A Brief History of Medieval and Early Modern Forgery

These concatenated narratives of forgery are anything but extensive. It was written to give a slight view into the world of forgery.

Of special interest to me is the era directly preceding that of the era of standardization, namely the 10th-15th centuries because this is the era to which the vast majority of the allegedly ancient texts date. The introduction of the printing press in the mid-15th century accelerated the standardization of literary works and it was during this time that “standard” editions of classical texts were being published. The scholars of the time were aware of the magnitude of forgeries and fakes but many were still taken in by them nonetheless.

“Riddled with the inconsistency of compelling yet conflicting preconceptions … all ‘olden times’ are potentially fraudulent.”
David Lowenthal (1990)[8, p.17]

“If detecting a forgery is not easy in the first place, exposing one that has been honored as an original for hundreds of years is a far greater challenge.”
Lynn Catterson (2005)[14, p.30]

The Chronology

The history of forgery perceivably goes back almost as far as human invention does. The oldest types of forgeries or fakes in the East and the West are said to have been literary forgeries.[8, pp.23, 99] In a similar vein, the practice of art forgery is said to be conceivably just as old as the practice of art itself.[10, p.242]


Forgeries in this time period were being produced but allegedly the output was notably small.[34, p.xxviii] Despite that, an estimated 50% of Merovingian (476-750) legal documents are now considered forgeries.[33, p.24]


“…medieval people … forged to an extent unsurpassed by any other age relics, legends, charters, chronicles, seals, precious stones, etc.”
Otto Kurz (1973)[3, p.77]

“Creative memory was at its most creative in the ninth century, when churchmen forged unprecedented and monumental runs of entirely false charters.”
Constance Brittain Bouchard (2015)[1, p.63]

In the 900’s, forgers began producing historical forgeries to establish the histories of their religious houses. All across Europe, they were taking more of an interest in history, and were doing their best to mimic older texts.[34, pp.xxviii-xxix] In France, the deeds of Carolingian kings were being forged. In England, archival records were being largely forged.[35, p.522]

The imitation of older scripts had become commonplace in literary institutions all across Europe by around 1050.[35, p.528] Anthony Grafton commented on how an estimated 66% of all documents given to the clergy prior to 1100 were fakes.[33, p.24]

“Not only was there a campaign to recopy documents from before the Viking Age, but these documents were manipulated: interpolated, redrafted, improved.”
Julia Crick (2010)[35, p.531]

The Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) brought with it the first notable peak in Chinese art forgeries.[4, p.266] Chinese fakes of various kinds continued to be produced in much larger quantities starting in the 11th century.[37, p.1] Su Shi (1037-1101) was a famous artist, poet, and calligrapher of his time. His contemporaries forged tons of works attributed to him.[37, p.298]

The Ottoman Empire began around 1300 and ended in 1922. Early on, they practiced calligraphic imitation and continued to do so throughout the centuries. This practice was used to create forgeries.[37, pp.94-95]


“The Renaissance marks not only the rebirth of classical learning, and the rediscovery of lost classical texts, but the rise of (complementary) classical forgery, with its irresistible temptations to charlatans and scholars alike.”
Arthur Freeman (2014)[11, p.9]


John Hardyng (1378-1465) forged historical documents in order to prove to King Henry V that the Scottish kings had always been subservient to the English crown.[11, p.16]


According to David Marsh, Leon Batista Alberti (1404-1472) executed “the most successful literary forgery of the early Renaissance”.[11, p.9] I cannot say I agree with him. Assuming that by “successful” he meant one that served its purpose, which in the case of a forgery would be to go undetected indefinitely, I’d imagine given the scope of forgery at this time, and the little attention it’s been given, there are still early Renaissance forgeries waiting to be uncovered, and each of those has been more successful thus far than Alberti’s.

