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Forging Ahead: Faking Sagas and Developing Concepts of Cultural Authenticity and National Identity in 17th- and 18th-Century Scandinavia

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Tales of heroic adventure lend flavour to our cultural identity – but what if they’re fake?

From academic hoodwinking to straightforward financial gain, the reasons for creating a forgery are diverse. But once in the public domain, a forgery can take on a life of its own. Myths can be constructed around its contents: fields of study can spring up based on manufactured sources. What impact can an unreliable source have on cultural identity?

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Fascinated by the impact of forgeries on the perception of cultural authenticity and national identity in 17th and 18th century Scandinavia, principal investigator on the Forgery project, Philip Lavender, considered how the existence of forged sagas required scholars and historians to question source materials. He examined the role they played in refining scholarly work and considered when an artfully recopied saga shifts from creative retelling to forgery. “I find it particularly interesting when the forgers’ own interests overtake their attempt to appeal to the interests of their target audiences. It seems that the individuals involved in writing these works often had a genuine desire to write and imagine other worlds, so descriptions creep in which serve no obvious ideological purpose other than the satisfaction of the author. Writing, even forgery, can be an escape and type of therapy for the authors involved!” says Lavender, who conducted his research with the support of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie programme based at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. He explains that scholars of the period used sagas as historical source material, so there was much discussion about which ones were reliable and which parts could be used. What techniques of corroboration could be applied to such works? “All of these questions became of vital importance and were neatly focused by the appearance of fake sagas,” says Lavender. The notion of the forger as: “(…) a dastardly villain or cantankerous prankster,” as Lavender puts it, is too simplistic. “Forgery exposes some key concepts as not being straightforward.” As he explains: “If you forge a text of a known author, the case can be fairly open and shut, since by adding the name ‘Shakespeare’ to my humble play I’m quite clearly misleading people. But sagas are an anonymous genre: no authorial name is attached.” So how do you fake a work in an anonymous tradition? One technique is to replicate the style of an earlier period or even intermix fake material with real material. But even authentic sagas have been subject to copying and recopying over centuries. Lavender explains that when people copied the texts there was no imperative to keep everything the same: sections could be added or removed, wording changes or details emended to suit the copyist’s taste. None of this was considered suspect or problematic. So, what is the definition of authenticity and where does a forgery start? If you change a few words in transmission, maybe it isn’t forgery, but if you change a whole paragraph or chapter, perhaps it is. “Asking how much must be modified before a saga becomes a forgery is like asking how long a piece of string is: it depends who is looking and in what context.”

Cultural identity built on questionable sources

In the 17th and 18th centuries there was much debate over whether Denmark or Sweden was the true heart of ancient Scandinavia. The saga of King Krembre contributed to the discussion. This discusses a great expedition led by King Krembre, which set out from Sweden and travelled down through Europe. They conquered many lands and people and won many battles, only halting on the far side of the Alps where they were defeated by the Romans. Lavender explains that the story is more or less that of the Cimbrian migrations, migrations which we know to have begun round about 120 BC and culminated with the defeat of the Cimbri by the Romans at the Battle of Vercellae in 101 BC. “The curious detail here is that most historians believe that the Cimbri came from Jutland in modern-day Denmark. But it seems that the author of ‘Krembre’s saga’ wanted to assign these great historical feats to a Swedish contingent rather than a Danish one.” Another saga, created to attract the interest of a private collector, presents an alternative narrative about the founding of Iceland. Lavender presented his findings at the International Saga Conference in Reykjavík in August 2018 and at the international conference ‘Faking It!’ at the University of Gothenburg in August 2019 for which he was a co-organiser.


FORGERY, cultural identity, sagas, Scandinavia, fake, historical source

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