Medieval (Mis)attributions

By Iris Denis

Why do people write, read and share texts that are connected to famous authorities but probably not written by them? Processes of misattribution – and, consequently, the circulation of texts under the ‘wrong’ author’s name – are of all ages, and sometimes persist for centuries. How can they illuminate the power of texts and those who transmit them? And does an author’s name exert its power over the text – or the other way around?

They are probably familiar to everyone who has ever browsed through social media timelines: inspirational citations. Sometimes accompanied by pictures of a landscape or a black-and-white photograph of their (presumed) author, these snippets of text can occasionally, to put it mildly, be of ‘dubious authenticity’. They are typically attached to the name of an authoritative figure – usually a famous artist, scientist, philosopher… – even though this person did not always speak these (exact) words. Misattributed quotes circulating on the Internet are sometimes rectified by people who meticulously investigate the ‘real’ origins of inspirational sayings.


At the same time, the cultural phenomenon of misattribution itself allows us to ask intriguing questions on how texts – even short citations – construct and (mis)attribute authority, and why this happens. In addition to critically questioning attributions, and restoring them to their ‘rightful owner’ where we can, we might also delve deeper into the processes of (mis)attribution – especially since, as a reader familiar with this blog series has undoubtedly guessed by now, misattribution is nothing new.

Both the people who, consciously or unconsciously, bring misattributed quotes into circulation, and those who critically question their origins, are in regard to these activities ‘standing on the shoulders of giants,’ an expression that (as you may remember from this or this article in our series) is traced back to Bernard of Chartres or even further, but became popularly known in English through Isaac Newton.

Misattributions were rife in medieval times, and in some cases persisted far beyond that period: once associated with a name, the texts could be copied, used as sources, or mined for phrases and passages to be recompiled in collections or florilegia. Not only citations or excerpts, but also larger texts or even complete literary oeuvres were sometimes for centuries transcribed under the names of authors who had virtually nothing to do with them. In this context, just like in our own, we could ask what a misattributed text meant for both the authority it was ascribed to and the audience that engaged with it. Why and how did texts become attributed to certain medieval authorities, and how can we understand this cultural phenomenon?


The example of Fleury

The monastery of Fleury on the banks of the French river Loire, sometime in the middle of the eighth century. An anonymous scribe copied a set of sermons for the liturgical celebrations of his monastery in a voluminous manuscript, starting with an – also anonymous – sermon for the advent period. To our scribe, however, the sermon was possibly not anonymous at all; at least, we know that he decided for some reason to add a title that referred to Saint Augustine of Hippo, just like many of his colleagues had done (and would do) over the years. The actual origins of texts such as this one are often as clouded in mystery as their new, misattributed author is well-known.

In fact, the name of Saint Augustine seemingly attracted countless anonymous sermons and other texts. This popularity as an ‘attributed’ author can be related to Augustine’s well-known reputation, and perhaps also to the wide diversity or the sheer number of the texts that he did write, which were so numerous that hardly any medieval scribe or reader was likely to have accessed them in full. After all, as expressed in a poem about Augustine associated with Isidore of Sevilla, “whoever claims he has read all of you, lies” (mentitur qui te totum legisse fatetur…).

Pseudo-Augustine, sermo 195, attributed to Augustine in the title that is still partially legible – Orléans, Médiathèque MS 154 (Fleury, mid eighth century), f. 1v-2r.

Medieval misattribution: causes and effects

In many cases, we don’t really have a clue about the misattributor’s reasons for misattributing, nor about the moment the first misattribution occurred. Yet, it is interesting to note that short texts such as sermons tended to be compiled together in collections, with their titles and subtitles sometimes referring to an earlier mentioned authority (‘here begins another sermon by the same author’, item sermo eiusdem). These series of sermons could range in the hundreds, and with so many item’s and eiusdem’s referring to each other it can be as confusing for the modern scholar to understand who was supposed to have written what as it could be, presumably, to medieval copyists who used these collections as models.


Another complicating factor for texts such as sermons is their tendency to be reused and rewritten rather than just copied, leading to a conundrum of authority: should a text compiled out of ‘real’ Augustinian material be attributed to him, or not? There is a scale of possibilities when it comes to such misattributions, which ranges from ‘words an author did say, but citing someone else or somewhat differently’ via ‘things an author might have said (but didn’t)’ to ‘things that this author definitely didn’t say’ – and several scenarios in between. For both scholars of medieval and patristic misattributions, and potentially also for the scribes that caused them, the exact position of a text on that spectrum is a matter of debate. Sometimes, even, texts that were ‘banished’ to the mass of pseudo-Augustinian texts because the well-known Church father would, in the eyes of some critics, never have written them, are now slowly being excavated and revalued as texts with their own merit, or as (reworkings of) ‘authentic’ sermons.