Alberti also forged an ancient Roman tragicomedy that was printed about 150 years after its time by a printer who thought it to be an authentic creation from antiquity.[11, pp.9-10]


Annius of Viterbo (c.1432-1502), a Dominican and at one point the Master of the Vatican,[31, p.68] is possibly the most famous forger of the 15th century. His forgeries, which revised large swaths of history, received support and opposition by some of the greatest scholars of his time. It even gave way to more works that were based upon his original forgery. There is also a known case of him forging an inscription made to appear as though it were from the 700’s.[11, pp.11-12]


Amerigo Vespucci (1452-1512), the man who North and South America are named after, forged travel narratives that were published around the turn of the 16th century. At least that’s what Arthur Freeman, compiler of the largest library in the world containing works about literary forgery, believes. Of Vespucci’s letters, Arthur is of the opinion that the literary forgery known by the name of “the Soderini Letter” is what lead the Americas to be named after him in 1507.[11, p.14] Others are of the opinion that the letter contains a fictional account, but that it was not written by Vespucci.[28] Also in the mix are those who believe it is a true account by Vespucci.[29]


Trithemius (1462-1516), a German Benedictine abbot who has since been called the “father of bibliography”, could not resist the temptation of forging a thousand years of history. He published a work in 1515 that was based upon sources which in reality did not exist.[11, p.15] It would be as if I appealed to the authoritative Book of Slack to substantiate my narrative about a millennium’s worth of names, places, and events, knowing full well the whole time that the Book of Slack does not exist.


Antonio de Guevara (c.1481-1545) had a similar style to Trithemius. He wrote a false historical narrative and cited a non-existent Florentine manuscript. This forgery was taken to be a classical work and maintained popularity in Europe throughout the 1500’s.[11, p.15]


Erasmus (1466-1536), a Catholic who’s commonly held as one of the brightest northern Renaissance scholars, forged a complete work and attributed it to St. Cyprian, who lived some 1200 years prior to the time of publication.[11, p.12]


Onofrio Panvinio (1530-1568), an Augustinian librarian and historian, was recognized by his contemporaries as the “father of history”, and he too resorted to creating and employing forgeries. From what I understand, although not as grand as the narrative produced by Trithemius, Panvinio created literary forgeries to help substantiate his arguments about Church history.[15]


Thinking back on inscriptions, they are important for historical studies and can help us understand more about the past. It is not that simple though, for they too have been forged in massive amounts. Pirro Ligorio (c.1512-1583) has been dubbed the “prince of forgers” due to forging at least nearly 3,000 inscriptions. He was a well respected individual and even took over Michelangelo’s supervisor position at St. Peter’s around 1564. The fake inscriptions aroused suspicious early on but nobody made any serious effort to expose these until the latter half of the 1700’s, about 200 years later.[13, pp.27-28]


Michelangelo (1475-1564) himself has commonly been accused of forging art and antique statues. One apparent habit of his was borrowing original drawings done by old masters and copying them so well that he could return his copy and keep the originals for himself all while going undetected. As for the cases pertaining to his sculptures, I discussed one of these back in March 2020, which is by far the more popular one. Lynn Catterson pioneered the other case in 2005, and to me, it’s the more fascinating one.[14] I’ll briefly cover both of these.

The first case is known because it’s unanimously agreed upon that the controversy resulted in Michelangelo gaining a substantial amount of fame and employment. This happened in the 1490’s. There are two versions of what happened leading up to that moment. The popular account is that Michelangelo was alone responsible in creating a cupid sculpture, artificially aging it, and then selling it as an antique, hence creating a forgery. His reasoning for doing so is often said to have been financial, a struggling no-name artist trying to get a paycheck. The lesser known account is that it was the person who Michelangelo sold the statue to who was the one that attempted to pawn it off as a product of antiquity. Both scenarios are plausible given the limited information, as there are more examples of both of these things happening beyond this isolated case. This is one of the difficulties in labeling something as a forgery. Sometimes there is no intent to deceive when creating an imitative piece, and the deception only enters the scene when someone other than the creator intervenes. In the case of Michelangelo, the intervener would have knowingly introduced the deception, but in some cases misdating can happen unintentionally.

