Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Medieval Forgery.

Another thought for anyone writing anything vaguely medieval in flavour. This one is about forgery, which probably seems like a strange thing to focus on, except that it had a huge role to play through much of the middle ages, and is well worth understanding if you want to know more about the way medieval societies fitted together. I’m focussing on English examples here, but there are plenty of others.

The first thing to understand about forgery in medieval England is that there was quite a lot of it. As a historian, you come across forged or incongruous charters not all the time, but certainly often enough to make it clear that the practice went on. You find charters claiming to be older than the handwriting says they could be, seals that have nothing to do with the charters, and all kinds of other fun stuff. There are a couple of reasons for this.

One is the importance of charters and grants in that society. From the ownership of land to rights to dispense justice and collect taxes, all kinds of rights were granted to individuals and organisations through those centuries. You find Beverley Minster’s right to send just a single banner to the king’s battles, for example, alongside small grants of the right to take rabbits from the local warrens, and much broader freedoms from prosecution by outsiders for those living around particular monasteries.

Rights were not assumed to be automatic (though the law codes of even quite early kings do enshrine certain principles we can recognise today) but were instead given out. So were exemptions. The king made laws, or the pope made decrees, and immediately half the most wealthy people in the country wanted exemptions from castle building, or having to live at the religious institutions they were supposed to, or whatever.

Precedent was also vital. People, even kings, respected ancient rights. If you had a charter from Aethalstan in perpetuity granting a whole series of rights over the local area as Beverley and Ripon minsters did, subsequent kings tended to back those rights, even in legal cases against their archbishops as happened at Ripon in 1228. The thing is, of course, the charters I’m referring to in this instance were both forged, probably sometime in the twenty-five years before that case. People and institutions forged in the middle ages because it could re-shape their relationships with authority.

They also did it because it was easy. In the absence of modern forensic techniques, getting away with it was much easier. Moreover, while kings, archbishops and the rest started keeping collections of what they had handed out, there generally wasn’t one central record of every grant. People accepted too, that older charters would be copied and rewritten (my assertion of forgery above is actually only one point of view, but it seems like the most probable one, given that Beverley and Ripon suddenly acquired identical charters at the moment they most needed them). Even handwriting made things easier, with literacy being lower and handwriting being more standard as a result.

A note on forging coins. It happened. It happened a lot, despite some fairly severe penalties. Two things worth bearing in mind though. A multiplicity of different currencies could often find itself being used in different places and at different times, making ‘odd’ currency the norm, or alternatively, making someone with foreign coin seem to be a forger. Perhaps more interestingly, there wasn’t one centralised mint in England, but rather, specific individuals were given the right to mint coins on behalf of the crown. Or they assumed it. During the Anarchy of King Stephen in the twelfth century, at least one of the barons in Yorkshire started minting his own coins simply because he was the only real authority in the area.

All this is worth thinking about the next time you write a medieval fantasy, not just because it gives you all kinds of ways of causing trouble, but because I think it says something important about the way power worked in medieval England.

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