An epic literary hoax: new book explores 19th-century manuscript forgeries that helped found a nation

The Queen's Court and Green Mountain Manuscripts, discovered in the early 19th century, were considered seminal texts during the Czech National Revival. Thought to provide evidence of the earliest medieval writing in the Czech language, they were regarded as founding texts for the nation and acquired an almost sacred status. It was only 70 years later that they were shown to be fakes – although the people generally regarded to have been the forgers never confessed to writing them.

Recently I spoke to David L. Cooper, Associate Professor of Slavic Languages & Literatures at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the author of a new book, The Czech Manuscripts: Forgery, Translation, and National Myth, which explores the controversy surrounding the manuscripts from a fresh perspective.

For those who aren’t familiar with the Czech manuscript forgeries, could you give a brief overview of what happened?

Václav Hanka | Photo: František Horčička,  e-Sbírky,  National Museum,  CC BY 4.0 DEED

"In 1817 and 1818, Václav Hanka and another anonymous person discovered two manuscripts that looked medieval. The Queen's Court manuscript looked like it came from the late 13th or early 14th century, and the Green Mountain manuscript, because of the style of writing, the contents and the language in it, looked like it maybe came from the late 9th or early 10th century.

"These were proclaimed as early examples of Czech poetry and writing, of a distinct Czech literary tradition that was older than the things that had been found up to that point and as old as, if not older than, German-language traditions – which was really important in the national competition that was starting between Czechs and Germans."

Why was it so important to have something so old? What was the significance of that for the time?

"A very important concept for romantic nationalism was national origins, because the way that your nation formed determines what your national character is and helps you to understand what your national mission might be. And the earliest writing in your language is important evidence for this, so everyone was looking for it. It's not only the Czechs - all through Europe there was a big interest in antiquities at this time, as everyone was trying to work out new ideas about national character and culture.

Photo: Bronislava Janečková,  Czech Radio

"The problem for the Czechs was that they were looking through their old manuscript collections and everyone was asking them, 'Where is your old epic poetry?' - these early songs about battles that define your nation - and they weren't finding them. They were finding a lot of religious poetry and devotional poetry, a little bit of secular poetry but it seemed to be derivative of courtly love poetry traditions from other places. So they weren't finding the things that everyone was looking for as definitive."

"They thought they weren't finding them not because they hadn't existed, but because they had probably been destroyed. The counter-reformation had had bad consequences for Czech language manuscripts because Czech was associated with religious heresy, and the earlier Hussite wars had also destroyed a lot of manuscripts. So the feeling was not that they hadn't had these traditions – they were a nation like other European nations so they probably had the same kinds of things that other nations did – but the presumption was that it had been lost."

This seems like a peculiarly European phenomenon, because obviously in other parts of the world, they managed to build nations without this kind of ancient literary tradition - all of North and South America managed, for example.

"It's peculiar to this time - the early 19th century, the Romantic period. When it became clear 60-70 years later that these manuscripts were false, the Czechs too had to shift to a more modern orientation and start to understand their national culture through its modern manifestations and its politics, rather than through reliance on old traditions that now they realised weren't genuine."

You made an interesting point in the book that some other Slavic languages - smaller ones that people might not even have heard of, like Sorbian and Polabian - didn't have this kind of literary renaissance that Czech did and as a result, they didn't survive or barely survived to the present day. So having a written literary language seems to be essential in some cases to the survival of the language.

Photo: Cornell University Press

"Yes, and the manuscripts were considered genuine for a long time, and when they functioned as genuine manuscripts, they were really important recruiting tools for the Czech national movement. During the counter-reformation, the Czech language had fallen out of disuse as a language of poetry, high literature, scholarship and science, and the attempts in the early 19th century to revive it were fighting against the fact that everyone was being educated in German and was studying literature and science and so on in German.

"German culture had gone through a tremendous cultural renaissance in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and you had writers like Goethe and Schiller who everyone was mad about and admired, and it was very hard to compete with them on the basis of a language that was just in the process of coming back into use.

"One of the important aspects about the manuscripts is that they’re written in a language that people could hardly even read anymore. There was maybe a handful of experts who could read these forgeries and understand them because they used older forms of Czech and the whole verb system had changed for the past tense. All the narration was in forms of language that were not in use anymore.

"So people read it largely in translations into German and modern Czech and it gave them a poetic tradition with relatively high-quality poetry from an earlier era, something that they could look to and say, 'OK, there was a point at which we were equal to, or maybe even in some ways ahead of, German culture, and there's no reason that we can't get back to that again.' It gave people a place to locate - a place of cultural value that they could build from."