The second case is specifically about the Laocoon, discovered in 1506, but it also mentions a handful of other allegedly antique statues that were possibly forged around this time. Lynn noted that along with Michelangelo having the motive and the means to create this, he also had the opportunity. And, in the words of Yola Schmitz (2018), “Opportunity not only makes a thief, but also a forger”.[25, p.168] That quote is good to keep in mind when exploring this field. Lynn covered the case in detail and I suggest you read that as a starting point to learn more than what I’ve shared here.[14]

Otto Kurz mentioned that “The forgers of classical antiquities in the Renaissance period were no narrow specialists”.[3, p.79] He went on to say that out of all the fields in which they forged antiquities, that of forging busts of Roman emperors was the largest.

The Trio

I want to take a moment to focus on the Fasti Capitolini, which was discovered in 1546 and has since held a reputation as one of the fundamental sources for our modern conception of Roman chronology. The reason for its importance is that it contains a list of Roman consuls, who were chairmen of the Roman senate who had control over the Roman army and had the greatest amount of legal power, and also a list of other important figures. Consuls have been one of the main sources used for Roman chronology.

The dating of it is typically restricted to the reign of Augustus in the 1st centuries BCE and CE. There is a notable amount of scholarship trying to make sense of its place in history,[16], [17], [18], [19], [20], [21], [22], [23], [24] and while talk of 1st century BCE conspiracy has been discussed at some length, I have never seen the idea that it could be a product of the 16th century proposed. The reason why I’m more suspicious about this find in particular is that it was discovered by two forgers, Pirro Ligorio and Onofrio Panvinio. Additionally, the discovery was supervised by Michelangelo. I think it’d be interesting to look upon it with today’s methods of investigation.

Michelangelo (1475-1564), age 71

Pirro Ligorio (c.1512-1583), age 34

Onofrio Panvinio (1530-1568), age 16

Ligorio forged an inscription to disprove the popular notion of the time that Verrius Flaccus authored the Fasti. Despite his underhanded tactics, contemporary scholarship does appear to agree with him on Flaccus not being the author.[36, p.3]


Matthew Parker (1504-1575) was Archbishop of Canterbury and patron to the production of classical forgeries. He’s also been accused of conjuring a fictional characters and acting as though it was a real person. He had writers, drawers, painters, cutters, limners, and bookbinders all within his budget. He also offered his counterfeiting services to other people.[30] Laurence Nowell (1530-c.1570), an associate of Parker and the best Anglo-Saxon scholar of his day, was a forger too.[11, p.17]

The state of English history at this time was dismal, as was noted by Parker himself. He wanted to establish English history as being distinct from the domineering Catholic history. He accused the Catholics of mutilating and perverting English history, leaving it corrupted, incomplete, altered, and in some places altogether erased.[30]


Wolfgang Lazius was an epigrapher who forged inscriptions to prove his historical ideas.[37, p.101]


Alfonso Ceccarelli (1532-1583) was a physician and historian who was eventually executed for his forgeries. His craft was forged chronicles, genealogies, and legal documents which he then sold to the various people who requested them.[11, p.13], [26, p.235]


Due to the number of forged coins that had made their way into circulation, many 15th and 16th century books on numismatics were required to include a chapter on forgeries.[3, p.78]


The Late Ming Dynasty brought with it the second major spike in Chinese art forgeries.[4, p.266] One of the causes of this second great age of forgery was that the desire to possess antiques was rapidly increasing among collectors.[5, p.76], [8, p.99] In the literary world during this time, Chinese colophons were often being forged.[6, p.50] The situation pertaining to colophons was not much better in the West.[7]

“During the sixteenth and early seventeenth century, famous [Chinese] painters and calligraphers had to hire ‘ghost artists’ in order to satisfy growing demand for their works. In addition, some of the celebrities forged famous works themselves, at times even adding their own colophons to those pieces, thus authenticating them.”
Michael Friedrich (2020)[37, p.298]



