The document was widely accepted as legitimate until the 15th century, when critics began to point out discrepancies. For example, a scholar named Lorenzo Valla noted that the document used a vernacular style of Latin inconsistent with common use at the time of Constantine. The Freeman collection includes a nearly comprehensive collection of major 15th- and early 16th-century treatises that either proved the Donation of Constantine to be fraudulent or stubbornly defended it as legitimate. Havens calls it "the most famous forgery ever."

Johns Hopkins partly owes its acquisition of the Freeman collection to the forger John Payne Collier. It was Collier's forgeries that first grabbed the attention of Arthur Freeman. Before he became a full-time rare book dealer, Freeman was a Harvard-trained scholar and professor at Boston University whose specialty was Elizabethan literature, especially Shakespearean and pre-Shakespearean drama. Collier had been a Shakespearean scholar as well, who after gaining access to the major collections of early English literature in the early 1800s began producing a series of forgeries, including a copy of Shakespeare's Second Folio that included changes to the plays that Collier claimed had been made by "an old corrector." In 1853, Collier published a new edition of Shakespeare that incorporated these changes, all of which were spurious. Over a period of 60 years, he interwove false and genuine documentary evidence about the life of Shakespeare and many other writers. Why? He was a competent scholar in a comfortable position with access to all of England's great collections. "Some of it was amusement. Some of it was pulling the leg of people he figured would be unable to contradict him," Freeman says. "Sometimes it was keeping his own name in everyone's eye, to show up his rivals, and keep his position as the leading authority in his field."

He adds, "The question is never answered in a paragraph, for any forger. I think if Collier and I could talk openly, we wouldn't have any problem understanding each other. One problem with forgery is that attitudes toward it have changed enormously over the years that we've studied. Most people now find it impossible to imagine how a really respectable scholar could possibly toss in a few forgeries as part of his work. They cannot understand this because they are educated to believe that forgery is lying and lying is bad." Such has not always been the case, however. "Erasmus is not only a truly great scholar, he's a man who people adore. But, I mean, Erasmus did forge a whole big, heavy patristic text, just to sort of further his own theological and political ideas. And I don't think he went to his grave thinking, 'Oh God, how could I have done that?' You have to look at things in terms of their time."

The American-born Freeman eventually moved from academia to the rare book business and from Boston to London. In the late 1950s, he began to assemble what would become the world's largest private collection of works pertaining to John Payne Collier. "When I married my wife [Janet Ing], I asked her if she could find a way to become interested in Collier, because I thought I had to do something about all the material I'd built up over the years," he says. "She said, 'Not in a million years.'" Nevertheless, they worked together for 20 of those million years on a 2004 study of the forger that runs to 1,483 pages in two volumes. Says Freeman, "If it fell on your head, there'd be no saving you."

Collecting Collier led Freeman to other forgers, and over five decades he assembled the Bibliotheca Fictiva. "I never thought there was any excuse for collecting books unless you used them," he says. To that end, he wanted the books and manuscripts to end up at a major research library. But he was intent on keeping the collection intact in one repository. Havens had known Freeman for years, and when he heard in 2010 that another library had expressed interest in acquiring only some of the texts, he contacted the collector. He says, "I ended up telling Arthur, 'If you're willing to part with it now, I would be interested in the entire collection.'" The Sheridan Libraries lined up funding—Havens will only describe the sum as "a substantial commitment of funds over a multiyear period"—from money endowed to the university for the express purpose of acquiring rare books and manuscripts, foundation support, and other sources. The Freemans donated a number of valuable items that the library could not afford. The whole collection arrived at Johns Hopkins in the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas last year.

Stephens could not be happier. "The collection positions Hopkins to be the world leader in an until now neglected field of study," he says. "Given the fact that we now have the bulk of the known forgeries in European history, anyone can come here and consult a relatively complete sample of any text or category of literary forgery, and do it in one place." That study will have importance beyond teasing apart the work of 26 centuries of literary rascals. "Forgery can be an incredibly destructive activity," he says, noting that generations of scholars accepted Annius' work as valid history, and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was an anti-Semitic forgery that had a profound influence on 20th-century history.

In November, Johns Hopkins' Charles Singleton Center for the Study of Pre-modern Europe and the newly established special collections research center in the Brody Learning Commons will sponsor an international three-day scholarly conference on the collection and its central themes. In 2014, a major exhibition of the collection will be installed in the Peabody Library. And scholars will begin poring over its contents. Stephens contemplates that prospect with great satisfaction. He says, "I could sit right here until I'm too old to move and never run out of things to write about."

Dale Keiger, A&S '11 (MLA), is the magazine's associate editor.