Iolo Morganwg and Romantic Forgery

Forgeries of this nature are very recent things. So is the taste, or more properly rage, for antiquities of all kinds, ancient Poetry, ancient Castles, ancient Taylor's bodkins etc., etc. Booksellers have of late years given large sums for ancient mss and translations from them, as Macpherson very well knew.
(NLW 13112B, p. 21)

Iolo Morganwg held strong opinions on the subject of Romantic forgery. The great literary controversies of the 1760s and 1770s over the authenticity of the poetry of the third-century Gaelic bard Ossian and of the fourteenth-century Bristol priest Thomas Rowley were familiar territory for him in his role as champion and defender of Welsh tradition. Writing in the 1790s and the early 1800s he was, like many of his compatriots, sceptical of the claims made by James Macpherson for his Scottish bard, and equally dismissive of the young Thomas Chatterton's elaborately faked medievalism. In the case of Macpherson, his criticism resounds with moral indignation - he should have been 'hanged for a perjurer of intentional deceit'.

Iolo's attitude was common amongst Welsh scholars of the period: Lewis and William Morris sniped at Macpherson in their letters, and Evan Evans (Ieuan Fardd or Ieuan Brydydd Hir) assured his readers that his own translations, from early Welsh manucripts, were scholarly, dependable - as un-Ossianic as possible.

The Ossian debate was a particular problem for the Welsh, because it cast doubt on the reliability of scholarship in all of the Celtic languages. It is easy to understand why Welsh writers reacted with such aggression. What is harder to understand, of course, is how Iolo, the most indignant critic of them all, could have been simultaneously busy weaving his own creations into the fabric of the Welsh past.

This subject is discussed by Mary-Ann Constantine in The Truth Against the World: Iolo Morganwg and Romantic Forgery (Cardiff, 2007)]

Ossian and Thomas Rowley

English versions of Gaelic poems attributed to the bard Ossian first appeared in a small anonymous pamphlet in 1760, and were swiftly followed by the more ambitious epics of Fingal (1761) and Temora (1763). Their young translator, James Macpherson, was a product of the Scottish Enlightenment. His work received much encouragement from the Edinburgh scholar and critic Hugh Blair, whose Critical Dissertation on the Poems of Ossian (1763) was widely read.

The poems themselves, with their melancholy evocations of a windswept Highland landscape, had an extraordinary success across Europe and beyond. Not only were they translated into many different languages, inspiring a huge variety of works of literature, paintings and musical compositions, but they launched an interest in the vernacular poetry of many of Europe's smaller and more neglected cultures. Their poetic success ran concurrently with a fierce scholarly debate as to their date and authenticity.

Macpherson's claims to have translated ancient pieces collected from oral tradition were rudely challenged by the likes of Samuel Johnson, and (in Britain at least) Ossian became a byword for literary fraud. The controversy long outlived Macpherson, who died in 1796. Serious appraisal of his uses and abuses of Gaelic tradition, written and oral, did not come about until late in the twentieth century.

The Rowley controversy reached its peak in the late 1770s, a few years after the untimely death - which was widely believed to be suicide - of the seventeen-year-old Thomas Chatterton in a garret in London in 1770. Chatterton's precocious talent and his passion for the medieval past of his native Bristol had produced a fascinating body of pseudo-historical material and a corpus of poems which he attributed to a fifteenth-century monk, Thomas Rowley.

The documents, which included accounts of the building of the church of St Mary Redcliffe and of the grand opening of the new stone bridge in 1247, resemble Iolo's forgeries in that they added depth and complexity to a period for which genuine sources are rare. Like Iolo's creations, they tend to emphasize the pre-eminence and sophistication of Chatterton's own beloved patch of ground - in this case Bristol, and especially the Redcliffe area.

The poems of Rowley held a wider national interest since they offered the possibility of an undiscovered literary golden age for a period widely thought to be without merit. The debate about the authenticity of Chatterton's work did not last in quite the same manner as the Ossian controversy. Instead, it was the figure of Chatterton himself who caught the public imagination, and he became the type of the neglected poet-genius for such writers as Coleridge, Keats and John Clare.

An international context

There have been many suggested explanations for Iolo's motivation in tampering with the historical and literary record: addiction to laudanum, personality disorder, grudges against those who did not recognize the importance of his beloved Glamorgan. All these elements doubtless played their part, but it is also helpful to step back and view Iolo's activities in the Europe-wide context of incipient nationalism.

