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Forgeries and Hoaxes

I took a busman’s holiday today. I’m starting to plot my second book and, needing to get a blog post out, I gave myself permission to noodle around online, seeking useful info for my plot and a blog at the same time. My next set of murders involves forging medieval manuscripts. So it’s perfectly legit for me to find out how to do that, right? Just because I enjoy it doesn’t mean I’m not working.

I had great hopes of a news story on NPR yesterday. Seems the French police arrested the CEO of Aristophil, a Paris dealer in manuscripts, who has collected billions of Euros from investors for “shares” in his portfolio of assets. But alas! for my murders. These manuscripts seem to be perfectly real. The police claim it was the investment management that was shady — a giant Ponzi scheme. In any case, the court is having the collection sold at auction, so if you’d like to bid on the manuscript of the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, you’ll soon have the chance.  [Breaking news! The French government has stepped in to declare the Sade manuscript a national treasure. It’s out of the auction. Sorry.]

It turns out that the University of Delaware’s Library possesses a special collection devoted entirely to forged manuscripts. It was the gift of Frank Tober, a chemist who worked on the Manhattan Project. His interest in the subject began with the chemical methods of detecting fraud, but twisty subjects lead to twisty trains of thought. Before he was done, Tober had branched out into counterfeiting, the forgery of artwork and furniture, hoaxes, and imaginary books and libraries.

At first I thought the pickings were slim for me in the Tober collection: it has only one forged illuminated manuscript. It always pays to keep digging, though. The Tober manuscript is one of hundreds produced about a century ago by the “Spanish Forger,” whose work still lurks in museum collections today, although many have been identified. And the art market always adapts. The Spanish Forger’s work is now eminently collectible. And probably easier to forge than the original manuscripts. (Plot idea here?)

Of course, when you are surfing the web, diversions and byways are legion. Searching for forgeries naturally brought me to hoaxes. I was thrilled to find a “Museum of Hoaxes,” right in San Diego, where I will be visiting in another week or so. Well, almost there. Only a hundred miles away. I could visit! And the web site kindly gave directions:

We’re based in San Diego, California. If you’re in the downtown area, get on i-5 north and keep driving until you see a giant floating jackalope off to your right. You can’t miss it! If you reach LA, you’ve gone too far.

Oh, boy! I’ll just… Wait a minute. Just drive north? Till you see a floating jackalope?

Maybe I’m not really competent to write about forgeries, far less spot them.

The “museum” is, of course, just a web site. I would have tumbled to that eventually, when I scrolled down to the “Staff” section:

Curator Pretending to be in Charge of a Museum

Deputy Curator in Charge of Fire, Electricity, Dead Pigeons, Insane Hamsters, Frog Skeletons, Poltergeists, and Medical Curiosities of All Kinds

I seem to have wandered far from my serious and entirely justified research project. And it’s lunch time. I’ll leave the rest for another day.

Nobody Reading Your Blog? What You Need Is a Monkey-centaur.

It’s hard enough to claw back time from the demands of life and fiction writing to write a blog post. Why, then, double the time with a search through Google images to illustrate my points? Because that’s where so much of the fun lies. Visual puns, quirky interpretations or just the weirdities that pop up on the web can add a zing that keeps the casual reader going. So today, in fraternal and sororal solidarity, I offer up one of my best sources of free images.

The British Library’s Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts blog reproduces illuminations from the manuscripts in their collection. When I contacted them, they said I might reproduce the images in my blog as long as I credited the Library and gave their citation to the manuscript. Hence this monkey-centaur, with which I illustrated the concept of an evil deed.

Monkey sawing books (Courtesy British Library, Add. 49622, f.146)

Monkey sawing books
(Courtesy British Library, Add. 49622, f.146)

What could be worse than sawing a book in half? Who but a monster would do it?

The blog itself is a welcome break from the slog through my inbox. Every few days one of the BL’s experts discourses on a gorgeously illustrated manuscript, on several manuscripts on a single theme, on a type of illustration (the marginalia are the

Detail of a marginal scene of a fox seizing a duck, with 'sound effects' added in a later hand, reading ‘queck’. Courtesy British Library, Add MS 49622, f. 190v

Detail of a marginal scene of a fox seizing a duck, with ‘sound effects’ added in a later hand, reading ‘queck’. (Courtesy British Library, Add MS 49622, f. 190v)

most fun) or on whatever else strikes their fancy. The Library is digitizing its collections as fast as ever it can, and newly digitized manuscripts are frequent subjects of the blog. An international cadre of enthusiasts seem to spend their time crawling through the collection online, and sometimes they find delights that the staff haven’t had time to appreciate. This hapless duck was tweeted out by one Erik Kwakkel of Leiden, who got credit in the BL’s caption. He must have been researching his genealogy.

Medieval monks laboring in the scriptorium frequently found their minds directed to the world, the flesh and the devil. Sometimes these showed up in decorous and improving forms. Sometimes not.

Cerberus (strangely human) feasts on the gluttons condemned to Hell (Courtesy British Library MS Egerton 943, f. 12r)

Cerberus (strangely human) feasts on the gluttons condemned to Hell (Courtesy British Library MS Egerton 943, f. 12r)

Here we have the punishment of gluttony from a manuscript of Dante’s Inferno. In classical mythology Cerberus was a three-headed dog who guarded the gates of Hades; here he is a three-headed devil who eats those who eat too much. Be warned.

Nun rebuking a lecherous grotesque. Courtesy British Library Add. ms 49672 f098v

Nun rebuking a lecherous grotesque. (Courtesy British Library Add. ms 49672 f098v)

Progress has made prudes of us. Here we have a nun wagging a monitory finger at a grotesque who is clearly attacking her. According to the BL manuscripts blog, later owners of such manuscripts often defaced scandalous images in the margins as disrespectful to the pious subject matter.

And here is the editorial comment of some envious monastic on the lovers in the main image:

A monk's envy expresses itself.

A monk’s envy expresses itself. The BL bloggers passed this on from the Morgan Library’s collection, MS G 24, f. 25v.

Readers of the blog get to play with the toys, too. Contests are held for the best caption for various images. The one just above was submitted in a contest to find images illustrating the names of London subway stops. That one was for “Arsenal.”

If you’d like some sympathy in your writing woes, check out The Burden of Writing: Scribes in Medieval Manuscripts.

Every April 1, a spoof post appears. In one, the digital whizzes at the British Library had introduced flying saucers into the illuminations. Another announced the discovery of an ancient cookbook with recipes for unicorn.

I know you get too much email already, but I really recommend following this blog. You’ll find images you can use, and you’ll enjoy yourself, too.

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