Jerónimo Román de La Higuera (1538-1611) was a Spanish Jesuit who forged a hagiographical work known as the Chronicon,[11, p.21] later known as the False Chronicles. To help with their reputation, he gave them a fake provenance by claiming that he received the chronicles from the Benedictine abbey of Fulda, a popular abbey amongst Renaissance scholars for authentic manuscripts. He incorporated prominent issues of the day into these texts, which in the long-run really helped secure their popularity, as they were notably influential from the then until near the end of the 1800’s.[32, pp.1-2]


Born two years after Higuera was Joseph Scaliger (1540-1609), a man who in his own time was considered the most learned man of Europe and who has since gained a reputation as the father of chronology. He created a fictional list of Olympiads, which are the way in which Greek years are counted and dated. It was presented in such a way that many thought it to be an authentic source and it wasn’t until 1852 that it was officially laid to rest as fictional. Another deceptive work of his was a recreation of an ancient lost text of which he never fully explained the origins, leaving it to his readers to figure out.[11, p.20]


Pietro Carrera (1573-1647) was an Italian priest who forged 65 letters of Diodorus Siculus, who was a historian from the first century BCE. He also forged an encomium attributed to the C3rd CE St. Agatha.[11, p.22]


Jacques Mentel (1597-1671) attempted to prove his supposed ancestor had invented the printing press before Gutenberg. To do this, he fabricated literary evidence and thereby became a forger. He published this in 1650.[11, p.21]


Jerome Vignier (1606-1661) was a French priest who published a work in 1649 that contained ecclesiastical, genealogical, and historical forgeries.[11, p.20] I haven’t read much about this one, but an English translations of the title is “The true origin of the very illustrious houses of Alsace, Lorraine, Austria, Baden, and many others“, so I figure it has to do with fabricating histories for these various houses.


Curzio Inghirami (1614-1655) created a literary forgery revealed through an archeological forgery. He buried numerous fragments forged to appear Etruscan and which relayed the recently fabricated tale of Etruria’s destruction by Roman forces in 60 BCE.


Charles Julius Bertram (1723-1765) was called “the cleverest and most successful literary imposter of modern times” for his forged account of Roman Britain, published in 1757. Along with it came a forged mapped that depicted imaginary Roman stations and roads.


The systematic study of forgery began to be established. Previous to this, historians mainly focused on the topic anecdotally.[2, pp.14-15] The systematic approach began by flourishing in fields now commonly referred to collectively as the historical auxiliary sciences, and this largely took place within German scholarship.


Denis Vrain-Lucas (1818-1882) was called the prince of forgers.


Constantine Simonides (1820-1890) allegedly forged the codex Sinaiticus. He was also known for other forgeries.


The Late Qing-early Republican era brought with it the third and final massive wave of art forgeries being produced. Over the course of about 30 years starting in 1920, a single counterfeiter was estimated to have sold some 2,000 counterfeit scrolls.[4, p.266]

Forgery was alive and well in the United States at this time too. In 1913, Richard Gottheil commented on the recent spike in the number of archeological frauds and called the US a “dumping-ground for forgeries of many kinds”.[9, p.306]

Recommended Reading

Kurz (1973), Robinson (1998), Laing (2000), Catterson (2005), Cohen (2012).



[1] – Bouchard, Constance Brittain. Rewriting Saints and Ancestors: Memory and Forgetting in France, 500-1200. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7zw7bp. Accessed 19 May 2021.

[2] – COHEN, PAULA MARANTZ. “The Meanings of Forgery.” Southwest Review, vol. 97, no. 1, 2012, pp. 12–25., www.jstor.org/stable/43821007. Accessed 19 May 2021.

[3] – KURZ, OTTO. “EARLY ART FORGERIES: FROM THE RENAISSANCE TO THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY.” Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, vol. 121, no. 5198, 1973, pp. 74–90. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41371017. Accessed 19 May 2021.

