Forging the Medieval by Dr Rebecca Menmuir

Dr Rebecca Menmuir (Queen Mary) and Hannah Armstrong (York)

When you hear the word forgery, what do you think of? Perhaps your thoughts jump to counterfeit artwork, heist films, the BBC’s Fake or Fortune; or to the Turin shroud, The Pardoner’s Tale and debates surrounding the authenticity of religious artefacts; or maybe to something else entirely.

Part of the appeal of studying forgeries and imitations are their breadth and universality. Colin Burrow writes in the preface to his 2019 Imitating Authors that one of the pleasures of writing the book was that almost everyone had something to say about the concept of imitation. Similarly, anxiety about forgery is not new, with ‘Fake News’ as only its latest iteration in the popular consciousness. The spurious has existed alongside the genuine through ever-changing definitions of ‘spurious’ and ‘genuine’, and its malleability and persistence is both perplexing and fascinating.

It’s against this backdrop that we—Rebecca Menmuir, a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in SED at Queen Mary, and Hannah Armstrong, a PhD candidate at York—decided to organise a workshop to ask some closer questions about forgeries and imitations. Our research projects approach the same topic, imitations and the medieval, from different angles. Rebecca works on forgeries and imitations of the Roman poet Ovid produced during the medieval period; and Hannah works on imitations and reimaginings of Old Norse sagas in 19th–21st century literature. We realised that we were circling around the same topics and asking the same questions, but the strict periodisation of literary studies meant that we rarely crossed paths. Nor had we been able to meet art historians, archaeologists, theologians, or the many scholars in other disciplines who were likely to have something to say about how we should be studying ideas of medieval forgeries.

The idea was there: we started to plan how to bring together a small group of academics working on some aspect of forgeries, imitations, or appropriations, either produced during the medieval period or which forged ideas of the medieval in some way. The result was a one-day workshop, held on Friday 10th June: ‘Medieval Forgeries / Forging the Medieval’.

We were incredibly fortunate to be able to use the Museum of London as our venue, which itself raised lots of pertinent and timely questions about how we curate and present the past. There we were joined by eleven other co-investigators, all scholars who work in one form or another on medieval forgeries or post-medieval imitations. The range of experience in the room was one of the strengths of the event, with researchers whose work might normally sit within Classics, History, or Modern Languages presenting side by side with English Literature scholars whose period expertise stretched from the late antique to the late 20th century. We also represented many different career stages, from PhD students to Postdoctoral researchers and Professors.

The Workshop

In the first of our two morning slots, six of the participants gave short (5–7 minutes) presentations on their research into medieval forgeries. The examples ranged from forgeries of classical authors to fraudulent monastic charters, and our discussions between papers highlighted just how foundational and intrinsic forgery was to medieval textual culture, across different forms of media (from documents such as charters and diplomas to literary works). This naturally also led to questions of morality: did medieval people think of forgery as a negative act, and in turn, what kind of language should we as scholars use or not use?

Our second session pivoted to focusing on post-medieval imitations and appropriations of the Middle Ages. The seven presentations covered topics from 18th century Gothic reimaginings to queer theory and 20th century film, and political appropriations of imagined pasts. The variety represented in this session demonstrated just how generative and intriguing questions of forgery and imitation are, but it also raised issues as to what kind of language we can use to describe it and how do we create space for transhistorical and interdisciplinary dialogue.

It was these challenges we turned to in our third and final session of the day. We were keen from the outset that our workshop be not only a space for presenting and sharing work, but for collaboratively finding new ways of thinking and approaching the topic. With this in mind, we used the third session as an opportunity to break into small groups to brainstorm responses to questions which had been raised earlier in the day. Initially, we had been worried about whether this technique would work—would it feel too close to an undergraduate seminar? But we were delighted to find that it works just as well for researchers, and it helped to dig deeper into the issues whilst also building collegiality.

Finally, we fed back to the group as a whole and used the final part of the day to consider how we could keep these kind of conversations (interdisciplinary, transhistorical, across different career stages) going in the future… watch this space! You can also find a brief overview of each presentation in a Twitter thread here: https://twitter.com/RebeccaMenmuir/status/1536350623095980032

Reflections and Lessons Learnt

With the help of a feedback form sent out to the workshop attendees, we met again for a debrief. Overall, we enjoyed the workshop enormously, and the feedback was really positive. One person wrote that the atmosphere was ‘calm, uncompetitive, and yet intellectually challenging’; this is something which we are extremely proud of, particularly given the stress and competitiveness that academia can sometimes promote. Learning about how others approached medieval forgeries and imitations has been genuinely fruitful, and both of us have benefited from following up on reading and resources which were shared and discussed. Rebecca has discovered, perhaps belatedly from a nineteenth-century-ist’s point of view, Rudyard Kipling’s Dayspring Mishandled, a story involving a fraudulent ‘discovery’ of a lost Chaucer manuscript. We have continued that sharing of resources by setting up a collaborative bibliography, where several of the attendees have added key scholarship on medieval forgeries and imitations, and forgeries and imitations of the medieval. (Please contact either of us if you would like a link to this document.)

Aspects of the day had required a sharp learning curve—did the ominous large button in the cupboard switch off one light or the entire building electrics? Why was the clicker not working? Is the camera on?—and we were glad that the AV and events team at the Museum were on hand to help (note: the large button was not the correct button). Before the event, we had questions and concerns which would only be answered on the day: would there be enough discussion to fill the time, or would there be enough time to accommodate discussions? Would the questions we had planned for the third session, which reflected on the day’s presentations and discussions, be relevant to the day’s proceedings? How do you write closing remarks before a workshop has even started? We found that the best approach was to plan for flexibility, such as incorporating a ‘buffer zone’ of time to continue should Q&As be too interesting to interrupt at their allotted end-time. We also scheduled the final session after lunch so that we had time to meet and make any changes during the lunch period. Since several recurring themes and questions had been raised throughout the day, we made several adaptive changes to our prompt questions, including a new question which incorporated a quote from one presentation, on the topic of whether there is such thing as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ forgery. While the unknown element of any event is worrying in some ways, it was gratifying to see how the workshop developed in ways which we didn’t foresee: there would be little point in organising a workshop to exchange new ideas where we could predict every question, thought, or answer.

We learnt several assorted things from planning the workshop. Firstly, in our opinion it is far more effective (and more fun) to plan an academic event with a co-organiser, whether a new colleague or an old friend: having an interlocuter to encourage the seed of a new idea, or veto impractical suggestions, is extremely helpful. It is essential to leave enough time to plan— ‘enough time’ might be dictated by a funding deadline for a grant, or dependent on your other commitments. We found it helpful to think about the potential outputs and afterlife of the workshop in early planning stages, but we left concrete decisions on any outputs to the workshop and the feedback form, where we could ask the attendees their thoughts.

It was only with institutional and financial support that we were able to plan and run this workshop. Thanks to Queen Mary, University of London (especially the School of English and Drama) and the University of York, who are our host universities and make our research possible. We are extremely grateful for the funding available from the British Academy through their Postdoctoral Fellowship scheme. Finally, we sincerely thank the Museum of London, particularly their events team, catering team, and housekeeping team, all of whom were fantastic.

Please get in touch with us if you want to chat about any aspect of this round-up: r.menmuir@qmul.ac.uk or ha950@york.ac.uk.

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