With Ossian as a fore-runner (and often as direct inspiration), an extraordinary number of Europe's smaller cultures set about rediscovering their vernacular languages and their past. The hunt was on for early manuscripts, or, failing that, the 'songs of the people' - ballads and folksongs which preserved the very essence of a nation's identity. This enthusiasm for all things ancient was (as Iolo himself noted) fertile ground for hoaxers. And Iolo Morganwg was not the only scholar who turned fragile and partial sources into something much bolder and brighter than the evidence really allowed. The songs of the Barzaz-Breiz in Brittany, and the poems of the Czech Dvůr Králové manuscripts offer two further examples of the 'invention of tradition'.

Hersart de La Villemarqué and the Barzaz-Breiz

In 1839 a young Breton aristocrat named Hersart de La Villemarqué published the Barzaz-Breiz, a collection of songs gathered, as he claimed, from the lips of the Breton peasantry - from beggars and tinkers, weavers and tailors. They were published as Breton texts with French translations, and were copiously annotated. Arranged chronologically, the songs formed a history of the Breton people dating back to Druidic times: extensive quotation from and comparison with early Welsh manuscript sources reinforced their age and their Celticity, and thus endowed Brittany (by then reduced to an impoverished and neglected province of France) with a venerable literary pedigree.

The Barzaz-Breiz, which was further augmented and republished in 1845 and 1867, helped to 'reinvent' Brittany as one of the wellsprings of French Romanticism - a land of faery whose folklore potentially held the key to an understanding of a very ancient past. It also played a vital part in the revival of Breton nationalism. But in 1868 there began a fierce debate about La Villemarqué's treatment of his material, and for the next hundred years the Barzaz-Breiz was embroiled in a typically emotional controversy. Only since the publication of the young author's collecting notebooks in 1989 have critics been able to offer an objective account of his methods, which, much like those of Macpherson, ranged from relative faithfulness to his country's rich oral tradition to zealous over-interpretation, significant alteration, and pure invention.

Hanka and the manuscripts of Dvůr Králové and Zelená Hora

In 1817 a young Czech scholar, Václav Hanka, discovered an ancient manuscript in the vault of the church in the village of Dvůr Králové. It contained a hitherto unsuspected corpus of medieval Czech poetry, including fragments of epic tales of battles against the Germans and more tender lyrical pieces. Hanka's discovery was greeted with intitial enthusiasm by his mentor, the Slavonic scholar Joséf Dubrovsky, and the manuscript was published in 1819.

At around the same time the scholarly community acquired another manuscript, of rather uncertain provenance (and written, moreover, in green ink), relating to a period of early law-making. It came to be known as the manuscript of Zelená Hora, and appeared to be the very earliest written document in Czech. The works were widely translated and Hanka gained a considerable international reputation. Most crucially, however, they helped to consolidate the new Czech establishment in Prague, and during the period 1840-70 became the nationalist texts par excellence, woven into the very fabric of the emergent state. As Hanka's tutor Dubrovský discovered to his cost, to raise doubts about their authenticity was to find oneself accused of being unpatriotic.

And as the fortunes of the Czech nation swung over the next century, so the battle lines over the veracity of these texts were drawn on blatantly political lines. Communism had repudiated the manuscripts, so the Velvet Revolution reinstated them. Although they have long since been accepted as forgeries by the international scholarly community, the debate is still not closed within the Czech Republic itself, making this probably 'the most spectacular, protracted and lastingly significant forgery in modern European history'.

Romantic Forgery - a contested term

Forgery involves the manufacture of something (a painting, a bank-note, a signature) which claims to be what it is not. It is often a criminal activity, pursued for financial gain. Literary / historical forgery is a more slippery concept, and the term itself has been much contested. It is, after all, part of the historian's task to tease a narrative about the past from the available sources, and it can be hard to draw a line between speculative interpretation and deliberate misleading. Equally, it is the task of the poet or novelist to imagine different worlds (and often, indeed, to recreate the past): many of the so-called 'forgers' have been more sympathetically understood as artists or creators, with critics reclaiming the verb 'to forge' in the sense of making or bringing something into existence.

Debates about the nature of these controversial works have almost inevitably used highly emotive language to blame or exonerate the authors. It is only fairly recently that criticism has been able to step back and examine the phenomenon with a more neutral gaze. The best recent accounts capture the curious 'in-between' nature of the material, which is neither literature nor history proper. It would be difficult, for example, to improve on Donald Taylor's description of Chatterton's creations as 'experiments in imagined history' (Donald Taylor, Thomas Chatterton's Art: Experiments in Imagined History (Princeton, 1978)).