It sounds like the forgeries were pretty convincing - they fooled people for 70 years and they used these old forms of Czech. So why was it that Dobrovský immediately suspected Hanka of committing the forgery when the second manuscript was sent to the National Museum?

"The thing about the second manuscript is that it's really bold in terms of what it's presenting in terms of the age of Czech language traditions. The writing forms are really old, the forms of Czech language are really old, suggesting that it comes from the late 9th or early 10th century.

Josef Dobrovský | Photo: František Tkadlík,  e-Sbírky,  National Museum,  CC BY 4.0 DEED

"And Dobrovský at that point is the world expert on Slavic antiquities and he spent some time studying the origins of Czech writing and these kinds of things, and it pushes the origins of Czech writing several centuries further into the past. And for Dobrovský it was too far.

“It suggests that things that Dobrovský took to be - and that we still take today to be - legends and stories, it sort of turns them into history. The documents recount stories about the activities of the princess Libuše, one of the founders of the ruling Czech dynasty, as if they were real people rather than figures of legend.

"It also suggested that the Czech state was relatively developed - Libuše calls this assembly from all different parts of the Czech kingdom, as if the Czech kingdom was already so politically united in that early period. So all of that looked terribly suspicious to Dobrovský and it would have overturned some of the research that he had been publishing about that early period.

"So then the question for him is, 'OK, well this looks like a fake - so who could have done it?' He's conducting a Slavistics seminar for some college students and teaching them this old Slavic and old Czech language, and so he knows it's Václav Hanka and his roommate Josef Linda, and maybe also Josef Jungmann, who is sort of the father figure to this generation of the Czech national revival."

Photo: Bronislava Janečková,  Czech Radio

Would you say then that Dobrovský wasn't a very committed Czech nationalist, or was he simply more committed to the truth?

"I think Dobrovský was quite committed and he did a lot for the national revival. He helped to reform its poetic structures so that people could start writing poetry in Czech again. He was quite passionately committed, but he was also of a different generation and more of an Enlightenment thinker.

"He did a lot of hard-nosed research debunking historical myths that Czechs had held onto, sorting out fact and fiction from the historical past. For him, that was important work to do, so you could ground your national history on genuine factual material.

"Whereas for this younger generation, who saw the jeopardy that the Czech language culture was in, they were more willing to use any material that would help to boost people's engagement with Czech - I don't want to say they were more willing to play loose and fast with the truth, but they had a different conception of truth really."

It occurred to me that there was another moment in Czech history when something that later turned out to be false really helped spur widespread support for a movement, and that was the rumour that a student had been killed by the state security forces during the protests in 1989. That really helped to gain public support for the Velvet Revolution, even though it later turned out not to be true. I never know what to make of these kinds of things - it kind of makes me uncomfortable...

"Yes, it’s fascinating to think about how these things that aren't true can have such important consequences. A lot of the book talks about the period when the manuscripts were considered genuine.

František Palacký | Photo: Martina Schneibergová,  Radio Prague International

"After Dobrovský passed away, there weren’t many people that were still sceptical about the Green Mountain manuscript. Especially after Františěk Palácký and Pavel Šafarík wrote their rebuttal to his arguments, that sort of cleansed it of these suspicions and it could function for decades as a genuine manuscript. People were buying these editions of the manuscripts, it became a sort of cult object to own.

"There's a certain level of discomfort for us with that – but we're sort of imposing our understanding of the falseness of it back onto that period. I think we can't judge people on that basis, because within the horizons of knowledge of their time, no one knew enough about the old language and the old period - it was less than a handful of people who knew enough to say that maybe they weren't genuine. It was sort of beyond them to critique it.”

I had this feeling reading your book that your perspective on the manuscripts was that, although they were forgeries, it doesn't mean that they had no value. Would you say that's true and if so, could you elaborate on it?

"Yeah, I think that is my perspective. Not that I would say that we should be forging things and doing whatever we need to pursue our political goals, but when it's something that's already happened and is in the past, we can look back at it and have a broader perspective on it. And we can see that these manuscripts played really important roles in bringing people into the Czech national movement, in convincing them to stop writing poetry in German and start writing poetry in Czech, to start writing their scholarly studies in Czech. It boosted morale in a period when the Czech national movement was very small and a lot of the major figures in it were pretty uncertain whether it was going to succeed or not.

"From our perspective now, we have good reason to be sceptical about the whole business of nationalism, because of the history of the 20th century – although it was a new kind of inclusion, it was also a new kind of exclusion, and it promoted violence at times. But in the period when the manuscripts were functional it was largely positive in terms of providing a sort of anchor for Czech self-understanding.

