In my pigeonhole at Queen Mary recently, I found an unsolicited copy of a book with the title Meetings with Remarkable Forgeries, by M. J. Harper. According to the cover blurb, it is a debunking of Christopher de Hamel’s Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts, about which I said something here. Perhaps the publishers sent it to me because of my post about the earlier book.
In fact, it is not quite what the cover says. The blurb ends up by saying “The author has bigger fish he wants to fry”, and indeed on the first page of the text he mentions “my long-term goal of getting the universities abolished”, which hardly endears him to me. I must say that, on the strength of this book, universities needn’t start quaking in their boots just yet.
De Hamel describes twelve manuscripts, of which only two are claimed to be forgeries by Harper, the Gospels of St Augustine and the Book of Kells. In particular, the Leiden Aratea, on which I commented, doesn’t draw his fire, even though de Hamel describes its production by what might count as an earlier version (at the court of Charlemagne) of the production lines Harper regards as being responsible for forging other early manuscripts: he starts with an admission that mediaeval monks copied manuscripts, and while we find something wrong with this, they clearly did not. (Before the printing press, copying was essential to ensure wide circulation.) Indeed, it often happened that the copy was a finer manuscript than the original, in which case it appears they felt no compunction to carefully preserve the original.
Anyway, Harper claims that the two manuscripts I mentioned are both “forgeries”, produced in Durham in the twelfth century. He describes the Benedictine order as the “Thomas Cook of their day”, arranging itineraries for pilgrims, and as a profitable sideline, producing “ancient” manuscripts for the pilgrims to see on their journeys. He claims that Durham was an important centre of this manuscript production. The secular clergy of Durham cathedral were replaced by Benedictine monks in the twelfth century, and the Bishop of Durham ensured that he was master of the County Palatine, and that the Sheriff of Northumberland had no authority in Durham.
The other reason for the monks to forge “ancient” gospel books was to record the charters documenting their claim to various properties. Certainly, mediaeval monks transcribed legal documents of this sort into spare pages in gospel books. I used to have a lovely book on the history of Eynsham Abbey (alas, I can no longer find it) which describes such practices. Presumably something written in a gospel book was less likely to be challenged than if it was on a loose piece of vellum in the abbot’s study.
Harper claims that there is no archaeological evidence of early monasteries on either Iona or Holy Island. I have never been to Iona. It is true that there is nothing old to see on Holy Island. I am not sure what this proves. Harper’s claim is that St Cuthbert’s Gospels and the Lindisfarne Gospels could not have been produced there.
Another manuscript in his sights is the Llandeilo Gospels, claimed to be an ancient Welsh book, produced in Llandeilo, but according to Harper produced in another forgery factory, this time in Lichfield. He takes issue with the usual derivation of the name “Llandeilo” as the place of St Teilo, and instead interprets it as “an enclosure where dung was spread”.
The Wikipedia article for “llan” confirms that “[t]he various forms of the word are cognate with English land and lawn and presumably initially denoted a specially cleared and enclosed area of land.” But it adds, “In late antiquity, it came to be applied particularly to the sanctified land occupied by communities of Christian converts”, and goes on to add that nearly all of the 630 placenames in Wales containing this element “have some connection with a local patron saint.”
Perhaps Harper wants to close down Wikipedia as well as the universities?
Harper grumbles at the Welsh writing Llanfair for “St Mary’s parish” as being unable to spell the name of the second most important person in the world, but I believe that this is actually a correct translation. Welsh declines the beginning, rather than the end, of a word: Merthyr Mawr, but Fforest Fawr. I wonder what experts on mediaeval Welsh make of all this?
As befits one with such a hatred of scholars, his book has no table of contents and no bibliography. He quotes various things from other books, but with the exception of de Hamel’s book, he doesn’t tell us what these are. (Fortunately he does have an index, without which I would have had a much harder job writing this account.)
By way of light relief, here is a crossword clue which you should easily be able to solve:
Giggling troll follows Clancy, Larry, Billy and Peggy who howl, wrongly
disturbing a place in Wales (58)