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Hoaxes Before 1700
The most striking feature of hoaxes perpetrated during the pre-modern period is that they often went unchallenged for centuries. Only at the dawn of the modern era were many of them finally debunked. People happily accepted what we would regard to be outrageous falsehoods, even when contradictory evidence was readily available. For instance, when travelers returned with tales of unicorns, cyclops, and other fantastic creatures they had seen in eastern lands, no one challenged the veracity of these claims.
One explanation for this attitude is that people in the medieval world were not inclined to challenge deceptions, as long as those deceptions supported the status quo. So if the Church claimed it had a document giving it ownership of vast lands throughout Europe, no one challenged the authenticity of that document, because to do so would be to challenge the authority of the Church itself. (See Forgeries of the Medieval Church.) Likewise, if your local church claimed it had the brain of St. Peter in a box, why question that claim if doing so would only damage the church?
Of course, if a deception threatened to hurt the status quo (such as if a woman posing as a man became Pope), knowledge of such deceptions had to be suppressed.
The modern world view, with its more literal scientific concept of truth, began to emerge around the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries during the Renaissance. Classical learning was rediscovered, and along with it ancient methods of critical inquiry. Scholars began to take a more skeptical look at texts and became more concerned about the authenticity of manuscripts. (See Renaissance Forgeries.)
The sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation sharpened this mood of skepticism even further by giving scholars strong ideological reasons to prove that their Protestant or Catholic opponents were either wrong or lying. Accusations flew back and forth, and out of this heated cultural environment, in which sensitivity to deception was greatly heightened, the modern awareness of hoaxing emerged.
The word “hoax” itself dates from this era. It is said that Protestant jesters and conjurors began ridiculing the Latin phrase intoned by Catholic priests during the Mass, Hoc est corpus meum, by corrupting it into the nonsense phrase hocus-pocus. They shouted this phrase whenever they performed a trick. From hocus-pocus it was a simple step to arrive at the word hoax.
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