There are many varieties of forgery in intellectual history, and they are not easy to separate. There is the physical manufacture of false documents, which is forgery in the strict sense; there is the false attribution of real documents, which then become “pseudepigrapha”; and there is the invocation and exploitation of invisible documents, which, if they remain obstinately invisible, are designated as “ghosts.” Only the first of these processes necessarily entails deception—the others can be the result of mere error; but whenever deliberate deception is involved, they can all be treated as forgery and included in a study of forgery. Mens rea—the consciousness of deceit—is the ultimate criterion.

The motives for such deceit differ too. Often they are mixed, or deeply buried in human psychology. Sometimes, of course, it is merely gain: a crude and simple impulse easily isolated. Sometimes it is fantasy: the illusion of self-aggrandizement; sometimes mere gaminerie, the desire to tease. But already we are moving in to a darker area, for the desire to tease often has deeper roots: it can merge with the desire to humiliate, furtive malevolence, thirst for revenge. Perhaps it may even spring from love; so at least the forger of the Acts of Paul claimed, when his forgery was detected, though the explanation is not very convincing: at least such love must have contained a strong admixture of vanity, of self-love. But perhaps that is true of most apparently disinterested forgeries. And then there is a more public motive: the politic fraud, the forgery that supports the claim of a prophet, or a legislator, to claim higher authority—the testament of a dead statesman, the oracles, perhaps even the direct advice, of God.

The earliest known forgeries are of this last kind. The Hebrew compilers of the Pentateuch did not indeed forge the handwriting of Moses—technically their work was pseudepigraphy—but Moses himself, according to them, went the whole hog: he produced an allegedly authentic autograph, “written by the finger of God,” on two tablets of stone. How unfortunate that this unique document was smashed to smithereens, in an untimely fit of petulance, before anyone else could see it! This particular technique—the discovery of a crucial document which then becomes unavailable for expert scrutiny—is a favorite device of the founders of religions or sects. Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, was directed by the Angel Moroni to such a document: a text inscribed on gold plates in the “reformed Egyptian script,” which miraculously translated itself into something like Jacobean English when viewed through magical spectacles, similarly discovered. That original text too has since become unavailable: the angel, we are told, demanded it back after translation. So, I think, have the spectacles. But the religions thus founded still flourish, and it is held indelicate to examine too closely the mechanics of their origins.

Let us therefore skirt this dangerous bog and begin, where Mr. Grafton begins, in his elegant and erudite lectures, with secular, literary forgery. This is an area in which the artists, lacking the support of an established priesthood, must use greater subtlety to evade detection. It also presupposes a more mature setting: the existence of a literature on which the forgeries are parasitic, and a literate public interested in it. These conditions were happily combined in the Hellenistic kingdoms of the Near East in the third and second centuries BC. For there, Greek literature being itself in decline, criticism flourished; the study of Greek literature became almost an academic discipline; and the great libraries of Alexandria and Pergamum—the cities, respectively, of paper and parchment—maintained resident scholars, researching the subject and writing theses: textual criticism, literary biographies, etc.

Alexandria in particular became a great center of such research, with some of the usual consequences. Mr. Grafton quotes one Timon of Phlius, a sardonic and rather snobbish Greek (he came from the Old Country), who wrote that “in populous Egypt they fatten up many bookish pedants who quarrel unceasingly in the Muses’ birdcage.” Some of the quarrels are well known. Mr. Grafton then goes on:

The new libraries were rich, vulgar and aggressive; they collected hundreds of thousands of the papyrus rolls on which Greek books were written. They paid especially high prices for unusually valuable texts, like the official Athenian text of the three great tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, which the Alexandrian library borrowed against payment of a huge deposit, only to forfeit the deposit in order to keep the original rolls.

