This legal concept of forgery was, however, mainly applied to cases concerning property or inheritance; and literary forgeries, such as the famous Donation of Constantine, which purported to be the gift by the Roman emperor Constantine I the Great (died 337) to Pope Sylvester I of spiritual primacy throughout the church and of temporal power in Italy, were not concerned.
Serious critical efforts to detect forgery did not begin in the Middle Ages, although obvious forgeries might be challenged in the course of a dispute.
Rarely found during the Middle Ages, the word was used by the , by Jean Mabillon, a member of the scholarly Benedictine congregation of Saint-Maur.
Mabillon’s work first made the study of old documents a reputable science.
During Roman antiquity certain documents containing different sorts of authorizations were engraved on a bronze diptych and then folded and sealed, in order to keep the contents secret—hence the term diploma.
The particularly chirography, however, gave the possibility of producing several “originals.” By this process two or more specimens of a document were written on the same page of the vellum sheet, and the free space between the texts was filled in with the word (“handwriting”) or other words and symbols.
Then the sheet was cut irregularly right through these words or symbols; the originals thus separated could later be reassembled, an exact fit being complete proof of authenticity.
The major task of diplomatics is to distinguish between genuine and false documents, and this involves detailed examination of their external and internal features.
Diplomatic studies have been applied mainly to Western documents, usually medieval ones, because it requires less specialist training to analyze more recent documents.