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The real thing: the thrills of inauthentic literature

How much would you be prepared to pay for a library of forged books? In 2011, the Sheridan Libraries of Johns Hopkins University acquired (at an undisclosed price) the so-called ‘Bibliotheca Fictiva’, one of the largest collections of forged books and documents, which includes, among other gems (such as a ‘Letter from Heaven’ supposedly penned by Jesus Christ), ‘eyewitness’ accounts of the Fall of Troy.

Such fictitious accounts were very popular in the Middle Ages, and two fabricated histories in particular —the Chronicle of the Trojan War by ‘Dictys of Crete’ and the History of the Fall of Troy by ‘Dares of Phrygia’— are ultimately at the root of the retellings of the Trojan War one finds in, among others, Chaucer’s and Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. These make-believe accounts may have started life as little more than learned jeux d’esprit, to be appreciated by erudite audiences as bold and creative ‘alternatives’ to canonical literature. Still, they ended up virtually supplanting Homer, in the Medieval West, as authorities on the Trojan War.

Not all ancient forgeries were harmless amusements, however. At the time of the Hellenistic kingdoms (late 4th to late 1st century BCE), when the Ptolemaic and the Attalid kings were vying for the acquisition of books for the libraries of Alexandria and Pergamum respectively, avaricious individuals reportedly tried to pass off forged works as genuine pieces by renowned authors (such as Aristotle). Several centuries later, the infamous ‘Donation of Constantine’, an 8th-century CE forgery, was repeatedly used to legitimise the Catholic Church’s claims to worldly power by recording the supposed donation, by the 4th-century Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, of the entire Western Roman Empire to Pope Sylvester I. (The forgery was exposed by the Italian humanist Lorenzo Valla in 1440).

‘Sylvester I and Constantine’, San Silvestro Chapel at Santi Quattro Coronati, Rome (1247), Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

And only a five years ago, short-lived excitement was stirred up by the so-called ‘Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’, a papyrus scrap in the Coptic language purportedly referring to Jesus having a wife, and authenticated by leading authorities as belonging to the 4th century CE. It did not take long, however, for the papyrus to be revealed as a forgery, and not a particularly well-done one at that—despite having fetched, at one point, a $50,000 offer from a dealer.

Greed for money or for fame and privilege (or both), then, is a major motive behind literary forgery, both in antiquity and nowadays. Often, however, inauthentic texts are the end-product of motives and factors more complex than covetousness. Before the spread of literacy, and of the culture of the book in particular, pseudepigraphic literature was not necessarily part of an intention to deceive. In ancient cultures, in which notions of authorship and authority were much more fluid and malleable than in our own copyright-dominated times, it was relatively easy to misattribute literary works.

For example, epic poems other than the Iliad and the Odyssey tended, unsurprisingly, to gravitate around the illustrious name of Homer, but this did not always block out an awareness of other potential authors. In this case, uncertain or contested authorship is rather a reflection of the oral, traditional and impersonal nature of early epic poetry, and/or of different (and often antagonistic) guilds of epic bards.

‘Frontispiece and Titlepage of a 1752 edition of Alexander’s Pope’s translation of The Odyssey’ (1752), from the Private Collection of S. Whitehead, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In later times, works by Plato’s disciples or imitators (such as the little-known Axiochus or Clitopho) entered the Platonic corpus not as forgeries intended to deceive but rather as literary imitations or even pastiches.

The term ‘pastiche’ is partly appropriate also for another famous ancient pseudepigraphon, the tragedy of Rhesus, which is traditionally (and falsely) attributed to Euripides, and may have entered the Euripidean corpus because of its homonymy with Euripides’ genuine Rhesus, a work probably lost at a relatively early age. The extant Rhesus contains several passages that are little more than a potpourri of purple patches picked out from fifth-century tragedies. The unknown author’s purpose may have been to tickle his audience’s vanity by setting them up as consumers of high-quality theatre — or at least of theatre that was sufficiently redolent of the style of the old masters for some of their canonical prestige to rub off on their spurious descendant.

In a world of ‘alternative facts’, interest in inauthentic (or should one now say ‘post-factual’?) literature may look like an idle pastime at best, a reflex of reactionary politics at worst. But it need be neither. Serious study of literary inauthenticity can be an important historical tool illuminating assumptions, ideologies, and driving forces behind our (and our predecessors’) engagement with notions of canonicity and authority.

Featured image credit: ‘Old Books’ by DKrue, CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

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