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Literary Forgery
The Hitler Diaries, 1983
The announcement by the German news magazine Stern that it had discovered the personal diary of Adolf Hitler generated a media frenzy. Magazines bid for the right to serialize it. Historians anticipated what revelations it would contain. Skeptics, however, insisted it had to be a fake, since Hitler had never been known to keep a diary. The skeptics turned out to be right. Less than two weeks after the initial announcement, forensics experts denounced the diaries as a "crude forgery." When all the dust settled, the diaries turned out to be one of the most expensive fakes in history. By some accounts, the debacle cost Stern as much as 19 million marks. More…
Leonainie, 1877
Under the heading "Posthumous Poetry," Indiana's Kokomo Dispatch published a poem titled "Leonainie" on August 3, 1877. It was an unremarkable poem except in one way. The editor of the Dispatch, John Henderson, claimed it was a previously unpublished poem by Edgar Allan Poe. (Click here to read the poem.) The publication of this poem generated excitement among fans and scholars of Poe, and within a few weeks it had been reprinted in major papers throughout the United States. But in reality it was not a poem by Poe. Its true author was a struggling young Indiana poet, James Whitcomb Riley. More…
William Henry Ireland’s Shakespeare Forgeries, 1794
Bookseller Samuel Ireland was a passionate fan of Shakespeare, so he was overjoyed when his son, William Henry, claimed to have found a previously unknown play written by the Bard. Arrangements were made for the play to be performed. But the actors, suspecting a fraud, made a mockery of it. Soon after, William confessed the play was indeed his own work. However, his heartbroken father refused to believe the confession. More…
De Situ Brittaniae, 1747
A young teacher in Denmark claimed to have found an ancient map, titled De Situ Brittaniae, that detailed the layout of roads and settlements in Roman Britain. The discovery caused enormous excitement amongst antiquarians because it revealed numerous Roman landmarks, as well as an entire province, whose existence hadn't been previously known. But the map turned out to be a forgery. More…
Jean Hardouin’s Theory of Universal Forgery, 1693
Jean Hardouin was a respected scholar, the librarian of the Lycee Louis-le-Grand in Paris, who argued that virtually all classical texts, and most ancient works of art, coins and inscriptions, had been forged by a group of thirteenth-century monks. His theory was considered highly eccentric. Nevertheless, his theory spoke to the growing awareness among early-modern scholars of the massive amount of forgery practiced during the medieval period. More…
Cicero’s Consolatio
Carlo Sigonio was a highly respected Italian scholar who specialized in the history of Rome. Around 1583 he claimed that he had discovered a new complete work by the great Roman orator Cicero. It was titled De Consolatione or the Consolation. In it Cicero grieved for his daughter's death. Only small fragments of this work had ever been found before. The discovery of this manuscript caused great excitement. But when other scholars read it, the general consensus was that it had to be a fake. It contained numerous anachronistic phrases and Italian mannerisms that Cicero would never have used. Sigonio stubbornly defended the work, but today it... More…

Count d’Armagnac’s Forged Papal Bull, c.1455
Count Jean V d'Armagnac of France (shown above) fell in love with his younger sister and had two sons with her. Then he sought approval from the Pope to marry her. The Pope refused. Undeterred, the Count bribed a papal official to forge a papal bull allowing the marriage. When the Pope learned of this, he excommunicated the Count. Later, King Charles VII's army killed the Count and dragged his body through the streets. More…
The History of Crowland, 1413
When a neighboring abbey claimed a portion of Crowland Abbey's lands as its own, the Crowland monks presented legal authorities with a volume known as the Historia Crowlandensis. It was a series of land charters woven together into a history of the abbey. The document was accepted as legitimate, and the Crowland monks won their case. It wasn't until the 19th Century that historians realized the History was, for the most part, an invention. More…
The Letter of Prester John, c.1150
At a time when European rulers felt threatened by the growing power of Muslim nations on their borders, a letter suddenly appeared from Prester John, who described himself as a Christian king of vast wealth and power living in the far east. Hopes were raised that Prester John would come to the aid of Europe's Christian nations, and expeditions were sent to search for him. But Prester John was never found. The letter's true author remains unknown. More…
The Donation of Constantine, 756 AD
The Donation of Constantine was a document supposedly written by the Emperor Constantine, granting the Catholic Church ownership of vast lands in the western Roman Empire. For centuries, it was accepted as authentic, until 1440, when the scholar Lorenzo Valla used textual analysis to expose it as a fraud. Valla's analysis represented the growing influence of Renaissance Humanism, and a new willingness in Europe to question long-held beliefs. More…
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  • All text Copyright © 2014 by Alex Boese, except where otherwise indicated. All rights reserved.