In such a world, which is not entirely unrecognizable today, a brisk market in literary property encouraged the production of forgeries, and all kinds of learned battles were fought and recondite pranks played, of which Mr. Grafton gives some agreeable examples. The battles were not entirely sterile, since it was in defense against the forgers that the tests of authenticity were established, and so forgers and critics reciprocally improved one another’s techniques. The greatest scholar among the Alexandrian librarians was Aristarchus, whose name became a synonym for the most exact criticism. He established the canonical text of Homer, throwing out intruded lines, and was credited with the same “divinatory” powers as the greatest of post-Renaissance scholars, Mr. Grafton’s hero, whose shadow hovers over this book: the French Huguenot Joseph Scaliger (1540–1609).


Later, when the Hellenistic kingdoms fell under Roman rule and Roman literature adopted Hellenistic models, the same temptations of forgery, and the same response of criticism, naturally followed. In the last years of the Republic the Roman Aristarchus was Cicero’s friend, the learned polymath Varro. He weeded out all but twenty-one of the 130 plays then ascribed to Plautus, thus creating “the Varronian canon” to which we owe the survival of the twenty come-dies now extant. But the most influential Roman forgeries came later, in the decline of the Empire, when there was no Varro to expose them. Consequently they had a longer run. The “contemporary” Trojan histories of “Dictys of Crete” (from a lost Greek manuscript suddenly thrown up by an earthquake in Knossos) and “Dares of Phrygia” (similarly translated from a lost Greek original) had a great success in the Middle Ages. They were finally killed off by Scaliger. The “Augustan History”—chatty biographies of third-century emperors ascribed to different authors but in fact a spoof by a single forger—was accepted as genuine until this century.

Such literary forgeries have a continuing fascination for frustrated or impish scholars. Can it be that Erasmus, that impeccable purifier of corrupted texts, himself forged the spurious treatise which he inserted into his edition of the works of Cyprian, and that Scaliger, who so unerringly detached false accretions from genuine texts, sought to deceive his contemporaries with an anonymous Greek chronicle? Perhaps it can; but then purely literary forgery, within certain limits, has not been regarded as very criminal—unless, of course, it has been done for gain. In the eighteenth century, the century of Chatterton and Ireland, some very respectable persons sought to gratify the new taste for old ballads by printing documents which they claimed to have found in old libraries. They thus paved the way for James Macpherson’s “Ossian.” In the nineteenth century, the foundation of national libraries and the opening of the archives reproduced the resources, and the temptations, of Hellenistic Alexandria.

Seen from the outside, from the busy, noisy, money-making world, monasteries, colleges, libraries may seem quiet havens of urbane, harmonious scholarship and piety. The view from within is not always the same. So much learning, if it have no outlet in original work, can generate frustration, envy, resentment, which then find expression in furtive malice and devious intrigue. John Payne Collier, a respected Shakespearean scholar, was in all outward respects (according to the Dictionary of National Biography) “a genial, kind-hearted and amiable man.” As well as being “a permanent habitué of the British Museum,” he was librarian to the Duke of Devonshire and bibliographer to the Earl of Ellesmere, and so had the run of two great private libraries. He was vice-president of the Society of Antiquaries and secretary to the Royal Commission on the British Museum, which he dominated; and his services to learning were rewarded with a civil list pension. What psychological quirk caused him to ruin his reputation and cast suspicion on all his work by inserting into the Elizabethan texts that he published his own artful frauds? But he was not singular in his surreptitious ingenuity. The British Museum, like the Alexandrian Library, sheltered other bent nibs and sharp, malicious pens.

