The art of writing

VI. Forgery

Documents were of great importance in public life, they were evidence in legal proceedings, and represented confirmation of defined laws, or facts.
The greatest authority was enjoyed by royal, government or church documents, however, private documents, used in various matters (e.g. to confirm financial obligations) were also of significance.
The strong position of documents and the faith in their “power” meant that counterfeiting appeared (in Poland from the XIII century).

A document could be forged in a few ways.
The first one consisted of preparing a complete forgery from scratch, with contents unrelated to reality or not in accordance with the intention of the real issuer of the document. The document also contained an unauthentic seal or an original seal from another document, which gave the forgery even greater credibility.

Another way was to “falsify” an existing document, in other words, to make some changes to it. These changes consisted of writing new words or symbols in clear spaces, or replacing a selected word or whole fragment of text with a different entry. In this second case, first of all, the place in the document in which the entry was to be changed was erased. This involved scratching the original text using a sharp tool (most frequently this was a special writer's knife). The scratched place was then wiped and smoothed with a crayon or pumice stone. The false contents were then written into such a prepared “empty” area.

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Testing the authenticity of documents submitted in the court was conducted by the personnel of the court clerical office. There were also special instructions concerning the discovery of forgeries. Above all, it was analysed if there was a seal on the document and whether it was damaged or not. If the document was regarded as unbelievable, the parchment was cut and the seal broken, preventing its further usage.
Forgery was harshly punished, in 1400 in Krakow, one local resident was sentenced to the death penalty by burning at the stake after being convicted of forgery.

With passing time, together with the development of the state and the growth in the production of documents, forms of documents helping in the fight against forgeries became popular. Civil and court registers, in which entries concerning conducted cases were made, became more widespread. In the beginning, they were short clerical notes, which evolved into pages full of entries (referring to the whole content of the document). Books obtained the virtue of public office. From the entries in them, the so-called extracts were issued, whose receipt was much cheaper and faster than obtaining the documents in a traditional form. Of course, the were also forgeries of the issued extracts, however, these forgeries were much easier to verify because they could simply be compared with the entry in the book.

Current methods for testing the authenticity of historical documents to some extent resemble an action film – the “investigation” focuses on a wide-ranging analysis of parchment/paper, the ink used, the wax used in the seal and, above all, the construction of the document, language and style of writing. To reveal former forgeries, it is also useful to have palaeographic knowledge. Tests must be, however, conducted in a wider context, with familiarity of the environment in which the document was prepared and the realities of the era.