The Forgeries of Václav Hanka

“The enthusiasm of the Czech Revival found expression in aesthetics, poetry and folksong, literary exercises on pan-Slavonic themes, and new adventures in drama, fiction, and journalism. But the period was overshadowed by a hoax, and no survey of the years between 1827, when the Museum Journal (CCM) was launched, and 1861, the year of Václav Hanka’s death, would be complete without a discussion of it.” [1], p491.

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Václav Hanka (1791-1861) was a Czech philologist and a pupil of “the father of Slavonic linguistics”, Josef Dobrovský (1753-1829). Hanka was reportedly the Director of the Museum Library, an occupation which allowed him access to a growing collection of texts and books. Under the instructions of his master, he became a well-read Slavonic scholar and gained knowledge of the Old Czech language.

“Carried away by an excess of zeal, he devised a scheme for adding to the fragmentary texts so far brought to light and found a willing ally in Linda, a poor journalist, author of a half-historical, half-mythical novel ‘Light over Paganism’.

Together they planned to build up a Czech legend of Arthurian proportions, turn it into a mediaeval epic, and by the skilful use of old parchment, ancient lettering, and Old Czech idiom, publish it as a series of ‘discovered ‘ fragments.” [1], p492.

The public part of their scheme began in 1816, when one of their fragments was discovered in the cover of a book. Another manuscript of theirs was discovered in the crypt of a church in 1817, was subsequently dated to the 13th century, and was believed to be oldest Old Czech literature ever yet found. This manuscript is today called Dvůr Králové (RZ), or the Queen’s Court manuscript. An additional manuscript of theirs came to light in 1818, “was described as a ‘love-song of King Václav, and was also dated to the 13th century.

pages 4 and 5 of RK

An even riskier manuscript of theirs was also found in 1818. It is known as the Zelená Hora (RK) manuscript or as the Green mountain manuscript. It pushed the dawn of Czech literature to the 9th century.

There was a controversy over the authenticity of these texts that lasted for over a hundred years. Dobrovský, Hanka’s former teacher, had dismissed Hanka’s fragment of St. John’s Gospel as spurious, and is on record saying that if it were published, he would refuse to give it his authority. Either him and a man by the name of Jernej Bartol Kopitar are responsible for accusing Hanka as the perpetrator of the hoax. Later, Juraj Palkovič (1769-1850) accused Hanka of forging both the St. John fragment and the RZ. The poet Siemienski was also doubtful of the authenticity of RK and likened it to the work of Ossian.

Despite the lashes given out by Hanka’s former teacher and others, there was a strong following which believed the forgeries to be genuine artifacts. Among the supporters were Kollár, Celakovsky, Safarik, Palacky, J. E. Vocel, Nebesky, and J. B. Koubeck. Reportedly, V. A. Svoboda was in on the hoax as well, and helped reinforce the genuineness of the documents.

Due to the uneasiness caused by the controversy, a committee of inquiry was established in 1857 to determine the authenticity of the manuscripts in question. RK was concluded to have been from a later date than had previously been thought and made by an unknown person with fraudulent intentions. Even after the death of Hanka in 1861, his works were still believed by some to be authentic historical records.

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References:

[1] – Vaclav Hanka’s Forgeries, S. E. Mann (1958)

[2] – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/V%C3%A1clav_Hanka

[3] – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josef_Dobrovsk%C3%BD

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