Among those who exposed Collier was the keeper of manuscripts in the museum, Sir Frederick Madden: a distinguished Anglo-Saxon scholar, paleographer, and editor. He was an old-style Tory gentlemen who disliked foreigners, Whigs, and, above all, his colleague “the scoundrel Italian” Sir Anthony Panizzi, the keeper of printed books, and principal librarian. Panizzi was an ex-Carbonaro refugee with imaginative ideas (he created the museum’s famous Round Room), who moved in high society and was patronized by Whig grandees. Collier and Madden were united in opposition to Panizzi, but their dislike of each other transcended that common antipathy, and now Mr. Grafton suggests—or, rather, seems to adopt the suggestion—that some of the most shocking forgeries charged against Collier were in fact fabricated by Madden to ensure the ruin of his colleague. In other words, they were forgeries of forgeries: a very refined concept. Madden certainly—as his diaries show—seethed inwardly with secret resentments, but I find this particular charge very difficult to believe. At least I would need stronger evidence than I have seen.1


The most famous of modern literary forgers was surely that prince of bibliophiles and bibliographers, the creator of his own “Ashley Library,” Thomas J. Wise. The final authority on the editions of nineteenth-century English poets, he was revered throughout the literary world not only for his bibliographical expertise but also for his scholarly purism: he insisted that he never traded in books and “constantly and loudly denounced piracies and forgeries.” His own contribution to piracy, forgery, and the book trade was his bold idea of forging not merely single texts, or single copies of rare books, but whole editions previous to the hitherto recorded first editions; after which he “discovered” them, established their authenticity by including them in his own authoritative bibliographies, and then leaked his own stock of them discreetly, volume by volume, into a receptive market. Unfortunately he made one fatal technical error: he omitted to notice the date when esparto grass was first used in the manufacture of paper. Thence began the trail that led to his sensational exposure, in the last year of his life, 1934.

Once exposed, most of these literary forgeries are killed stone-dead, for they are mere artifacts, without inherent vitality. The history of their creation and exposure makes amusing reading, but it is marginal to intellectual history. More important are the forgeries that resist scientific exposure, or triumph over it, because they have that vitality—because they serve a cultural movement, a political interest, or a national myth. Such are the fabulous histories with which nations have sought to elongate their pedigrees; the “Donation of Constantine” which was cited, until it was exposed by Lorenzo Valla in the fifteenth century, as the title deed of the secular power of the Pope—a power which lasted until 1870; and Macpherson’s “Ossian,” which, having begun almost accidentally as the last resort of a failed poet, was swept up by the Romantic movement, puffed forward by Scottish self-esteem, and carried over Europe by Napoleonic conquest. The most modern and most malevolent of such forgeries is the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the bible of twentieth-century anti-Semitism, whose origin and history have been lucidly—but alas, unavailingly—set out by Mr. Norman Cohn.2

Consider the national myths. Here too we can begin in the Hellenistic east. There the ancient nations that found themselves submerged under a new Greek political and cultural hegemony sought to reassert their identity by recording and embellishing their distant past. The Babylonian Berosus, the Egyptian Manetho, wrote in Greek for their Greek masters. Later, others would imitate them. Some of these histories (of which only fragments remain, pickled in later works) drew, at times, on genuine records. This could not be said of the legendary histories of the Western barbarians who had no recorded past: they were pure fantasy, and, when documented, forgery. Such were the myths of the Trojan Brutus, the first king of ancient Britain, and of Arthur, the last, which were set out by the Welshman Geoffrey of Monmouth in the twelfth century. He had found them, he said, in a manuscript in the British—i.e., the Welsh—language supplied to him by an archdeacon in Oxford, but since, unfortunately, lost: the old story. Once set in motion, the legends ran their course, helped forward by other forgeries: the discovery in 1191 of Arthur’s bones at Glastonbury, as a fund-raising stunt by the Abbey, was a great help: it also localized Arthur and so fed a new stream of myth.3 The Scots, not to be outdone, traced their history back to Scota, the daughter of Pharaoh and Cecrops, King of Athens: a double coup, both biblical and classical.

