The Book of Llandaf: Forging History

In an age of digital media and unprecedented access to technology, most of us are accustomed to seeing forgeries. Models with impossibly clear skin, music adapted by software, even whole websites imitating another in all but the smallest detail. Art and academia have also had their hoaxes–the famous Piltdown man, a composite skeleton masquerading as an unknown human species, is only one well-known example.

Llandaf Cover

Title page of a facsimile edition of the Book of Llandaf. (Wikimedia Commons.)

Forgery, however, was also present in the Middle Ages, as demonstrated by a remarkable manuscript called the Book of Llandaf (or Llyfr Llandaf in Welsh). Composed some time between 1120-1129, it purports to present documents related to the foundation of the Bishopric of Llandaf going all the way back to the 6th century. The purpose of such a compilation was to convince the Pope to rule in favour of Llandaf’s claims to land and privileges which it had lost both to other churches and to it’s secular neighbours. In order to do so, Llandaf’s bishop, Urban, required proof.

Only there was a problem. Historians today have no evidence of a bishopric of Llandaf before Bishop Urban’s own time, and he obviously felt the same lack. Rather than relinquish his church’s claim to extensive lands and valuable rights, however, he encouraged his monks to fabricate some. The Book of Llandaf was the product of their labours, telling the story of nearly five centuries of history, including saints’s lives, donations of land, letters, and  miracle tales relevant to the bishopric’s development.

Fortunately, (or perhaps unfortunately, depending on how you look at it), Llandaf’s monks created their forgery by adapting genuine early material. This presents something of a problem for historians, who are very eager to salvage any scrap of 6th, 7th, or 8th century material, but first need to determine what originated when. This is a complex process, drawing upon paleography (the study of historic handwriting,) charter studies (charters are legal deeds), and landscape studies. When all this is taken into account, its clear that some very early mediaeval records were used to make the Book of Llandaf, of a type very rare in Wales.

Thus, although the Book of Llandaf is a forgery because, as historian Wendy Davies puts it, “it sets out to demonstrate the veracity of a falsehood,” its status as historical evidence is far more complex. Like most Welsh manuscripts of the early Middle Ages, it negotiates the fine line between legend, history, and imagination, forging a narrative of the past which is at least as interesting when false as it is when true.

Learn More:

Davies, Wendy, ‘Liber Landavensis: its construction and credibility,’ English Historical Review 88, (1973), pp.335-351.

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