“And of course that anchor sort of became part of the national myth, and that myth eventually had to be critiqued. But that's not unique to Czech nationalism - that's true of nationalism everywhere.

"What's unique about the Czech situation is that these forged manuscripts, these documents that were later proven to be false, were such an important part of it. But every nation invents and reinvents its past, so I think that's sort of unavoidable."

You say in your introduction that nations are a distinctively modern phenomenon - could you elaborate on that a bit more? What do you mean when you say all nations reinvent their past?

David Cooper | Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International

"Around 10 to 15 years ago, there were a whole lot of history studies being published under the rubric of the invention of tradition. They were going back and looking at nationalist movements in the 19th and even the 20th century and looking at the traditions that became central for national celebration and commemoration and these kinds of things.

“And quite frequently, these celebrations turned out to be new – they were often cobbled together out of materials that existed, but given new significance and put together in new ways. So these national commemorations and celebrations are modern inventions - they're ways of building a national community in the modern period that draw on historical materials, but rework those historical materials for new purposes."

Am I right in saying that that's particularly the case with food? I remember hearing that a lot of "traditional" recipes in a lot of cultures in reality only date back to the 19th century.

"That wouldn't surprise me, because national culture is really a product of the 19th century wherever you look. And the way romantic nationalism imagines national culture is actually quite narrow. It imagines it as self-contained, as belonging uniquely to a particular group and that it's been invented within that group.

"But the more you study it, the more you see that actually national cultures - in fact, all cultures - are put together out of materials that are borrowed from other cultures and repurposed and given new meanings and new understandings. The process of translation and of rewriting materials from other places - this is normal to culture. This is how cultures actually are created.

“But the romantic conception of creativity is something out of nothing - something brand new, the author-genius creates something entirely new that's never been seen before. And that's generally speaking not actually how creativity works. And it's not how culture works - culture is really about borrowing and repurposing."

You refer in your introduction briefly to this controversy surrounding the delegitimisation of the manuscripts, which you say "is stirred and promoted even to this day by some small circles and institutions." That really piqued my interest, so I have to ask - by who?

"There was this Czechoslovak Manuscript Society that started its activities in the 1920s or 1930s. This is a point at which the consensus in scholarly circles had largely been consolidated that the manuscripts were forgeries. But this society starts to promote the counter-argument.

Photo: Bronislava Janečková,  Czech Radio

"Someone has to always play devil's advocate and it's actually an important function to keep the scholarly consensus honest about what counts as evidence and so on. And so they take up the position that the manuscripts are genuine, but the problem in that period is that it gets associated with Czech fascism, because the nationalists and the extreme nationalists are always interested in national history and national culture and so the fascists also take up the manuscripts as genuine.

"So when the socialist state comes along, the Czechoslovak Manuscript Society is sort of tainted by this association with fascism, and in the 1950s they close up shop. But they get started again in the 1960s, and in the 1990s they open a publishing house, Neklan, and they start to publish articles that they've been circulating in samizdat for a decade or two defending the authenticity of the manuscripts.

"You can find them - they still exist to this day. They were in fact an important part of the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the discovery of the Queen's Court Manuscript, which took place in 2017. In Prague in 2017 you have this exhibition, the Masaryk Phenomenon, because the first president of the Czechoslovak state was one of the important sceptics who was involved in the campaign to show that the manuscripts were fakes.

"But in Dvůr Kralové, where the manuscript was discovered, as part of the celebrations there were speeches and lectures and events organised by this Czech Manuscript Society, which are promoting the idea that the manuscripts are genuine.

“It's a handful of people who are active in that organisation - a lot of them have advanced degrees, but some of them are in the sciences rather than in the humanities. The promoters of the authenticity of the manuscripts have frequently been distrustful of the value of the historical and linguistic and humanistic arguments that together show that the manuscripts are false.

“It's not hard science for them - what they want is chemical studies of the material and the inks and the paper to see if it's really old. Some of those studies have been done but they've never really been determinative. Yes, it's an old parchment, and it might have been an imitation of old inks, but it doesn't really tell you who made it and when."

Do these groups have any links to fascism now?

"No - at least I haven't seen anything in what they're writing and what they're promoting to suggest that they have those sort of political ties. I wouldn't be surprised if fascism continues to grow and have a larger place here as well, as it seems to be doing in various parts of the world. But at least to this point, I haven't seen anything like that."

The Czech Manuscripts: Forgery, Translation, and National Myth by David L. Cooper is published by Cornell University Press and is available to buy as an eBook or hardback.