It is commonly supposed that the humanists of the Renaissance disposed of such myths. They certainly destroyed some of them, but generally those of other nations: they were more tender to their own. Indeed, some of them invented new myths to fill inconvenient gaps. In 1527 Hector Boece, a Scotch humanist educated in Paris, published the names and acts of forty entirely mythical Scotch kings, derived, he said, from another manuscript (now lost) by another archdeacon (of St. Andrews). Archdeacons seem to have been stock figures in such scenarios: perhaps they were a literary convention, not to be taken too seriously, like Cervantes’s learned Moor, Cide Hamete Benengeli, his source for the history of Don Quixote. The Welsh scholar Humfrey Llwyd demolished Boece’s forty Scotch kings, but clung to his own national heroes Brutus and Arthur, who had already been demolished by the Italian Polydore Vergil. (But who could believe a papist Italian, a forerunner of the scoundrel Panizzi?) The Scotch kings were then refloated, for his own political purposes, by the famous Scotch humanist George Buchanan, and sailed triumphantly on into the eighteenth century, when Scotland, as Lord Hailes wrote, though reformed from popery, was not yet reformed from Boece.

Italy might produce the critical Lorenzo Valla and the skeptical Polydore Vergil, but it also produced one great forger to redress the balance. This was Annius of Viterbo, a Dominican friar, for whom Mr. Grafton betrays a liking. He was an Etruscan nationalist, and demonstrated, with a great show of documentary erudition, that his own city of Viterbo had had a particularly glorious past: it had been colonized by Noah, had been a center of ancient civilization, and there all the gods and goddesses of Egypt and Italy had enjoyed a jolly, epicurean life of convivial feasting: a concept which he somehow fitted into a severe Dominican eschatology. In order to clear the ground for this agreeable fantasy, Annius swept aside all the Greek historians as mendacious imposters and substituted for them the solid, scientific work of Berosus and Manetho, of which he now published the first Latin version. As all his works were fabrications, they naturally supported his theories. For this service, and for proving the descent of the Borgia family from Isis and Osiris, he was rewarded by the Borgia pope, Alexander VI, with a high office in the Vatican. Unfortunately he did not hold it long. He died two years later, allegedly poisoned (but who was not?) by the Pope’s son, Caesar Borgia.

Annius’s fabricated inscriptions, texts, pedigrees, authors, were taken seriously. for two generations and deceived some of the elect: it took Scaliger to sort them out and disentangle the true from the false Berosus. One cannot but admire Annius’s courage. His peremptory elimination of all Greek writers was not only a very convenient device: it was also a shrewd blow against the fashionable new Hellenism, of which, as a Dominican, he disapproved. It surely entitles him to a place of honor beside the French Jesuit Jean Hardouin, who, two centuries later, declared that almost all Latin literature was spurious, having been forged by thirteenth-century Benedictine monks: a doctrine which, if carried to the necessary extremes, is irrefutable.

National forgeries are exposed by the scholars of other nations; the forgeries of religion, protected by orthodoxy, can last longer. Indeed, it may be dangerous to expose them. Scaliger himself, though much pressed by other scholars, both Catholic and Protestant, firmly refused to publish his notes on the text of the New Testament. That would only cause trouble, he said. Others found that it did.

All Christian eschatology depends on two interrelated books of the Bible: Daniel and Revelation. Both are in fact pseudepigrapha. That the former was written some 450 years after its pretended date, and after the events that it pretended to prophesy, was demonstrated in the third century AD by the last great pagan scholar, the neo-Platonic philosopher and critic Porphyry. That the latter cannot be by the author of the Gospel of Saint John is obvious to anyone who can read Greek, and already in the fourth century it was declared uncanonical by the churches to which it was addressed. But all such demonstrations were vain. The books were too useful—and after the Reformation they became even more useful, to both churches. Neither Erasmus nor Calvin, neither Bentley nor Gibbon, could shake their credit. Erasmus also demonstrated the forgery of the only biblical text that can be cited in defense of the doctrine of the Trinity, but was forced to make a tactical retreat. It was not until the late nineteenth century that these biblical forgeries were openly admitted by the established churches. By then it hardly mattered. Good Christians had given up eschatology and no longer pretended to understand the doctrine of the Trinity.