[4] – Laing, Ellen Johnston. “‘Suzhou Pian’ and Other Dubious Paintings in the Received ‘Oeuvre’ of Qiu Ying.” Artibus Asiae, vol. 59, no. 3/4, 2000, pp. 265–295. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3249881. Accessed 19 May 2021.

[5] – O’Brien, David. “Art in an Expanded Field: Taste and Class in Chinese Visual Culture.” The Journal of American-East Asian Relations, vol. 4, no. 1, 1995, pp. 73–81. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23612584. Accessed 19 May 2021.

[6] – Ming-Sun Poon. “The Printer’s Colophon in Sung China, 960-1279.” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, vol. 43, no. 1, 1973, pp. 39–52. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4306229. Accessed 19 May 2021.

[7] – Bühler, Curt F. “False Information in the Colophons of Incunabula.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 114, no. 5, 1970, pp. 398–406. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/985806. Accessed 19 May 2021.

[8] – Jones, Mark, et al. Fake? The Art of Deception. First Edition, University of California Press, 1990. https://archive.org/details/bub_gb_LaUnOztbkP4C/mode/2up. Accessed 19 May 2021.

[9] – Gottheil, Richard. “Two Forged Antiques.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 33, 1913, pp. 306–312. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/592837. Accessed 19 May 2021.

[10] – Thomas P. F. Hoving. “The Game of Duplicity.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, vol. 26, no. 6, 1968, pp. 241–246. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3258621. Accessed 19 May 2021.

[11] – Freeman, Arthur. Bibliotheca Fictiva. Bernard Quaritch, 2014. Accessed 19 May 2021.

[12] – Ligota, Christopher R. “Annius of Viterbo and Historical Method.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 50, 1987, pp. 44–56. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/751317. Accessed 20 May 2021.

[13] – Abbott, Frank Frost. “Some Spurious Inscriptions and Their Authors.” Classical Philology, vol. 3, no. 1, 1908, pp. 22–30. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/262031. Accessed 20 May 2021.

[14] – Catterson, Lynn. “Michelangelo’s ‘Laocoön?”.” Artibus Et Historiae, vol. 26, no. 52, 2005, pp. 29–56. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20067096. Accessed 20 May 2021.

[15] – Bauer, Stefan. The Invention of Papal History: Onofrio Panvinio between Renaissance and Catholic Reform (Oxford-Warburg Studies). Oxford University Press, 2020.

[16] – Taylor, Lily Ross. “The Date of the Capitoline Fasti.” Classical Philology, vol. 41, no. 1, 1946, pp. 1–11. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/267529. Accessed 20 May 2021.

[17] – Taylor, Lily Ross. “Degrassis’ Edition of the Consular and Triumphal Fasti.” Classical Philology, vol. 45, no. 2, 1950, pp. 84–95. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/266435. Accessed 20 May 2021.

[18] – Christopher J. Simpson. “The Original Site of the ‘Fasti Capitolini.’” Historia: Zeitschrift Für Alte Geschichte, vol. 42, no. 1, 1993, pp. 61–81. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4436271. Accessed 20 May 2021.

[19] – Bodel, John. “Chronology and Succession 1: ‘Fasti Capitolini’ Fr. XXXIId, the Sicilian ‘Fasti,” and the Suffect Consuls of 36 BC.” Zeitschrift Für Papyrologie Und Epigraphik, vol. 96, 1993, pp. 259–266. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20188909. Accessed 20 May 2021.

[20] – Jordan, Bradley. “The ‘Fasti Consulares Capitolini’ and Caesar’s ‘Magistri Equitum Designati.’” Zeitschrift Für Papyrologie Und Epigraphik, vol. 196, 2015, pp. 231–239., www.jstor.org/stable/43909956. Accessed 20 May 2021.

[21] – Adams, F. W. “Some Observations on the Consular Fasti in the Early Empire.” American Journal of Archaeology, vol. 55, no. 3, 1951, pp. 239–241. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/500973. Accessed 20 May 2021.