Of course, not all medieval misattributions are the result of scribal errors or compilation practices. In some cases, it seems rather a conscious and deliberate decision. The ninth-century theologian Paschasius Radbertus, for instance, impersonated the long-dead St. Jerome and composed a letter filled with moral and religious advice, in which he pretended to address the equally long-dead addressees Jerome used to write to. Despite the protests from some medieval scholars that the text was not authentic, it made its way into the collections of sermons and other liturgical texts, often under the name of Jerome. A misattribution, in short, could have long-lasting consequences.

The text Cogitis me ascribed to St. Jerome – Sankt Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 131, p. 1.

As noted in the previous post in this series, misattribution could have an influence on the way an author – in this case, “Quintilian” – was perceived, and on the way his work was copied. This could be to the authors’ benefit – among the texts that enhanced Augustine’s legacy as ‘Father who wrote so many things you can’t possibly read all of them’ may have been some misattributed ones – but also change or challenge their image. The thirteenth-century, Pseudo-Boethian text De disciplina scolarium, for example, imagines a much more practical and even comical fictitious portrait of the scholar: this ‘Boethius’ advises students and teachers on all kinds of worldly matters using graphic examples, in a way that contrasts with the solemn and erudite voice found in the works he actually composed. Although incorrectly associated, these kinds of forged or misattributed texts can show unique, medieval perspectives on the authors they claim to represent.


Everyone’s a critic (or are they?)

What about medieval readers? Did they simply accept the author’s names they encountered, or did they – like our modern quote investigators – take it upon themselves to ‘correct’ those attributions that they felt were wrong? Answers to this question are fiercely debated in modern scholarship and range from the idea that medieval readers were not smart enough to ‘unveil’ falsely attributed texts – which, coincidentally, often makes the modern critic that does uncover them look much smarter – to the notion that all medieval readers fought tooth and nail to discourage and condemn ‘forgeries’. The reality, as often, probably lay somewhere in between. For sermons, there are few medieval voices that openly criticize the attribution as found in the title. Sometimes, though, we find clues that at least some readers were critical: in our Fleury manuscript, a shrewd reader occasionally added another author’s name in the margin. If they happened to be not correct, however, such ‘corrections’ turned out to be misattributions themselves.

Still, even if scribes copied a misattribution without alteration, we shouldn’t automatically assume that they didn’t care about the authorship of the texts they used. Several classical and medieval scholars, including Jerome himself in his De viris illustribus, had critically discussed the ‘authenticity’ of texts. But whereas modern manuscript scholars have the huge advantage of searchable, freely available databases and countless reference works, medieval readers were often at the mercy of the exemplars compiled by their predecessors. Moreover, in some cases, the usefulness of a text’s content may have prevailed over any lingering doubts about authenticity, and the risk of texts without author – mentioned by the Carolingians as one of the problems they planned to tackle – over a potentially not-quite-correct-attribution.

History is the teacher of life - Marcus Tullius Cicero

Back to the future: research perspectives

It would be amazing to be able to take a look in a medieval copyist’s mind to understand what motives they had for altering a text’s author, or for choosing to copy it in the first place. Unfortunately, we only have snippets and snapshots of the medieval processes of compiling and reorganising – and to really study those clues we still have a long way to go. Of course, there is not necessarily a direct correspondence between the middle ages and our own time, but there are intriguing parallels – and differences – to be found, not in the least because many of the historical texts that made their ways to our social media pages and memes did so through the copies, translations and books of countless historical actors. We cannot understand their meaning, or ‘authenticity’, without being aware of their history. After all, as famous orator Marcus Tullius Cicero once wrote (or did he…?): “History is the teacher of life.”

Shari Boodts, Iris Denis, Riccardo Macchioro and Gleb Schmidt together make up the team behind a European research project on the reception of patristic sermons in medieval manuscripts (PASSIM), housed at the Department of Medieval History at Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands. You can learn more about their work on the project website.


Further reading:

On the letter by Paschasius Radbertus, see Albert Ripberger, Der Pseudo-Hieronymus-Brief IX “Cogitis me” (Freiburg, 1962), and Hannah W. Matis, ‘The Seclusion of Eustochium: Paschasius Radbertus and the Nuns of Soissons’, Church History, Vol. 85:4 (2016) pp. 665-689.

On the pseudo-Boethian text De disciplina scolarium and the treatment of misattributed texts in modern scholarship, see Brooke Hunter, Forging Boethius in Medieval Intellectual Fantasies (Routledge, 2019).

Top Image: Cambridge University Library MS O.9.34 fol. 22r


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