However, if the canonical texts were sacrosanct, the supposed pagan warrants for Christianity were more expendable. Scaliger removed the Christian interpolations from the works of the Jewish historian Josephus (though they have taken a long time to die). He and his German friend Opsopoeus (alias Koch) routed the Sibyl—“that prophetic old lady, Noah’s daughter,” as the Cambridge classicist Richard Bentley called her—who had poured out a stream of antedated Greek hexameters for the comfort of the Church. But the most dramatic exposure, and one which occupies a central position in Mr. Grafton’s book, was the demolition, by the great Huguenot scholar Isaac Casaubon, of the Hermetic writings.

The Hermetic writings were Greek texts which circulated in the Roman Empire as the ancient wisdom of the Egyptian god or sage Thoth, now identified by the Greeks as Hermes and converted into a synthetic figure, Hermes Trismegistus, a precursor of Moses, Zoroaster, and Plato. Like the Jewish and Christian pseudepigrapha, these writings had been exposed as modern forgeries by the formidable Porphyry, who defended his own neo-Platonism against all comers. At first the Church had ignored these pagan works, and they had little influence in the Middle Ages; but by the fifteenth century, when they were brought to Italy from Byzantium, they had been adjusted to Christian purposes and at once began a spectacular career. They were translated by Ficino, who suspended his edition of Plato for this more important task, and throughout the next century “Hermes” dominated European thought. He was now not only a prophet and a forerunner of Christ but the philosopher of Christian Platonism, the author of the new science and the new medicine, the inspiration of Copernicus, Paracelsus, Bruno, and Dee. Then, in 1614, in order to refute the Catholic Annals of Cardinal Baronius, Casaubon found it necessary to study these texts, which the Cardinal had cited in his support. The result was explosive. With his unrivaled knowledge of the structure and history of the Greek language, Casaubon proved conclusively that the Hermetic texts were later than all the writings that they were supposed to have inspired—were indeed a hodgepodge of them. After that, Hermeticism might linger on in minds already committed, but the credit of its texts was blown: blown for good.

Perhaps this result was not solely due to Casaubon’s philological skill. We must not overrate the power of scholarship to destroy myths. Casaubon’s attack came at a critical moment, when Hermeticism was anyway losing its appeal. Soon Bacon, Galileo, and Descartes would drive it from the field. However, the controversy about it did not cease. Two centuries later, the German scholar Richard Reitzenstein, starting from the undisputed fact of the forgery, asked the further question, Why were those documents forged at that time? So he opened the debate about the religious world of the Roman Empire, that ferment of competing mystery religions, of which Christianity was one and Hermetism another: not merely a literary artifact, nor even an esoteric cult, but perhaps, as Mr. Garth Fowden has argued (for the debate still continues) a faint but authentic voice of conquered, Hellenized Egypt, a national myth.4

Porphyry, Casaubon, and Reitzenstein, united by the Hermetic forgeries which drew out their critical skills, are heroes of Grafton’s book. Together they illustrate the thesis which periodically emerges and then sinks again in the rich and, alas, necessarily compressed detail around it, viz: that forgery and criticism are interdependent; that their basic techniques, though sophisticated, haven’t changed since Hellenistic times, and that forgery, by provoking critical antibodies, ends by fortifying scholarship itself. Porphyry—though we know too little about him, his controversial works having been destroyed by his adversaries and only known through their refutations—showed the way; Casaubon settled the technical problem; Reitzenstein began anew, seeking in a discredited text not, as in the sixteenth century, philosophical truth, but intellectual history. Thus philosophy, by discovering anachronism in order to expose forgery, has helped to create the modern science which has replaced the old humanist concept of the classics: Altertumswissenschaft, the understanding of the ancient world in its own right.

This Issue

December 6, 1990