[22] – Taylor, Lily Ross, and T. Robert S. Broughton. “The Order of the Consuls’ Names in Official Republican Lists.” Historia: Zeitschrift Für Alte Geschichte, vol. 17, no. 2, 1968, pp. 166–172. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4435023. Accessed 20 May 2021.

[23] – Swan, Michael. “The Consular Fasti of 23 B. C. and the Conspiracy of Varro Murena.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, vol. 71, 1967, pp. 235–247. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/310766. Accessed 20 May 2021.

[24] – Russell, Amy. “The Augustan Senate and the Reconfiguration of Time on the Fasti Capitolini.” Augustus and the Destruction of History: The Politics of the Past in Early Imperial Rome, edited by INGO GILDENHARD et al., vol. 41, Cambridge Philological Society, Oxford, 2019, pp. 157–186. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv10kmc9n.13. Accessed 20 May 2021.

[25] – Schmitz, Yola. “Faked Translations: James Macpherson’s Ossianic Poetry.” Faking, Forging, Counterfeiting: Discredited Practices at the Margins of Mimesis, edited by Yola Schmitz et al., Transcript Verlag, Bielefeld, 2018, pp. 167–180. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv1wxr9t.13. Accessed 20 May 2021.

[26] – Siraisi, Nancy G. “History, Antiquarianism, and Medicine: The Case of Girolamo Mercuriale.” Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 64, no. 2, 2003, pp. 231–251. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3654127. Accessed 20 May 2021.

[27] – Roukema, E. “The Mythical ‘First Voyage’ of the ‘Soderini Letter.’” Imago Mundi, vol. 16, 1962, pp. 70–75. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1150303. Accessed 20 May 2021.

[28] – Roukema, E. “The Mythical ‘First Voyage’ of the ‘Soderini Letter.’” Imago Mundi, vol. 16, 1962, pp. 70–75. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1150303. Accessed 21 May 2021.

[29] – Davies, A. “The ‘First’ Voyage of Amerigo Vespucci in 1497-8.” The Geographical Journal, vol. 118, no. 3, 1952, pp. 331–337. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1790319. Accessed 21 May 2021.

[30] – Robinson, Benedict Scott. “‘Darke Speech’: Matthew Parker and the Reforming of History.” The Sixteenth Century Journal, vol. 29, no. 4, 1998, pp. 1061–1083. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2543358. Accessed 21 May 2021.

[31] – Farrer, J. A. (1907). Literary Forgeries. Longmans, Green, and Co. https://www.google.com/books/edition/Literary_Forgeries/_QCFAAAAIAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=0. Accessed 21 May 2021.

[32] – Olds, Katrina B. “The ‘False Chronicles,” Cardinal Baronio, and Sacred History in Counter-Reformation Spain.” The Catholic Historical Review, vol. 100, no. 1, 2014, pp. 1–26., www.jstor.org/stable/43898529. Accessed 21 May 2021.

[33] – Grafton, Anthony, and Ann Blair. Forgers and Critics, New Edition: Creativity and Duplicity in Western Scholarship. New, Princeton University Press, 2019. Accessed 21 Jun. 2021.

[34] – Roach, Levi. Forgery and Memory at the End of the First Millennium. Princeton University Press, 2021. Accessed 6 Jul. 2021.

[35] – Crick, J. (2010). Insular History? Forgery and the English Past in the Tenth Century. England and the Continent in the Tenth Century, 515–544. doi:10.1484/m.sem-eb.3.4713. Accessed 6 Jul. 2021.

[36] – Loffredo, F., & Vagenheim, G. (2019). Pirro Ligorio’s Worlds. doi:10.1163/9789004385634. Accessed 20 Dec. 2021.

[37] – Friedrich, Michael, and Cécile Michel. Fakes and Forgeries of Written Artefacts from Ancient Mesopotamia to Modern China (Studies in Manuscript Cultures). De Gruyter, 2020. https://www.degruyter.com/document/doi/10.1515/9783110714333/html?lang=en. Accessed 26 Dec. 2021.

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