Bryn Mawr Classical Review 02.06.08


Anthony Grafton, Forgers and Critics: Creativity and Duplicity in Western Scholarship. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990. Pp. x, 157. ISBN 0-691-05544-0.


Reviewed by Julia Haig Gaisser, Bryn Mawr College.

Since the publication of volume one of his important and influential Joseph Scaliger: A Study in the History of Classical Scholarship (Oxford 1983) and on the way to volume two of his labors, Grafton has completed several interesting parerga on classical scholarship and its place in the intellectual life of the early modern world. Thus, in 1985 a translation of F.A. Wolf's Prolegomena to Homer (with Glenn Most and James Zetzel), in 1986 From Humanism to the Humanities(with Lisa Jardine), in 1990 Forgers and Critics, in 1991 Defenders of the Text: the Tradition of Scholarship in an Age of Science (1450-1800). (And I may have forgotten a few.)

Although Forgers and Critics is not the greatest or most important book in the group (it is very short, and still shows many signs of its origin as a series of lectures), it makes a good read for the same reasons. It also presents not only juicy nuggets of information (e.g., that perhaps half of the legal documents from the Merovingian period and two-thirds of the documents issued to ecclesiastics before 1100 are fakes, p. 24) but also more than its share of interesting theses (like the continuity of purpose and method that Grafton sees between forgers ancient and modern [Chapter 2] as well as between the German 'higher critics' of the nineteenth century and their predeccessors -- from the moderns Bentley, Casaubon, and Scaliger back to ancient scholars like Porphyry, Varro, and the Alexandrian Homerists, Chapter 3).

Grafton's principal theme is the symbiotic relationship between forgers and critics, and the spur provided by the efforts of each to the development of new skills and techniques by the other. He devotes two chapters to each side. Chapter 1 ("Forgery and Criticism: An Overview") sketches a brief history of forgeries both perpetrated and unmasked -- from the works of Acusilaus of Argos (who claimed to have taken his information from bronze tablets discovered in his garden and "thereby created one of the great topoi of Western forgery, the motif of the object found in an inaccessible place, then copied, and now lost ...", p. 9) to such gems of the art as the Letter of Aristeas, the Donation of Constantine, Ossian, and the Praeneste fibula. Chapter 2 ("Forgers: Types and Tools") treats the forger's motives and means and sets out his chief task. "He must ... imagine two things: what a text would have looked like when it was written and what it should look like now that he has found it. Two forms of imagination should lead to two different, complementary acts of falsification: he must produce a text that seems distant from the present day and an object that seems distant from its purported place of origin (p. 50)." In the end, however, he will be betrayed by his own unintentional anachronism ("any forger, however deft, imprints the pattern and texture of his own period's life, thought, and language on the past he hopes to make seem real and vivid" [p. 67]).

In Chapter 3 ("Critics: Tradition and Innovation") Grafton juxtaposes three critics of different eras (Porphyry, Isaac Casaubon, and Richard Reitzenstein) and their analyses of the pseudepigraphical Hermetic Corpus, showing both that the three "employed their historical and critical skills ... to establish the preeminent authority of the religious and philosophical doctrines they embraced (p. 83)" and that, however astute they were in the case of the Hermetic Corpus, "all showed far less critical discrimination when they dealt with texts that coincided with their assumptions and desires (p. 95)." Chapter 4 ("Forgery into Criticism: Techniques of Metamorphosis, Metamorphosis of Techniques") sketches inter alia, the attitudes of Scaliger, Casaubon, and others to one of the most influential Renaissance forgers, Annius of Viterbo (Giovanni Nanni), who pretended he could read Etruscan, manufactured 'ancient inscriptions', and argued in his strange Antiquitates (1498) on the testimony of his forged texts of Berosus and Manetho that the Etruscans and specifically his own town of Viterbo were the true inheritors of Chaldaean and Hebrew culture wrongfully appropriated by the Greeks.

Grafton's cops are more interesting than his robbers -- although one must admit that they were sometimes the same: Erasmus both exposed the fictitious nature of the supposed correspondence of Seneca and St. Paul and forged a work he identified as St. Cyprian's De duplici martyrio (pp. 43-45); the forger Annius also revived and promulgated ancient rules for discriminating between false and genuine sources (pp. 104-7). In fact, however, most of the forgers and their works are well known. Grafton says little that is new about them, but rather uses them as a foil for his original and always enlightening treatment of their critics. The section on Porphyry, Casaubon, and Reitzenstein is the best in the book.

Grafton's notes, as always, are superb, revealing what seems to be complete control of his sources, both contemporary and modern, and providing lesser mortals with plenty of new and essential material for study. The book is generously illustrated. My favorite is the frontispiece from J.B. Mencke's De la charlatanerie des savans (1721) shown on p. 67 with its motto: MUNDUS VULT DECIPI.